When you go mad and die several times a week at the age of sixteen, something has to give.
Possibly the last place on earth you would expect to find Giselle (the ballet, not the porn star) is Lightning Ridge, an opal mining town set deep in the Australian outback. So naturally, that is where we took our production of Giselle; “we” being the Sydney City Ballet (SCB) Company.
It was hot in Lightning Ridge. If you Google it you get a couple of dusty pictures of a couple of dusty places; the dust, it would seem, is the chief attraction. Not sure about the lightning, possibly a seasonal feature, or perhaps a PR strategy – Dust Ridge doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. But lightning or no lightning, we of the SCB were not at all enthusiastic about hauling our refined arses all the way out there. Well, that is, we with the exception of Hassan.
As sometimes happens in these types of situations, your ballet master is Egyptian. Given that, as the title suggests, a ballet master has the power of a tyrant over his subjects, this can mean that a dancer is not only expected to dance daily for her (low-fat) supper, but that she might also be called upon to dance daily for her modest meal in the desert.
In essence, we went to Lightning Ridge because Hassan was missing home.
Now, this is not to suggest I have anything against the desert, per se, or indeed our ballet master. Generally I was happy enough to comply with Hassan’s scheduling of the tour to take in various hot spots. I should have been at school, right? If there’s anything worse than a dance to the death in the desert heat, it’s algebra.
But the trouble with Giselle in the Australian desert is the sunburn. Giselle is dead for the entire second act, a ‘good' ghost fighting to protect her lover against the Wilis – the ‘bad’ ghosts of jilted women, who have sentenced him to death by dance for his betrayal of her. In ballet, the women tend to be much stroppier than in real life, though the theme of female vengeance is the same. I didn’t want to be a burnt ghost. It seemed to me that ghosts wouldn’t burn.
But over and above the vampire-like issues, Lightning Ridge presented an additional challenge that threatened to push this particular dancing ghost out into the full sunlight, and it wasn’t the heat itself.
We were scheduled to perform in Lightning Ridge on a Saturday. Saturday was Cake day.
Normally we played the bigger towns on the weekend, arriving on the Friday afternoon and performing that night and two shows on the Saturday. This arrangement suited my diet. Having all week resisted the cake-based feasts that were routinely served up by the townsfolk for an after-show meet, greet and eat with the locals, Saturday marked the end of a long week and provided an additional calorie-crunching show. It was the perfect day for cake. A get-out-of-(fat)jail-free day. The day the ballet gods turned a blind eye. The day dieting forgot. The day all the other days of beans in brine and undressed coleslaw anticipated, looked up to and served.
But Lightning Ridge interrupted this practically divine order of being whereby everything made sense for a day, and I got to eat cake. Driving the best part of Cake Day in a suspiciously small bus as far into the outback as you can go (and expect to return), my commitment to the cause was already strained.
What if there was no cake in Lightning Ridge?
As we drove deeper and deeper into the desert I couldn’t help thinking, if I were a cake, this would not be an environment I’d choose, if I had a choice. I comforted myself somewhat with the thought that cakes generally don’t have freedom of choice about where they end up. I knew how they felt.
I was sixteen in a company of adults, travelling many mad miles from home, half starved and challenged relentlessly by a climate distinctly unsuitable for ghosts. In a few hours I was expected to dance as if my life depended on it and then die a deranged death anyway, what else was I supposed to lust after? Cake made about as much sense as anything.
In fact, cake craving informed my on-stage interpretation of Giselle’s descent into madness. LET ME EAT CAKE, FOR CHRIST SAKE! was pretty much the sole crazed thought in my head as I made my way through ‘the mad scene’ at the end of the first act. I’d be flopped in the arms of my (on-stage) mother, her head shaking: ‘If only they’d let her eat cake.’
As far as the story goes, Giselle is supposed to die of an underlying heart condition further weakened by the madness brought about by the betrayal of Albrecht, the nobleman she loved. In my version Giselle is driven to suicide with the sword of her traitorous lover thrust deep into her hungry heart BECAUSE HE DENIED HER CAKE! ... much more credible. Like I said, I was sixteen.
When we finally pulled the bus into the dusty square that would have been the town centre, if there had been a town, I despaired. The place was deserted with no obvious shops of any description. Cake was about as likely here as drowning. There was nothing here.
Okay there was a dusty shed that Hassan indicated was probably our venue. Apparently this dusty structure also doubled – tripled – as the pub, suggested by the rusty advert for XXXX beer hanging over the door. Have you ever noticed how pubs don’t sell cake? Possibly not.
We piled out of the bus and marvelled at the heat. We’d thought it had been hot inside the bus. We’d been wrong. The extreme heat at least explained why our arrival in a conspicuous bus garlanded with SCB promotional material was received with about as much fanfare as our non-arrival on any other day of the year would likely have received. Were there any people in Lightning Ridge?
If there’s one thing worse than travelling to the back of beyond to dress up in a tutu and dance to the death for two and a half hours, it’s travelling to the back of beyond to dress up and dance to the death for two and a half hours without an audience. Perhaps our audience was being airlifted in. Would they bring cake?
As the crew arrived and began to unload the sets and the rest of the dancers headed off to find their own relief, I took off apace on my mission to find cool air and cake (cool air optional). Hassan was expecting me in class (a.k.a. warm up – hah!) in less than an hour, there wasn’t much time.
There was nothing open. I contemplated knocking on doors: “Good afternoon. I am Giselle performing in the ballet show tonight. Can I have some cake?”
It didn’t sound quite right. Giselle might have had a weak heart (in some versions), but she was an honourable peasant girl. It would probably have killed her mother if she’d been caught begging for food. There was enough death in the show without adding to it.
Oh why, oh why, did we have to be in Lightning Ridge on a Saturday? I babbled away under my breath as I rushed about the place, a preview mad scene.
I never did find any cake in Lightning Ridge. But I did find a boy, or he found me. He was an aboriginal boy, a bit younger than I was as far as I could tell. He must have been standing in the shadows as I stormed blindly past on my cake-seeking mission. On my way back he jumped out of the shadows and offered me a sweet. Just like that, as if he’d read my mind. It wasn’t cake, but it was close.
Naturally I refused and he shrugged with a casual smile then unwrapped the sweet and ate it himself. He said he was coming to the show and seemed very excited about it. This surprised and moved me somewhat. He was a boy, an aboriginal boy, and he had only one leg.
Later, when I collapsed in my mother’s arms and died at the end of the first act and a single peal of laughter rang out in the packed hall (most of the audience having been bused in, just like us), I knew it was him. He got the joke. The connection was better than cake.