Royal Albert Hall

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All’s well that ends well

Last week was an unusual one, but it ended well. It started with a few days in hospital, which had not been in my plans, especially as I had been in the previous week and had hoped that would have been enough, but they needed a second go and this time were less keen to let me make a bolt for the door afterwards. After two days, I was offering to help make the toast for the pre-lights out snack – they were not keen on the idea, or on me helping out with anything else that seemed to need doing – and one of the nurses came to find me as I had been away from the ward for so long and they were concerned that I might have wandered off. I think it’s called cabin fever. And I did have visitors, so I needed somewhere better to entertain them than the side of my bed.

The issue that was really preoccupying me was the fact that LoLo and I had trains, hotels (if Travelodge counts as a hotel) and ballet tickets booked for Thursday, and I started the week thinking there would be no issue there. Then Monday turned into a procedure on Tuesday, then I had to stay in Tuesday night as well, have bloods taken at 6am (yes, I had finally fallen asleep) on Wednesday and then the wait for the results and the consultant to find each other and then get to me. I managed to get the ‘I don’t think you should go to London’ on Tuesday to ‘you can maybe go’ to ‘see how you’re feeling on Thursday morning,’ and I accepted that it might just not happen in the end. The only card I could play to bolster my case was along the lines of ‘it’s the last classical ballet performance of the best male dancer of his generation’ – and I’m not going to miss it.


This was the final farewell from Carlos Acosta to classical ballet, in the Royal Albert Hall. And we made it. We took it easy, had rests when I needed to, and had factored in so much extra time (I know, not like me at all) that we were unfazed by anything that might come up.

Carlos Acosta grew up in poverty in Cuba and ended up dancing with the Bolshoi and Royal Ballet, and becoming something of a dancing superstar. At the ripe old age of 43 (I know, I know, just a bit younger than me, what have I done with my life?!) the physical demands of classical ballet are simply too much, so he is moving on to contemporary dance and his dance school in Cuba, as well as everything else he is involved in.


The evening was a mix of the old and the new, some to our taste, some less so, and fortunately included the only thing LoLo had said needed to be included, a piece from Don Quixote with some spectacular leaps and spins (yes, it was the pas de deux with the grand jetés and 32 fouettes if you want to get technical about it).

You can see the memorable part here (at about 12 minutes in), just with different dancers – make sure you watch both of them, it’s all over in less than two minutes.

And you can see Carlos and Marianela Nuñez – the two we saw – dancing a different part of Don Quixote here, just so you can see the calibre of these dancers.

The second part of our (train) road trip was the following morning, when we finally managed to go on a backstage tour of the Royal Opera House, home of the Royal Ballet. In the past, we have always tried booking a tour too late in the day, but the middle of October is a lot easier than in the school holidays. We booked the morning tour, knowing that it was the time we were most likely to get to see some of the dancers in their morning class, then crossed our fingers.

When the lift doors opened on one of the upper floors and we found ourselves in front of a window looking right into the studio, LoLo just said ‘Federico Bonelli!’ without missing a beat. It turns out he is one of their principal dancers and was directly in her line of sight. She then listed off all the other principal dancers who were in the same studio, so it was pretty close to having most of her heroes dancing in front of her for a few minutes, including some who we had seen perform the night before. And imagine the joy when Marianela Nuñes walked out of the studio in front of us. Nobody else seemed to quite grasp the significance of the occasion.

Speaking of not quite understanding such momentous things, the following is the result of a request to include some basic ballet-attendance etiquette in my blog, some of which was sorely lacking last week. There is not much to it really, and if you follow these basic rules, you will contribute to being part of a well-trained audience, and we will all be so much happier for it. We like well-trained audiences.

  • Arriving on time is really helpful. But if you do arrive 25 minutes late – and for some inexplicable reason are allowed in – do not spend your time wandering around trying to find your seat. Park yourself somewhere, anywhere, out of the way, not blocking the view of everyone else in your befuddlement.
  • Please get back to your seats after the interval before the performance starts again, not five minutes afterwards clutching food and drink and trying to climb over people.
  • Do not eat during the performance. This is not a cinema. There is no popcorn. We love the cinema and popcorn. But while they are good companions, they do not work with the ballet. There are no action scenes to disguise you munching crisps or rustling sweet packets or whatever else you mistakenly thought would be appropriate to bring with you.
  • Before the performance and during the interval is the time to read your programme, not during the performance with the bright light from your phone.
  • And finally, clapping. Rule of thumb – if nobody else is clapping, there is a reason for it and you should not be either. You don’t clap just because you liked something you just saw. Go with the herd on this. Sit on your hands if you have to until you get a sense of when a piece has come to the end and it is appropriate to clap. There are exceptions – like the 32 fouettes in Don Quixote. But everyone else will clap because it’s a stunning piece of dancing.
  • It is absolutely acceptable for your dance-literate daughter to lean across and whisper when the ‘good bits’ are coming up so you don’t miss them. I made this one up but I think it’s a good one.

LoLo and I thank you for this.

Starting to say yes – but not to everything

I’m sorry. I did it. I started writing lists of what I “needed” to do during my sabbatical. A few goals, I told myself, just write down a few goals. Then it morphed into all the things that have been in the back of my mind for years that suddenly burst forth and overwhelmed me before I could start to push them back to where they had been lying happily dormant for long enough that another year won’t hurt them.

