I wish I could remember, but no one was counting that night.
The opening night of the Australian Ballet season’s premiere performance was a huge success. The blinding binary stars of the ballet, Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev, performed crowd-pleasing party pieces with the Australian Ballet.
The guests and VIPs were welcomed, champagned and settled and the media sated. When the house lights went down I was free to make my way to my most loved part of any theatre: backstage.
The Palais was not the most elegant auditorium in Melbourne, the city claiming to be Australia’s cultural capital, but it was the largest — and the season needed to accommodate the maximum number of wallets. It was just a few seats short of 3,000. This, I was assured, was due to some obscure fire department regulation. Today the venerable old lady is a heritage site. She needs soft, low lighting to look her best and is now more likely to accommodate Spandau Ballet than the tutu and toe-shoe variety.
I doubt if today I could find the labyrinthine way from front of house to below and behind the stage but then it was a familiar route. The corps de ballet and soloists from the Australian Ballet opened the evening. They were a wonderful company; heirs of Borovansky, Pavlova and the great European traditions and disciplines. Some had returned after performing with great foreign companies, some were from those companies and countries and were drawn to work with this vital, young company.
I emerged behind the off-prompt wing (the left of the stage as viewed by the audience) and made my perilous way against the back wall to the prompt corner where I would find Bill Akers, then the production stage manager. There was not a finer evening suit in that richly upholstered auditorium than that which garbed Akers even when working backstage; nor a more sharply-edged moustache or finely-chiselled goatee.
He glanced from the desk array to acknowledge my presence. Being here at the control centre of such a production was a rare privilege. Bill looked past me to a figure out of the direct light spilling from the stage; a dancer warming up.
“Rudi! Should you not have your costume on?” chided Akers, stabbing a manicured finger at his cue sheet.
Rudolph Nureyev emerged into the pool of light. He sloughed his painted silk gown to reveal nothing more than a gold lamé jock strap with a sash, a length of gilded chain and a kilo or two of body paint.
“I haff got my costume on.”
Nureyev tossed his head without disturbing a single carefully-sprayed hair and pouted back as Bill’s eyes stared and moistened.
“Do you think they will like it?” he enquired archly as the orchestra hit his cue.
Nureyev launched himself in a grand jete that lifted him in an effortless arc across the width of the stage. Brilliant extravagance enthralled the audience for the next eight minutes or so: a series of tours en l’air that circled the stage and really did seem to be on air, a seemingly-impossible entrechat-huit and finally vanishing in a leap into the wings as the entire audience erupted in ecstasy.
His chest heaving, sweat and makeup running, he grinned cheekily at the still-wide-eyed Akers.
“I zink zay liked it.” Nureyev panted happily.
For most, the evening ended with the last of many curtain calls and standing ovations. For a couple of hundred well-heeled patrons and a few special guests it was the first course.
The anointed ones were ushered to an adjoining hall lavishly prepared for a late banquet. Among the tit-bits on the evening’s menu were a few moments in the company of the stars of the evening, Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev along with the company’s own premier dancers and soloists.
As the stars dutifully circulated around the Armani and Dior, the corps de ballet and other lower orders such as myself settled into our tables on the fringes and set about the serious business of eating and enjoying ourselves.
This did not escape the notice of Nureyev. With Fonteyn enmeshed with admirers it was not long before he joined the peasants. He was in high spirits and ate, drank and socialised accordingly.
I was surprised when Nureyev ricocheted the first bread roll off one of the dancers sitting near me. When the challenge was returned with a hail of petit pain, I became thoroughly dismayed. I had this nagging feeling that I was somehow supposed to be responsible for this lot but my modest title seemed to carry no more weight or authority than my very best dinner suit.
When my miss-aimed bread roll caught Nureyev a savage blow he naturally felt his honour bruised and had no recourse other than to challenge me to a duel. Fortunately the most lethal weapons to hand were arrangements of long-stemmed gladioli, the official flower of Moony Ponds.
Nureyev and I chose our weapons and had at it, as they say. Notwithstanding having been brought up on most righteous of swashbuckler movies, watched not a few stage duels and having be given a few personal pointers on sabre technique style from a very accomplished tenor, I didn’t fancy my chances against this Cossack.
