Way back in the midsts of time, when Cadbury sold out to Kraft, the coalition government was first coalilating, and everyone was freaking out about a dust cloud, little Maxine, fresh-faced and filled with hope, went to the ballet. She had been to the ballet before, but had never really got what the fuss was about. All a bit pink and silly, she thought. She was working a corporate job in the city. Dedicating her life to making even more money for people who were already far richer than she would ever be. She didn't exactly enjoy it, but she had graduated straight into the recession and was told by pretty much everyone she should be grateful for what she could get. In the mornings, she used to take the tube to Leicester Square and walk to her office from there, right through the West End. After a while, all the bright posters with their promises of excellent night outs got to her, and she started to see a few shows. They were okay. Then the Bolshoi came to town. She'd heard of the Bolshoi. They were that famous Russian ballet group, weren't they? She decided that as a sophisticated young lady, she should probably take in some proper culture and go see them. If only to say that she had, in fact, seen them. So she did. She booked a performance pretty much at random, and off she went. And there she saw Natalia Osipova.
And that, to quote F. Scott Fitzgerald, is the beginning and end of everything
She saw a lot of ballet after that. A lot of ballet.
She also started talking about herself in third person.
Eighteen months later, she quit her corporate job that she was really and truly, very grateful for, and got an unpaid internship in the arts, leading her on the path that would one day result in her declaring that she was going to see a show in every theatre in London within a single year.
Frankly, I blame Natalia.
As the dancer who really did start it all for me, the catalyst to the person you know and... know, today, I couldn't not include Osipova's show in the marathon.
So I'm going to the Queen Elizabeth Hall to see it, and get the first of the Southbank Centre venues checked off the list.
The Southbank Centre always manages to confuse me. It's so big and sprawling. With entrances and staircases and terraces all over the place. I can't remember exactly where the QEH is. I've been there before. But only once. And that was a fair number of years ago. But thankfully, someone on team Southbank Centre has realised the problematic scale of their, well, scale, and the entrance I need it marked out in huge letters. QUEEN ELIZABETH HALL. With a handy reminder of one of the other venues that I need to go to listed underneath: PURCELL ROOM.
No good getting ahead of myself there. I try and find a spot on on this terrace to take a photo of the building. It's tricky, as there's a bloody great fountain in the middle of it. And while the weather is pretty good, I'm not overly keen on getting soaked right at this minute. Not that other people have any qualms about that. There's someone standing stock still in the middle of all the spurting water. He's wearing a suit. With a buttonhole. And looks quite content in there.
I leave him to it, and go inside.
It's buzzing in here. The sound of a huge group of very excited people is flowing through the open doors into the foyer, which in turn, is mostly taken up by people queuing at the box office. I get in line and start waiting. And waiting. And waiting.
This has to be the longest wait of the marathon. I don't think I've ever been in a ticket queue so long.
A woman talking on her phone marches down the line, not stopping or faltering as she barges straight into me, and takes up a spot behind me in the queue. I turn around to look at her in amazement, and see she is giving me the exact same expression, apparently outraged that I didn't get out of her way.
Ballet audiences really are the absolute worst. But Natalia, well, she attracts a certain sort of super-fan. Let's just say that I don't think that will be the last time I get pushed about tonight.
I'm nearly at the front. Just one more person then it's me. Can't be long now.
"I can't seem to find..." says the lady on box office. Oh no... "Did you select an e-ticket?"
The person in front mumbles some, waving their phone around.
"The email would have been from southbank centre dot co dot uk?"
The person in front starts typing into their phone. Slowly.
The box office lady waits for a moment, then leans around them and smiles brightly at me. "Hello?" she says.
I nip ahead.
"Are you collecting?" the box office lady asks.
"Yes. The surname's Smiles."
She dives into her wooden box of tickets, which looks like a giant medicine chest, with slots for all the different categories of poison. She pulls out one bunch. Presumably the Esses.
"Which show?" she asks.
She nods, discarding the surplus tickets. "First name?"
"Perfect," she says, handing over the bright yellow ticket. "You're heading straight through to the left. High numbers."
I plunge into the crowd. It's very ballet, and very, very Russian. And very, very, very well dressed.
Not like, smart clothes from the office well dressed, but fashion well dressed.
One young woman is wearing a floor-length milkmaid dress that owes more to Marie Antoinette than Heidi for inspo. Handkerchief-hems sweep the floor, and shawls are draped over shoulders just so.
I push myself through the worst of the hubbub, but then realise I missed the most important thing - I haven't bought a programme - and then have to wriggle my way back into the scrum.
Somewhere up ahead I spot an usher with a paperboy bap slung over her back and a hand full of programmes. I chase after her, but a second later she has disappeared into the crowd and I don't see her again.
I inch my way one way, then another, but don't see any more ushers, with or without programmes. I consider begging one off the press desk, but I don't this is a good time in my life to be riling up PR people.
Then I spot something. A gleam of bright yellow. It's a sign! A literal sign. Saying: Welcome. It's attached to a desk. There are sweets on the desk. And where there are sweets...
"Hi, can I get a programme?" I ask.
"Yes, that's ten pounds."
"Great..." I find myself saying.
"Would you like to pay cash or card?"
"Card." Obviously. As if I carry that kind of money around with me in cash. Do I look like a Russian billionaire to you, lady?
I tuck the programme under my arm and scuttle away. That's me on a toast and marmite diet for the next week.
Best not think about that right now.
People are going in, so I decide I will too.
I show my ticket to one ticket checker, go down some stairs, and then get my ticket checked again.