Because writing a novel is not enough. I also needed to learn a language from scratch, publish a book of photos (that I haven’t even taken yet), run [insert random number] ultramarathons, grow a vegetable garden, deal with my abysmal Dutch because I always quite liked the language, learn to play a new instrument. And that was just one list. Then Camille said she was surprised I didn’t want to learn to fly a plane. Fortunately for everyone when I Googled that, I discovered the Edinburgh flying school recently closed. Which was sad because a school friend learned to fly there many years ago and took me up in a plane a few times. I won’t say any more about what he let me do with the plane when we got up there but I still have a smile on my face when I think about it. The invincibility of youth.

I’ve calmed down a little with my lists now, but my theory is still that I can learn French (enough to get by on) while doing housework – ironing, hoovering – no, wait, not while hoovering – emptying the dishwasher, hanging up clothes, watering the plants. So that stays on the list, because maybe it gets us to Paris next year. And a photography book might or might not happen but I can make sure that I always have a camera on me, even it’s just the one on my phone. So I haven’t scratched everything off the list yet, but the ultramarathons have gone, replaced by doing random running events that I see cropping up that sound fun. So I’m doing a 10k at the end of the month in Berlin because I’m there and they close one of the main roads in the evening at dusk so we can run up and down it. And I’ve never run a 10k race before so thought I might as well.

I am finding that it is becoming easier to say yes to some things that would normally just not have happened.

Like disappearing in October with LoLo to see Carlos Acosta (“the best male dancer of his generation” is how she always describes him – you have to imagine the indignation in her voice when she says it to someone who, unbelievably in her eyes, has never heard of him before). He’s dancing in London at the end of a farewell tour and we had great fun choosing our seats in the Royal Albert Hall (there were only a very few left so we examined the viewing angles of each) and then seeing how much we could shave off the price of a hotel room in London for the night. We got it down to £30 for us both (and no, it’s not a flea-infested dump). The highlight was when we discovered that our railcard expired the week after we go so we don’t have to buy another one to get cheaper tickets.

The big trip we have now planned in did involve a potential if not flea-infested then cockroach-infested apartment. We thought the price seemed quite good and were amazed at the number of people who had stayed there after all the reviews had pointed the problem out. So we aren’t staying there. But we are going to New York, hopefully with a performance of at least the New York City Ballet thrown in, plus whatever other dance is being performed there.

So the list is being culled but the possibilities are starting to feel closer to being real now.


And this is the current state of upstairs, with mind maps, character sketches and plot outlines lying all over the place (I’m quite liking it to be honest). Just don’t ask about the target number of books I plan on reading in the next twelve months. But I think I’d better now get on with the Maggie O’Farrell book I’m in the middle of – more on that in another blog.

Behind the scenes

One of the great things about a weekend in London is that you really never know what you’ll come across. We sat at breakfast on Saturday and wrote down a few things we wanted to see. We got as far as the Royal Albert Hall before the plan changed. We did see the photography exhibition there but in the process came across a “secret tour” with some stories about things that have happened there over the years. It was a definite hit and a lot more memorable than what a more traditional tour might have involved. But the thing which really struck me was what we learned about what happens behind the scenes. We saw this close up as the Cirque du Soleil is currently performing there and we saw them talking through one routine.


Unfortunately for us, they weren’t doing very much. But then we went upstairs and realised that everything we were seeing had been brought by the company with them from Canada. The Hall doesn’t provide anything for them other than a venue and electricity – and even for that, it’s a different voltage from their equipment so they bring huge transformers with them. We loved the ‘make up mirror’ cases, complete with random electrical cables.


The Cirque du Soleil is the longest running act the Hall has – most are for one night only – and stay for six to eight weeks a year, which is a good job because they bring with them 60 trucks’ worth of equipment – and we are talking the big trucks!


The loading bays can take three trucks side by side and it takes them four days, working 24 hours a day, to load everything back onto the trucks after the last performance, but as they are paying to hire the hall for every day it takes, there is a clear incentive to get the job done. In the meantime, the whole place is full of their equipment. They have 60 tonnes of it hanging from the Hall’s dome alone.

Getting some idea of the amount of work that goes on behind the scenes was a good reminder of how little we so often see of what has gone into anything of value. As I read a novel now, I am much more aware of how easy it is to skim over passages which might have taken an hour to read and longer to edit. I am reminded that photos we see might represent hours of waiting for the right moment which is over in a fraction of a second. After being here, I now have a load of pictures in my camera and have absolutely no idea what they will come out like. And I quite like that feeling again, the not knowing, and the surprise which always comes with seeing a print for the first time. And as I was out running along by the Thames (and getting lost, so I ran a few miles longer than expected) I saw a good number of crews out rowing at an equally silly time on a weekend morning, but they like I know that some things you have work on if you’re serious about them. And that’s irrespective of any talent we might have in a particular area, there is still no substitute for the hard work that yields the results.

We didn’t manage to see the Cirque du Soleil production but it’s on the list for next time we are in London – and it will be all the better for having seen some of what goes into these remarkable productions.