This is it. This is the big one. The theatre I've been most excited for, but also really dreading.
I'm only going to Sadler's fucking Wells tonight.
The theatre I'm most familiar with. The home team. My pad. The place I'm been spending the majority of my days for the past three years.
The place I haven't seen a show now for over five months. That's been a fucking nightmare, let me tell you.
I've spent the whole day feeling a little queasy. Five months in the making and I still don't know how I'm going to write about this one. Like, how am I supposed to talk about the place I work? Without getting fired I mean...
It's almost a relief to be spending my afternoon hiding in the photocopier room printing out castsheets for the weekend performances. Oh gosh, am I supposed to review these? I pick one up and give it a critical once-over. They look good to me. They should do, after the amount of back and forth needed to put them together. I only just got off the phone with the company - talking through the final changes before I fired up the printer.
Okay, perhaps they are a little too overstuffed on the content side of things. There are a lot of words packed into these two-sides of A4. But San Francisco Ballet is a big company, with lots of dancers, sponsors, and egos, that all need to be mentioned. There's even a line about one of the violins in there which is a first for me. But then, it's not every day that we have a Stradivari in the Sadler's orchestra pit. I'm really rather excited about that.
I start piling up the stacks of paper, one for each of the four performances that will be taking place over the weekend, ready to be picked up by front of house and distributed throughout the building and handed out to the audience. Of which I'm going to be one. Oh, god. I feel really fucking nervous now.
I keep an eye on the printer. We had to get an engineer out this morning. The pages were coming out yellow. And that would never do. No one wants yellow castsheets. Diseased, that's how they looked. But now they are pristine white. Perfect.
Right, those are printing. And I've ordered the reprint for the programmes.
Wait, have I? I double check my emails. Yes. Thank goodness. That was scary. We sold a fuck-tonne on the first night. I'm not surprised. They look luscious. Our designers did a really good job on this one. And they sure had there work cut out for them. I gave them the longest brief I've ever written. Over ten thousand words. Excluding the article. That came later. But it was worth it. They are seriously swanky. And heavy. Poor front of house. They're never going to forgive me for all this, are they?
Oh well. No time to think on that. I'm meeting Helen for a pre-show dinner. We're going to Kipferl. An Austrian cafe in Camden Passage. The type of place where they serve hot drinks with a small glass of water on the side. I'm not sure what the purpose the small glass of water is. But it looks very sophisticated with its small spoon balanced on top.
We order schnitzels. My favourite food in the whole world. With potato salad. My second favourite food. And some sort of shredded pancake thing for afters, which I have yet to rank in the food-stakes, but I'm suspecting will come out very high. It comes to the table in a large metal pan, served with a dish of the thickest and sweetest apple sauce I've ever seen. For dipping. Helen and I fish out the leftover crunchy bites from the pan with our fingertips.
"We've got time," I say as we pay the bill and get ready to leave. I check my phone. "We just have to walk fast. Very fast."
We walk fast. Or at least we try to. Walking quickly with a belly full of veal and multiple forms of carbs is tricky.
We stumble our way down Upper Street, catch our breath at the traffic lights, then plunge our way down St John Street, from where you can already spot the massive sign for Sadler's Wells peering out from behind the rooftops. Round the corner, onto Rosebery Avenue., past the stage door, and here we are.
"Where are the loos?" asks Helen.
A perfectly reasonable question to ask someone who has worked here almost three years, and yet I still have to double-check the signage before answering.
I try to cover this embarrassing gaff by grabbing a couple of castsheets from the nearest concession desk. Can't go wrong with a castsheet.
We're sitting in the first circle this evening. Prime celeb-spotting ground if your idea of a celebrity is Royal Ballet dancers and the odd choreographer. Which it totally is for me. And, thank goodness, for Helen too. We give each other significant glances as people we recognise take their seats.
Within minutes we're waving across the circle at our favourite dance critic who is sitting on the other side.
The lights dim.
Out comes the conductor. We all clap. I have to try hard not to bounce around in my seat with excitement.
Nope. Can't help it. "There's the Strad," I say.
"In the middle," I say, referring to the orchestra pit. "She's standing up."
