Death & Chassés: Del Hughes pliés through an en pointe evening
I’m not keen on November. I should be because it’s my birthday month, and yes, I know I’m a grown up, but even at fifty-four, I still experience that childlike fizz of excitement, the eager anticipation of a stack of thick envelopes littering the doormat, and the delivery of flowers that Tim, probably, won’t send. Longing sigh.
But no, it’s because it’s a bit of a death month. This November 1st marked twenty-five-years since Dad shuffled off his mortal coil, and November 2nd was two years since Mum popped her clogs.
And, as I acknowledged their passings, it naturally dredged up memories of my childhood, and the life we’d shared.
Growing up, a weekend wouldn’t pass without us going somewhere. Dad’s mystery tours were firm favourites – discovering castles, caves, and countryside – and he’d always have a spooky story, or fascinating fragment of folklore, to keep me entertained.
Even in winter, we’d bundle up in our sheepskin coats – they were a thing back then – and barrel along the backroads of wild Wales, with the MG’s roof down and ABBA blasting out of the tape deck.
There’d be scavenger hunts, day trips to Hay-on-Wye (returning with armfuls of books), and thrilling nights when, for a reason I didn’t understand at the time, we wouldn’t watch telly, the lights would stay off, and we’d sit at the dining table, bathed in candlelight, playing cards, Scrabble, or KerPlunk.
(Side note: It seems we’re worryingly close to those National Grid shutdowns again, with warnings that blackouts could become common in winter 2023, and the future. But, happily, the government has said that it’s working to secure supplies, which has certainly put my mind at rest. Hard eye roll! Adds candles to shopping list!)
Rare holidays abroad were planned so that Mum, who wanted a fortnight floating on an airbed in the sun, could do so, while Dad and I explored, poking through dusty old ruins, climbing mountains, and taking wobbly photos with our Kodak Instamatic.
As a family, we were always doing, and it made for a terrific childhood. But whilst there were a vast number of activities and outings which I loved, there were also those that I very much didn’t.
I was forced to attend Brownies, and rather than skipping merrily about with my fellow Kelpies, I’d trudge gloomily in their wake. So I wasn’t at all unhappy when I was eventually ejected from the troop, leaving under a bit of a cloud, due to a tombola incident at the ‘Joy & Jumble Sale’.
(In my defence, Brown Owl should have kept a closer eye on proceedings, because how was I to realise that the 2p payment meant you were allowed just the one rummage? Teehee!)
I had elocution lessons because my parents were considering sending me to a private school. These were dreadfully dull, and that I was never once asked to sing ‘The Rain in Spain’ with a mouthful of marbles, made it all the more so.
And they didn’t eradicate my normal accent, though I can speak proper posh if the situation demands it – generally when dealing with telephone scammers, or G.P. receptionists (who frequently have the interrogation skills of the Stasi).
I had piano lessons, but displayed not a smidge of musicality. I joined a marching band – ‘Tycoch Silver Spurs’ – but my lack of rhythm, and inability to differentiate between left and right, meant that, after a summer of chaotic displays, it was suggested that I might be better suited to a different pastime.
As I solemnly returned my Stetson, spurs, and Kazoo, I admit to having no regrets whatsoever.
Then I started horse-riding and finally found my niche. This was what I was made for. Sam was a 15.3hh Welsh cob, with a good turn of speed, and the sweetest nature.
In fact, my parents had been about to buy him for me, when Dad was made redundant. Aww! My dreams of Sam being mine were shattered, but so were theirs – no private school for Del. Yippee!
So, given I was a chunky child, whose only talent emerged when my feet were off the floor and securely in stirrups, I can’t for the life of me understand why Mum thought ballet lessons might suit. WTH? She later told me she thought it would help with my posture and ‘elegance, because you were quite an ungainly child’. Humpf!
But those Saturday mornings were torture, as was getting in and out of the pale green leotard, with a small frill at the waist that did nothing to conceal my lack of one. Mum would scrape my hair into a brutal bun, tie on those stupid ribbony shoes, then drive me to the YMCA, where I’d endure three hours of torment.
Compared to the other little girls, who flounced ‘like softly drifting snowflakes’, I was an avalanche. Taller, bigger, and much bulkier than them, my steps were clumsy, and ‘très, très fortissimo’, as our ballet Mademoiselle complained to Mum. (Basically, if you’ve seen that Vicar of Dibley episode, with Darcey Bussell, that’s almost exactly how it went for me, but worse.)
