DANCE; Beauty and the budget

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Indy Lifestyle Online
NO FLY on the wall was ever more gratified than the one in the Royal Opera House boardroom during the filming of last week's The House (BBC2). What came out in one short boardroom fracas was more than just another example of the regular bloody battles we all know go on in that place. For astute viewers (those who read between the heavy silences) it said more. It exploded forever the myth of fair and equal relations between opera and ballet at Covent Garden.

This is how it went. Jeremy Isaacs was being arraigned by the chairman of the board of directors for what appeared to be gross mismanagement. How could Isaacs, as director general, have allowed the designer Maria Bjornson to be booked for two simultaneous productions - an opera and a ballet? As a result both were in crisis: the designs were impossibly late and they were vastly over-budget, the opera Katya Kabanova by pounds 60,000 for a scheme that called for live horses, rain and collapsing scenery. ("Words fail me," said chairman Sir Angus Stirling. "I thought we'd put all this behind us.")

Was Isaacs ruffled? Did his jowls pale ever so slightly? Not a bit. He didn't try to pass the buck. But he could try to spread the blame.

Baroness Blackstone, chairman of the (subsidiary) ballet board, steadied her rage. The Royal Ballet, she pointed out, unlike the Opera, had gone without a new production for a whole season in order to afford its new Sleeping Beauty. This production would last 20 years. What's more - here she paused, for strength, perhaps - the ballet contracted Bjornson first, 18 months ago.

This crucial point of fact was contradicted by no one. But it drew a snide hiss from Isaacs: "Pity she didn't get on with it sooner." If looks could kill, he would have been a slab of haddock at that moment. Had that TV fly not been on the wall (who can believe the subjects are oblivious?), there might have been some unladylike language. But the ballet's baroness held silence and gnawed her lip. She knew, and now so do we, which foot the boot is on.

This all took place in the autumn of 1994; miraculously, both productions made it safely to first night. I happened to see both. Now Anthony Dowell's Beauty has had its first revival - Bjornson's dizzying designs looking more glorious than ever - and it strikes home a further point the baroness might have made at that deathly meeting, had she more hope of being heard. The ballet had a far higher claim to the flamboyant designer - and to the bigger budget. The original work was conceived as a tribute by one centre of imperial opulence (the court of the Tsar) to another (the court of Louis Quatorze). Its raison d'etre is not to explore Perrault's fairy tale, but to revel in the grandiose elegance of his age. The Janacek opera, on the other hand, would work on an empty stage. In Trevor Nunn's production it was rendered overblown and vulgar, its headlong tragic urgency lost in a welter of extravagant effects.

Few who saw the TV programme will need any inducement to see The Sleeping Beauty, so tantalising were the glimpses shown. It is the perfect party piece for the Royal Ballet, not least because it represents the peak of the late 19th-century academic style - all purity of line - that Dowell's company does so well. Scores of gem-like solos give a unique opportunity for the Royal's exceptionally strong corps, as well as middle- ranking soloists, to shine. And they do. They dazzle. Rachel Whitbread (a gracious and willowy Lilac Fairy) is just one who should be promoted before long.

In addition to the famous moments (the Rose Adage, with its tentative-growing-to-triumphant balances, Aurora's twirling falling- asleep solo, the spectacular grand pas de deux), this production finds something of splendour in every event. To watch is to turn the pages of a gilded story-book. The christening tableaux that ends the Prologue presents limbs and forms crystallised in angled poses of refined perfection. Set in the crazy architectural perspective of Bjornson's grand design, it makes a spectacle of beauty that leaves the mind reeling.

So, you might say, it all turned out all right then. One designer did manage two productions at once - one of them a triumph. Perhaps this Mr Isaacs is an angel after all. But look at the extended line of credits in the programme - all the extra costume cutters and set builders that had to be brought in to make it happen. Look at the faces of the hundreds of staff (more cutters and builders) who suffered five weeks enforced overtime. It all costs. Ultimately it costs us. And it all might have been avoided if ballet had been given equal consideration in the first place.

'Beauty': ROH, WC2 (0171 713 6000), continues Mon-Thurs & Sat.

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