I had a wonderful weekend attending my first live ballet performance since the pandemic begun: the Royal Ballet performing Sir Peter Wright's Giselle on the Opera House stage at Covent Garden.
Giselle is one of my top three favourite ballets, which – if you follow @blue_ballet_art on Instagram – you might have guessed from how often I paint it. In fact, of my favourites, it's the one I paint the most often. I love the storytelling and narrative development of the first act. The second act is breathtakingly beautiful: ethereal and poignant. Romantic ballet at its best.
The sublime Giselle ballet magic on stage on Saturday fed my soul (thank you ROH). But, even before we took our seats, I was overwhelmed with a tutu special moment. And so, with apologies to the fantastic cast I saw on Saturday, this post is a trip down memory lane.
One of the joys of the opera house is the posters, photographs and tutus on display. At present, upstairs, they are displaying two beautiful flower tutus from Le Bal des Voleurs. And while you may be thinking "Aha, flower tutus, that's her thing!" – that's not what moved me.
One of the tutus on display was a poppy tutu originally worn by South African Prima Ballerina Assoluta Phyllis Spira (1943–2008) when she was a member of the corps de ballet of the Royal Ballet Touring Company in 1963.
Growing up in South Africa in the 70s and 80s, Spira was the prima ballerina young ballerinas aspired to become. To be in London, on the other side of the world, unexpectedly seeing one of my revered childhood ballet icons acknowledged was incredibly moving. I barely managed to whatsapp the photos to my sister and cousin before I completely choked up and the tears welled out of my eyes.
I'm very privileged to have had the experience of taking a class with Spira, our petite heroine. I was a very young dancer at the time – still in the pink leotard grades rather than the black leotard grades. She was incredibly sweet to young dancers – a very gracious lady.
She was also the first Giselle I saw on stage (I say 'on stage' because the ballet school I attended shared premises with the professional company in those days and I was a self-conscious loner who would mostly stand outside the studios earnestly admiring the company rehearse through the windows before my own ballet classes).
If I remember correctly, that Giselle was also the tribute performance at which the title of Prima Ballerina Assoluta was conferred upon her. Sadly, it was also the performance at which an injury in the first act ended her en pointe career. The wonderful ballerina Nicolette Loxton pulled off the impossible and came on stage mid-Act 1. If I recall what the newspapers wrote, she came on without make-up or warming up, yet managed to win over a hushed audience with her flawless performance of Giselle and transition from innocent joy to anguished mad scene to ethereal wili.
And at the end of the night was the beautiful tribute to Spira – seated on a stool in her white romantic tutu, despite not having been able to perform the second act, surrounded by the applauding cast in their white tutus and other members of the company. I'm not sure there are any performances I have been to in all my years as a balletomane that can rival the emotion in the Cape Town opera house that night.
Spira was magnificent in roles across the classical repertoire and many created for her in South Africa. She also excelled in comedy roles – I think one of my mother's favourites was The Entertainer – a short Veronica Paeper (another of my heroines) ballet she performed with Eduard Greyling and Keith Mackintosh. And I remember my mother going on about how superb Spira was as Juliet (but I'm not sure if I saw her perform this).
What the caption accompanying the tutu at the opera house doesn't tell you is the contribution Spira, alongside her husband and fellow dancer Philip Boyd, made to the Dance for All project initiated by David Poole. Dance for all played – and continues to play – a key role in opening up ballet and dance to historically disadvantaged communities in South Africa. I have profound memories of visiting Dance for All in Khayelitsha as a university student in the 90s researching a feature article I was working on for one of my university assignments.
So, my Saturday was overflowing with balletic treats and memories. A beautiful tutu triggered a flood of special memories. A wonderful performance from the Royal Ballet (and of course the orchestra, stage and behind-the-scenes crews too) topped up my heart. And it was special to finally share another of my favourite ballets with Richard – who, as we headed down Bow Street, made my night by remarking that, now that he'd seen Giselle, my ballet paintings make more sense.
P.S. The Royal Ballet are streaming a performance of Giselle on Friday. Definitely worth a watch. And of course, if you're passing the opera house at any stage (haha unintended pun), do go and admire the flower tutus.