After too many months, Mum (and Mademoiselle), finally accepted that I’d never morph into anything more graceful than the hefty-footed tomboy I was, and consigned my leotard and slippers to the bin. Woohoo! And soon after, when Mum caught Dad teaching me a fab – if not particularly feminine – party piece, she didn’t even bother objecting.
I showcased that new talent at the next family gathering, when the calls invariably came from our elderly relatives for us kids to do a turn. My female cousins did a dainty dance, my male cousin sang Calon Lân, and me? Well, I tore a phonebook in half! And yes, I’m serious.
We went through a phenomenal amount of telephone directories, Yellow Pages, plus a few Argos catalogues, with the knack being, to crack the spine first before tearing widthways.
But, the point I’m, somewhat laboriously, trying to make here, is that girlie stuff, and ballet in particular, was emphatically, not my bag.
Which was why, despite Mum’s pleas to accompany her to various performances, I never did.
Psychologically scarred by that formative foray into the world of dance, I could imagine nothing worse than watching people cavort and caper around on stage.
And when Mum mentioned that they ‘act with movement and facial expressions’, that just added an extra nightmarish layer of, what sounded suspiciously like, mime. So it was a decisive no from me.
But tonight, I’m at Swansea’s Grand Theatre to give it a go. No, with the state of my spine, I won’t be attempting an arabesque any time soon, but I can manage the petit plié, which’ll allow my derrière to sink into my (velvet. FFS!) seat, Row F16.
I’d asked Tim if he fancied coming, but he’d stared at me with horror and said, ‘Sometimes, I wonder if you know me at all.’ LOL! And when he followed up with, ‘And stop trying to drag me into your adventure crap!’, I knew I’d be flying solo.
So, I’d forked out £35, to endure that perennial festive favourite, Tchaikovsky’s, The Nutcracker, and was filled with not one whit of enthusiasm, or one crumb of Christmas cheer.
Frankly, I was mad as hell at Mum for dragging me here – though as she’s dead, I’ve only got myself, and conscience, to blame, for what I intended to be a mini-tribute to her.
The Grand Circle was rather like being inside an ornate wedding cake. Ivory balconettes, swathed with garlands of golden curlicues, and the gilt pillars – one of which was included with my ‘restricted view’ ticket, Sigh – were embellished with intricate scrollwork. It was florid, but fantastic.
The house soon filled with a wide mix of generations – ranging from cute littlies in tutus, up to those, like me, in the silver-haired society.
But there was a preponderance of teenage girls, all frighteningly lithe, and probably ballerinas in training. (Well, either that, or they didn’t get the excessive nutritional spoiling I had as a kid.)
However, what did give me a frisson was the small-but-perfectly-formed orchestra, because like the teens in Row E, I also think classical music is ‘sick’.
(I’m not including Wagner here, as Ride of the Valkyries can make ears bleed, and I feel for the string section who constantly seem to be scampering behind the horns.)
I got chatting to my seat neighbour, Sam, who had been bringing daughter Emily to see this ballet, ‘for fourteen years, and counting’. Apparently, whatever date they came, would also be the day they’d put up their tree.
It was a lovely tradition, and I felt a fleeting sadness that I’d denied Mum the opportunity to do the same with me. But then Sam mentioned that on one occasion, they could only book a mid-October showing, ‘So we had to get a plastic one that year.’ Lol!
If, like me, you haven’t seen this ballet before, there was a helpful summary in the programme (£7!). Basically, it tells the story of Marie, a girl whose godfather, Drosselmeyer, gives her a nutcracker doll as a present on Christmas Eve.
When the evil Mouse King, and minions, invade the house, the nutcracker comes miraculously to life, and with the help of some toy soldiers, manages to defeat the malevolent meeces. Huzzah!
But when midnight strikes, the nutcracker, somehow, becomes a real boy – and a prince no less – who whisks Marie off to the Land of Sweets, where they are entertained with dances from all corners of the world, culminating in the famous Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.
Aw, bollocks! This was full-on fairytale stuff, clearly for kids, and I was seriously considering doing one, when, with a smart rap of the baton, we were off.
