The news that Russian police are questioning a star dancer from the Bolshoi about the acid attack on the ballet company’s director reminds me of a bizarre time I had on the Daily Express years ago. It was the first time that a certain Russian ballet company – not the Bolshoi – had ever performed in London, and the papers were full of glowing reviews. The performances were really something, by all accounts, raising the bar hugely for our homegrown ballet companies. But an odd thing started to happen.
I was then working on the paper’s Diary page, which was a heady mix of high life and low deeds, with minor aristos marrying, divorcing, drinking and drugging at dizzying speed and a statutory pic of a pretty girl, which was called, I kid you not, the ‘caption shag.’ Anyway, I started getting anonymous calls telling of mayhem backstage at the ballet. Now, contrary to popular belief, the anonymous tip is a rare beast in Fleet Street. You get most stories from friends, acquaintances and even diligent digging, not from people in phone boxes sounding like SMERSH agents from James Bond. But my tipster said that, though the ballet might look sublime on stage and though all the vastly expensive tickets had sold out, backstage the dancers were not being paid, were ill and were living in squalor. Soon, I was told that several dancers had full-blown pneumonia. We duly checked it all out, and the dancers were, indeed, sick, and the tour was threatened. But it was an interesting glimpse behind the perfection we see on stage, and revealed the hatred and spite seething between the cast – some of whom firmly believed they were being treated like cattle – and the management, who seemed to fit neatly into the oppressor role. Meanwhile, we had more and more calls every day from ballet dancers, some putting their handkerchiefs over the receiver in best thriller movie style.
The only time we got more anonymous calls was during Tory leadership competitions, or general elections. The calls would only come from the Conservative party, and they would all be denouncing each other, not Labour or the Lib Dems.
Strange to think that ballet and politics give rise to the same blend of aggression, sneakiness and sheer, deranged passion. I suppose if you coop up a highly motivated, ambitious and stage-struck group of people for long periods of time, then you will get ugly scenes.
And then there’s the ballet dancers!