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Nutcrackers in the Hay

 

Excerpt from A Life in Dance by Sheldon Shoeber, FfyncheCult Books, 1958

Shoeber served as ballet correspondent for the Dramatic Arts Monthly London, 1933 to 1956

I was earnestly advised during a call from my dear friend Noel C. that he had a surprise in store for me. Would I care to join him on a rural excursion to north Essex, to experience some moments of exquisite elegance?

 

I should ignore the fact that 'Essex' and 'elegance' were words seldom heard in close proximity, he said. He would pack champagne and a hamper in the Riley, and we could set out early from Hampstead.

A day out with Noel is always terribly, terribly amusing of course, though he can be a bit of a bore in drink. But none of my close chums were in town that weekend, and the mystery of my destination was hard to resist. Pure Agatha C.

In those days I commuted daily to the West End, but rarely left London. As we passed through Ongar, I realised I had forgotten how poorly dressed and lacking in imagination those dreary village folk always seem.

 

Noel read my mind with his typical preternatural skill. 'Don’t be deceived Shellers my dear man. Their trousers might be held up with bailer twine, but artful mischief is constantly on their minds.'

We pulled up by a field on the outskirts of the quaintly named village of Finchingfield. A marquee had been erected, though it remained closed up.

My good friend Mr. C

Family groups were arriving with picnic rugs, and a few country gentlemen of the more proper sort carried shooting sticks and deckchairs. After Noel and I settled our hamper on the ground and opened the Dom Perignon, the Master raised a cheery glass to some swarthy lads filling tankards from three large barrels.

When a tuba player began tuning up, the vicar herded the drinkers towards their seats, arranged in a semicircle around one end of the big tent.

Suddenly its side panels were released from inside, and five large heaps of countryside straw and muck were revealed, along with a sudden blast of foul odour.

Stand back from the silage!

I felt immediately faint, and angry with Noel. What kind of foul country pastime had he dragged me to? Was it all an elaborate humiliation, on which he had wagered some large sum while laughing with his drinking friends at my expense?

 

Worse still, had things fallen so low in England that its fine people had sunk to the worship of dung? The heap of muck at the front looked almost human; obese and with tousled tufts of blonde straw for hair.

Excited lads watch the heaps warm up

But how wrong I was. And how I still rue the awful suspicion I had directed at my good friend.

 

A slow bass drone began and the crowd fell into silence, gazing at the mounds of farmyard detritus. A ripple of applause went round the crowd as if in anticipation. Noel grasped my arm.

 

Yes. The compost heaps were actually moving. Very slowly, but with a sublime gentle grace. Then I recognised the tune. It was the opening phrase of the 'Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy', but played very molto lento on the mournful tuba.


Somehow these clumsy objects had devised a unique interpretation. There were the opening pointe steps, petite batteries, and attitudes — in combinations familiar to the Nijinsky period. There was indeed 'a sense of dynamic build up: from delicate angularity' as Tchaikovsky had hoped. Then followed his 'circular shapes, to plainer but more virtuoso movements—pirouettes to ronds de jambe.'

The multiple pirouettes were a highlight

I remained entranced. I could have watched all day. It had been half an hour, and the heaps had performed only the first few phrases of the Sugar Plum.

 

But then they slowly came to a halt. As the vicar rose to shout enthusiasm, some of the younger men poured water on the heaps from watering cans and waved towels over them, like boxers at the end of a match. A warm dank steam enveloped us all.

 

This, Noel explained as he rose to applaud, was to be the end of the performance. Heaps overheat when under emotional and physical strain, and must rest for hours.

 

Nor would ballet be put on again for many years. The troupe were to experiment with Cancan next season, and Charleston after that. I had witnessed a beautiful moment perhaps never to be repeated.

 

The secret, Noel explained as we drove home, is a layer of silage spread around each heap prior to their routine. The smell stimulates the creatures mightily, he claimed, and must be used sparingly against the risk that it excites their amorous pursuit of farm animals.

 

My review was glowing of course. But I never found a publisher for it, including the present one.

 

The longhand final copy, intended for the sadly absent sub-editors, now hangs in the Green Man.

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