"That's the Strad?"
"That's the Strad!"
I am definitely bouncing in my seat now. I've never heard a Stradivarius being played before. Not live anyway. I can't wait.
An orange sun hangs low over the stage. The dancers flit around in iridescent outfits, covered in glittering veins like an insect's wings. Across the Infinite Ocean. That's the name of the piece. A title that feels incredibly distant. The divide between the living and the dead. But it doesn't feel that way. The Strad sounds so sweet, so yearning, I can almost feel it reaching up from the pit towards me.
And I'm crying.
I don't know why I'm crying. If I did I might be able to stop. But there is no way these tears are ending before the ballet does. They're proper tears. Snotty and fat and utterly unstoppable.
Is it the music? Probably. The effortless grace of the dancers? Most definitely. The achingly lovely choreography? For sure. But also, perhaps, the tiny little scrap of knowledge that I was a part of this. The tiniest cog in the mighty machine that is Sadler's Wells.
"So beautiful," sighs a person sitting in the row behind us as the first pas de deux comes to a close.
Did they book after reading the copy I wrote about the show for the season brochure? They might have done. They may have even bought a programme. Lots of people have. I can see the orange covers sitting on people's laps all around us. I want to turn around and offer this person my castsheet, just in case they didn't pick one up. But I stop myself. That would be weird. A crying woman turning around in a dark theatre to offer you a piece of paper. They can pick one up in the interval, if they really want one.
"Do I have mascara on my face?" I ask Helen as the lights come back up.
She frowns at me. "Why?"
"I was crying, so hard."
She frowns even harder. "From that?"
"Yes, from that. Didn't you like it?"
She pulls a face. "No!"
That's alright. We never agree about anything. Well, except for ponies, Sexy John the Baptist, and Emily Carding. Gives us something to talk about, I suppose. Although it is rather tiresome having a friend who is wrong all the time.
In the interval, we gatecrash the press drinks. I probably shouldn't be telling you this. But I'm trusting you not to blab your mouth here. Anyway, it's nice being able to catch up with all the writers I spend my days emailing.
Plus, it gives Helen the chance to show off about a principal dancer saying thank you to her.
"He said 'thank you' to me," she tells everyone who will listen.
"Such a gentleman," I agree, as witness to the fact that he did indeed thank her.
Next up is a Cathy Marston narrative work. Always a cause for celebration around these parts. Except, I'm not at all familiar with the story, and within minutes I'm totally lost.
"I loved that," says Helen after the applause has died down.
"I... did not understand any of that."
"Were they dead? I thought they were dead. But then they got up... Were they not dead?"
"Have you read Ethan Frome?"
"But I shouldn't have to!" This is the one thing we always agree on. No one should have to read the synopsis in order to understand a ballet. Ballet isn't school. You can't assign the audience homework. Everything should be there, on the stage. Not in the castsheet.
"No. Of course but..." Helen goes on to explain what happens in the story. It all makes a lot more sense now.
Back to the mezzanine bar and we're scoffing a dance critic's birthday chocolates. It looks like I'm in the minority on the Marston. Everyone is gabbling excitedly about it and I'm just nodding along as if I have any idea what they are talking about. I really should read that book...
The bells are ringing. We need to get back to our seats.
Helen and I rush towards the stairs. A front of houser gives me an exasperated look. I should really know better than to leave it so late.
We make our way back to our seats, apologising to the poor folks sitting at the end of our row who have to get up once again to let us past.
Next up is the Arthur Pita. I adore Arthur Pita. And this Arthur Pita is the reason I picked this show to attend for my marathon, out of an entire year's worth of programming at Sadler's.
As we go back to our seats, I look around to check he isn't sitting near us. That might sound like an odd thing to be doing to you, but believe me, I have my reasons. I love Arthur Pita's work so much, that it is hard for me not to talk about Arthur Pita's work when I am attending an Arthur Pita work. Once I get started, I can go on hugely long screeds about the man, his quirky wit, his surreal manner of storytelling, his use of music, his... well, you get the idea. So passionate do I get, that I wouldn't even notice if Arthur Pita himself had been sitting behind me the whole time that I've been gabbing. And I'd be left to sink into my seat in shame, praying that he had gone temporarily deaf for the duration. And if this all sounds like something that has happened, then I am delighted to tell you that it has. Three times. Three times I've gone off on one of my Arthur Pita lectures, only to discover that the Arthur Pita has been sitting just behind me.
