Does a prima ballerina bounce?

FOR ALL the thousands of column inches devoted to the performing arts, one area remains almost permanently hidden from view. It is the rehearsal room. Audiences and critics are virtually never allowed access. And, for the sake of their own reputations, directors and performers rarely divulge what mistakes, tantrums, sobbing and sackings go on.

So we should all thank the Royal Ballet. Someone has let slip that at a recent rehearsal someone let slip. To be precise, Bruce Sansom let slip Viviana Durante.

To let any prima ballerina slip through your fingers is unfortunate. To let slip the beautiful, sultry and technically outstanding Durante, one of the company's brightest stars, is verging on carelessness. Not least because she is a self-confessed passionate woman. When Sansom dropped her he felt the full weight of that passion, directed verbally at him.

Durante, who fell heavily, flew into a rage and is now not going on the Royal Ballet's tour of Japan. The Royal Ballet at first seemed to imply that she had chosen not to go. But Durante is unusual among international artists of any art form. She talks, honestly and openly and on the record. And she has let it be known that she has been dropped from the tour by the Royal Ballet's director, Sir Anthony Dowell.

We can surmise that relations between the two dancing partners are not good. In non-choreographic parlance, the one who ended up on the floor no longer wants to be lifted and twirled by the one who put her there.

Perhaps classical dance could take a lesson from premier-league soccer. Ballet has no disciplinary committees. Robbie Fowler and Graeme Le Saux, who fell out on the pitch, have been told to act in comradely fashion, suspended for a few games and fined. Had there been a ballet disciplinary committee, Durante and Sansom could have been forced to sit out a matinee and told to shake hands, or do a pas de deux as they emerged from the Covent Garden disciplinary tribunal.

But while Fowler and Le Saux can and will play together for England again, it may not be wise for Durante and Sansom to partner each other too often. The audience reaction could be a problem. Again, just as in football, where the goalkeeper often has to take the goal kick to a rising cry of "aaaaAAAAAAH" from the fans behind the goal, it might be hard for the occupants of the front stalls to resist a similar climactic gasp each time Durante and Sansom combined.

Personally, I rejoice that we have Viviana Durante. The passion of her Italian background is much needed in the very English, repressed confines of the Royal Ballet. Of the present mess, she says: "Things happen in rehearsals, which are always sensitive situations. There are a lot of people in the room and there are vibes flying around. I did react, but there is a way of taking things in hand and dealing with them without taking away my shoes... There are problems at the Royal Ballet, such as communication, that are not being addressed and I don't want to find myself in a situation where my shows are being taken away from me."

Durante is passionate, but no prima donna. She has come to the rescue of the company often, stepping into leading roles at the last minute when other dancers were injured, including the opening night of The Sleeping Beauty in Washington, before President Clinton.

If the Royal Ballet parts company with Durante now, then she will have paid the price of honesty. That would be deeply unfair of Sir Anthony Dowell; and Miss Durante's fellow ballerinas, one of whom sits on the Arts Council, should be brave enough to say so publicly. Plain speaking by artists is all too rare in the arts, but the passions, pride and mistakes of the rehearsal room are also part of the process of making a work of art. Does it really do any harm for the public to hear about them occasionally?

Sir Anthony should not be alarmed that a bit of butterfingers in rehearsal and a subsequent shouting-match have reached a wider public. There is nothing wrong in our knowing that these magical dancers are also human beings.

For those of us lucky enough to go and watch the Royal Ballet regularly in performance, it comes almost as a surprise to discover they are mortal. On stage they make perfection look so easy that it is almost a relief to learn that behind the locked doors of the rehearsal room there's no knowing whether Manon will leap into her lover's arms or end up with a thud on the floor.