"Up the stairs until you see KK," says the second ticket checker, and just like I do in aeroplanes - I turn right. There's a lot of stairs between me and row KK. Yup, I'm in the cheap seats. And you know why that is, don't you? Couldn't get myself a comp on this one. Despite having worked on a couple of Natalia shows in the past, and dropping every hint I've got going, I'm here under my own coin. Thirty quid, I'm still right at the back. Honestly.
I'm considering this one a birthday present to myself.
Only for Natalia, I swear.
And Arthur Pita, I guess. Can't forget him, I mean, he is a total fave of mine. I'd tell you my Arthur Pita story now except I've already told it. So let's just say, Natalia dancing Pita is one hell of a heady combo for me. No way was I missing it.
Eventually, I reach row KK, without the aid of an air mask, and find my seat.
Now it may be many a year since I was here, but these seats look a lot swisher than I remember. The entire theatre looks a lot glossier actually. I could have sworn the place had the air of an old gymnasium before, with a bleak stage and blue cloth seating. But now it's all shiny wood and leather upholstery.
The stage is nothing but a fuzzy yellow smudge in the distance. I put on my glasses, which helps bring things into focus but doesn't do much about how far away I am. I can just about see a dancer, Natalia, natch, leaning against the wall of the set and looking fraught.
I get out my programme, and see what ten whole pounds has bought me.
Let's see, a reprint of the Hans Christian Andersan tale the show is based on - which looks like it gave up on the concept of paragraph indentations half way down page one.
Then follows a interesting article on interpreting the story. Short though. Can't be more than a thousand words.
A note from the choreographer. That's interesting too. And even shorter. There's another note, this one from the producer. Do we care about the producer's thoughts? Nah, not really. I flip on.
Production photos. Ad. Ad. More production photos.
Then the biogs.
Now these are interesting. Not the actual biogs. Those are all copy and paste jobbies.
What's interesting is that for each one, in the corner of the page, is photo of the artists with their respective mothers. It's all rather sweet.
Natalia also has bonus images of her dancing other roles - by the looks of it, they're from Giselle and Marguerite and Armand, but neither of them are credited, so don't quote me on that.
In fact, the entire programme lacks a good deal of image crediting. Pity the poor photographers whose work is included.
Who created this thing? Surely not the Southbank Centre. I can't believe they would send a programme to print without proper crediting,
Thankfully I find my answer on page two, with all the producer credits, where I find not only the names of the programme editors (two) and designers (another two), but also the photographers. Their names all lumped together in one paragraph, with no indication of who took what. Well, that's one way of doing it I suppose.
If you're wondering where the show credits are, they're on page three.
I put it away, tucking it safely into my bag. That's an expensive item there, I don't want it getting damaged. And, you know, it's nice. Attractive even. I mean, is the content worth ten pounds? No. But that's only because no programme in the history of ever has ever been worth a tenner. It's pretty though. And works as what the West End calls: a "souvenir programme."
Someone has come to sit next to me. He takes no time at all claiming ownership of the arm rests. I instantly hate him. As if arm rests were ever to be used for resting your arms. They are a delineation of seat boundaries and nothing more. A barrier between you and me. To rest your arms on them is to encroach onto my space. And that, my friend, is an act of war.
A tenuous peace is achieved by the seat on the other side of me remaining empty. As does the rest of the row.
I look around.
There are a lot of empty seats back here.
Turns out thirty quid is too much for other people too.
The lights dim down, and under cover of darkness, the audience starts to move. The scurry about down the aisle as they surge forward, a wave of grey shadows, shifting between the rows, their heels tapping, tapping at the theatre floor.
The music starts. It's Frank Moon's. I do like Frank Moon. Mainly because during runs of Pita's Little Match Girl, it's always fun seeing him backstage in between shows, wearing his zombie makeup. The tunes are good too, I suppose. But the ringed dark eyes and cadaver white skin is a thing of genius.
While we're reminiscing, I've got another story for you. This is the one I always tell when people ask why I love Natalia so much.
Back when she was new to The Royal Ballet, she was cast in Onegin. A ballet I love. The previous run, Marianela and Thiago had stormed their performances, rapidly gaining the reputation as the cast. Not the preferred cast, but the cast. As if there were no others. They were spectacular.
When it came to Natalia's turn, anticipation was high. Everyone was keen to see how she'd handle such a dramatic role. I've had long discussions with my ballet friends about the quality other acting, but there's one scene where I will accept no argument.
When Tatiana spots Onegin at a ball, she is determined to attract him. She dances, by herself, her body straining towards him, while he barely looks up from his game of cards.
When Marianela dances this variation, so is stunning. A paragon of technique and lines. It's heartbreaking seeing something so lovely, and yet so sad.
And then there was Natalia.
I cringed while watching her. Literally cringed. It was painful and hideous. She threw her arms about, reaching and yearning. She was obvious in her desperation. And all the while Onegin was staring at his cards and it suddenly all made sense. With Marianela, there was no well in hell anyone wouldn't fall instantly in love with her after seeing her dance. It was always a mystery why he didn't reciprocate her affections from that moment. With Natalia, well, he was cringing too. It was embarrassing for him. This infatuated teenager throwing herself at him like that, in front of all his friends and whatnot. The shame of it all.
Natalia, you see, is not afraid to be ugly.
So when Pita has her torn by thorns, bleeding, her eyes gouged out, her hair greyed, and her skin soaked... I mean, fucking hell. She really goes for it, doesn't she?
It's been a long time since I actually flinched at a dance performance.
As for the sight of Jonathan Goddard in a sparkly bodysuit, that's not something I'm going to be forgetting in a hurry.
On the way out, I bump into a couple of the producers at work. They'd been sitting at the front. Naturally.
I really need to up my ticket-wheedling game.