Three. Bloody. Times.
And if you're thinking, Max - so what? At least you were saying nice things. It's not like you were slagging him off. I mean, wouldn't you enjoy overhearing someone else saying how marvellous you are?
Well, yes. That would be fine. Embarrassing. But fine.
But you may have noticed over the past five months, that when I love someone, I really fucking love them. Like: intensely. I say things that no artist should ever have to hear. You may roll your eyes, but like... When I tell people the things I've said, the general consensus is that I really need to start checking to see who is sitting behind me before I start talking.
So, that's what I'm doing.
He's not there.
"I'm really looking forward to this one," says Helen.
"I love Bjork."
"Oh." Okay. "Yeah, me too." That's true. I do. But Bjork's music isn't the reason I'm here.
The curtain turns blue.
"What colour is the curtain here?" asks Helen.
"Grey?" I chance. "I think it's the lights that make it look red. Or... blue." The curtain isn't usually down during the day. I haven't had the chance to inspect it without the lights on.
The blue, or possibly grey, curtain lifts. The orchestra starts playing.
I sink back into my seat and enjoy the pretty.
Everything is so shiny. The stage is mirrorlike. Tiny metallic palm trees gleam from the ceiling. The dancers look like they have rummaged in the Christmas decoration box to put their costumes together.
There's an electronic crash. Helen jumps. Her body expanding at the noise. Her elbow connecting with my ribs.
A shock of laughter pours over the audience at the startling sound and then retreats, pulling back like a wave leaving silence in its wake.
Bjork's voice fills the void.
A ballerina is carried in on a palanquin. It tips up, and she slides off into a dancer's arms before being whirled away.
A masked dancer carrying a rod sits on the end of the stage, he casts his line into the dark orchestra pit and fishes out another mask for him to wear.
The corps flutter around like exotic birds. Shimmer like fish. Scamper like insets. Anything, everything, other than human.
Helen is hugging her knees, curled up in her seat and she holds herself tight with the huge effort of not exploding.
I feel the same. Everything is glitter and magic and fantasy. I don't know where to look. I want to see everything at once. A thousand times over.
"I could watch that all over again," Helen says, still clapping. The curtain has long fallen. The dancers have left the stage. But we're all still applauding. No one is ready to stop quite yet.
But eventually, we have to stop. It was getting a bit weird.
"I thought it was going to be orchestral all the way through. I jumped!" exclaims Helen.
"I noticed!" I exclaim back.
"I'm a jumpy person."
"I'm glad I didn't take you to The Woman in Black..." I stop. "Hang on, that's pretty." I go over to the windows to take a photo of the faerie-lights strung around the trees on Rosebery Avenue. I realise I haven't been taking any photos. It's hard to see what's interesting about a building you see every day.
I consider taking Helen up to the second circle, where there is currently a mural of a cat painted on the wall. And the portrait of Edmund Keen dressed as Richard III, up in the Demons' Corridor. But the stairs are packed. There's no easy way up there. Likewise, the well on the ground floor is out. Besides, she's probably already seen it.
We chatter all the way to the tube station. It isn't often we both love a show. But when we do, there's no shutting us up.
"Have you decided how you're going to write this up?" she asks.
Nope. I've no idea.
We part at King's Cross, and I sink back against the tube seats.
Seven months. There are seven months left of the year. Seven months before I can justifiably see another show at Sadler's.
That's... not good.
I've been thinking a lot about what's missing in my marathon. I've gone in search of things to make me cry, things to make me feel. But I wonder if what's missing, isn't the emotion, so much as the connection.
I work in the arts because I want to be part of it. To be part of the machine.
And, while I don't create the art, I do go some way to creating the experience. Perhaps that's why my blog is the way it is. There are a thousand people out there writing about the art. I might as well be the one to critic the castsheets. Read More