And straight into a scene with three chirpy couples chucking imaginary snowballs, and grappling with, what appeared to be, a metallic, inflatable alien! Huh? But it must have been an in-joke, as there was widespread tittering, and in that moment, I knew this was going to be a tedious two hours. Yawn.
Ten minutes later, I was becoming increasingly more restive than festive, and the mannered Christmas party unfolding on stage was not the ‘enthralling extravaganza’ advertised.
But then Drosselmeyer appeared, eye-catchingly adorned in sequinned waistcoat and cloak, and brandishing, fairly menacingly, his magic wand. Hmm? Right, I’ll give it another five mins.
He made party-goers do cartwheels, forced them to act like dolls, and though it smacked of coercive control, as the story was nearly two hundred years old, I decided to overlook such pesky modern values.
Then, probably in an attempt to make up for his non-consensual hypnotism schtick, he gave everyone presents, and the celebrations began in earnest. And, surprisingly, I started enjoying myself.
Because it wasn’t the snoozefest I’d imagined, and I genuinely got swept along on an enchanted excursion that was, quite simply, lovely. Okay, so without getting too carried away, there were a few niggles, but it says something that, instead of sloping off during the interval, I stayed until the curtain fell.
Beginning with the downsides, the biggest disappointment was the staging, or more accurately, the scenery. I’d looked at, what I’d assumed were, the official pics on the production company’s website, and unfortunately, these backdrops weren’t a patch on them.
So, I’d advise lowering your expectations, because you won’t see anything that spectacular on a stage near you.
Another was the non-emergence of the ‘real’ Sugar Plum Fairy, and her Cavalier. That was a bummer because, even though I hadn’t been aflame with anticipation, I’d once caught a snippet of the Royal Ballet’s Nutcracker on TV, and boy, did those plums sparkle!
However, this was a much smaller company, they had to work with what they had – so it was Marie (in a shimmering tutu), and the prince, who danced what Emily whispered, ‘is the most challenging pas de deux’. And though I’m obviously no judge, they were pretty mesmerising.
And also according to Emily, the Russian Cossack dance was missing too, which might have been due to the current political climate, but was a shame, as she said it was her ‘favourite bit’.
But no matter, because the upsides far outnumbered my little grumbles. And the most mind-blowing aspect of the show, and one that I’d stupidly never even considered, was the sound of the dance – and I don’t mean the music.
No, I mean that after each lissom leap, you heard the thud of the landing; when the twinkling ensemble of snowflakes drifted past, you heard the tips of their slippers skittering against the stage, and rather than interrupting the flow of the performance, it actually added to its charm.
These guys weren’t the bounding buffoons in tutus and tights that I’d expected. They were gymnasts, athletes, thoroughbreds, with a hard-core physicality, and exceptional stamina, strength, and musculature. And my initial thoughts that ballet would be svelte individuals, fluttering flimsily across the stage, was far, far removed from the reality.
And, it wasn’t only a visual spectacle, but an audio one too. My car radio is always tuned to ClassicFM, and I’ve heard The Nutcracker score many times – especially in those Cadbury ads of the 70s (‘Everyone’s a fruit and nut case’).
But in that theatre, watching that ballet . . . It was as if I’d never heard the music properly before, and that the dance somehow brought it to life. And, wow! It was truly astonishing.
So, yep, you’ve guessed it, I’m honestly amazed to declare myself a ballet convert. And that The Nutcracker is about the magic of childhood, meant it was the ideal ballet to honour Mum, who had made mine so wonderful. It really couldn’t have been any more marvellous.
No, scrap that – Mum being with me would have made it an absolutely en pointe evening. . .
. . . so, it’s a good job I decanted a fair amount of her ashes into an empty quart bottle of Freixenet, and tucked her in my handbag, with one of her ‘death party’ beermats!
Okay, it wasn’t the ideal scenario, but I can tell you, without a shadow of a doubt, that she’d loved our night out.
But next time, we’ll deffo be avoiding that bloody pillar.
And now, I’m off to get our tree up – though how Tim will feel, buggering about in the attic at this time of night, I really can’t imagine. Lmao!
If you’d like to experience this ballet for yourself, visit the Classical Ballet & Opera House website for details of forthcoming dates and venues, or see their Facebook Page which gives details of this, and other ballets, which they will be performing over the coming months.
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