Thrust! Attaque! Parry! Contre-temps! Flèche from Nureyev. My feinte not only fails to deceive but makes me look faintly ridiculous in this company. Nureyev performs a short lunge, thumps his forward foot very loudly. Appel! I am distracted. He lunges again, this time at full stretch. I attempted to parry, in vain. Touché!
Agghhh! Death by gladiolus!
Not a clash of cold steel but merely a splatter of wet flora followed by a truly over-the-top death scene.
The bar was closed and the food either eaten or thrown. Time to find another venue. But where?
After all this time I can’t remember whose idea it was to go to my place. Admittedly it might have been mine. What I do recall is the rush of exuberance. We weren’t drunk, not on alcohol at least, the ballet’s budget didn’t run to that generous a bar. But we were certainly high — on the performance, on each other; on the night, on whatever our tomorrows might be.
I must now make a couple of realities quite clear: my place and getting there.
I had only fairly recently been promoted to Melbourne from the head office in Sydney but salaries in arts management were about a glamorous as a pair of old, laddered tights. I rented a simple near-city studio apartment, you know the kind with one main room with cheap carpet and a couch that doubles as a bed.
My car was equally modest; a red Mini-Minor, the basic model. So basic that accommodating even four people was an exercise in compromise. But they were lithe and limber these ballet folk, and not shy of a challenge. I seem to remember there was a base layer of three on the back seat and another three on their laps. The master stroke was laying another horizontally across the layer of laps.
I am not so clear about the arrangements in the two front bucket seats. I know I had no view from the opposite side window and precious little through the windscreen and had to manipulate the controls in co-operation with several body parts other than my own.
If the Mini’s earnest 850 cc engine was challenged, the suspension simply gave up and bottomed out. The squeals that accompanied the rather bumpy ride may have been from the flattened springs, but shock absorbers don’t giggle like that!
I had hardly shouldered the mini into a parking space when a couple of cabs pulled up with re-enforcements of dancers and, mercifully, beverages, the source of which I did not want to know. If I was worried about playing host to this lot there were perhaps other things that should have been concerning me more.
After the couch cum bed, the most (and almost only) other solid furniture in the room was a rented TV/music combination popular in the pre-CD era. No sooner had the room flooded with bodies than some took charge of the music as others found the kitchen behind a bamboo curtain, the fridge and anything that could contain liquid.
On stage they danced like gods and angels. Tonight the dancing definitely had a more earthly inspiration. This was obviously tiring as couples and groups subsided to more or less horizontal positions among the throw cushions; wall to wall ballet dancers.
“Russell, I haff to go. Vitch vay?”
As I was concentrating on stepping over and between bodies intent on not injuring a valuable limb — or worse — I was startled by the the familiar voice almost in my ear. And confused. My immediate reaction was to direct him to the only other room in the place.
“No, no,” grinned Rudolph Nureyev and shook his slightly tousled head. “I haff to go home. Vitch vay?”
Now this was something for me to worry about. I could drive him “home” to the Windsor Hotel, but many were still partying (or whatever it was they were doing) and I was not confident I was in the best shape to be chauffeuring the greatest living dancer, emphasis on living. A taxi! Yes I would find one and put him in it with directions and all. Rudi majestically brushed any suggestions aside.
“Russell, I vant to valk. Vitch vay?”
“But Rudi, it is very late and it is a long way. Too far ….”
That is as far as I got before being cut short with a head toss and a voice that brooked no further discussion.
“Vitch vay, Russell?”
The initial “R” now had a guttural undertone. I was doomed. The only good thing was that the route, though a very long walk, was relatively direct along main thoroughfares.
“Sank you, Russell, he smiled, turned and waved. “Great night. See you tomorrow.”
Fervently hoping I had never heard a truer thing in my life, I watched as he reached the end of my lane and felt a little relief to see him turn in the right direction.
Rudi’s departure seemed to be the key to unlock the Chinese puzzle of bodies as they began to disengage, adjust apparel, mutter thanks and leave.
I sank onto my still-warm couch, removed a depleted Stolichnaya bottle from beneath the small of my back and fell into an uneasy sleep with Rudi’s words haunting my flagging consciousness: “See you tomorrow …”
Dear god, I hoped so.