How ballet fell for flower-giving
Judith Mackrell enters the world of petal protoco.
The Royal Ballet has a strict rule about flower-giving: no dancer can receive a bouquet on stage if the lead ballerina hasn’t been sent any. Fortunately, this rarely happens: a “flower fund”, set up many years ago by a kindly member of the public, covers emergency bouquets – for key dancers without flowers, or whenever there is an embarrassingly uneven distribution among soloists.
by Judith Mackrell – theguardian.com (18 Dec 2012)
At most performances, however, the general public will have played a generous part in the flower-giving ritual, especially at Christmas. As the festive season kicks into gear, many a performance of The Nutcracker or Cinderella will end with a stageful of tutus, snowflakes and glitter – and ballerinas holding armfuls of lilies, roses or tulips, with more flowers at their feet. And bouquet-giving does seem to play a unique part in ballet culture throughout the year. While the casts of operas, musicals or plays might get flowers on a first night, ballet audiences tend to regard a performance as incomplete without the presentation of at least a couple of bouquets during curtain calls.
These flowers will have been left at the stage door – delivered personally, or ordered through florists. Some will come from family and friends, some from grateful choreographers and some from strangers. Lee McLernon, a London solicitor, has been sending flowers to his favourite dancers for several years now. “It’s my way of showing admiration for their talent and dedication,” he says, adding that he has sometimes sent them “four times in a single week”. And while he keeps his spending to relatively modest proportions, some fans will splash out £200 on a single bouquet.
That sum represents a natural limit: there are only so many flowers a dancer can hold. “Beyond that it becomes impossible,” explains florist Stephen Wicks. He and Mark Welford run Bloomsbury Flowers, frequent suppliers of flowers to Royal ballerinas. “Making up bouquets for the dancers is almost like putting on a show,” he says. Former members of the Royal Ballet themselves, the pair use their expertise to match bouquets to performances. This is a simple matter of colour-coding for some roles (pink for the Sugar Plum Fairy, white for Odette in Swan Lake); a dark, gothic ballet like Kenneth MacMillan’s Las Hermanas requires more imagination (“old foliage touched with black, dark red roses wrapped in black tissue,” says Wicks).
Wicks and Welford like to tie a bracelet into bouquets for MacMillan’s Manon – a reference to the heroine’s signature jewellery. But the most fun they’ve had was with Christopher Wheeldon’s recent Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: their bouquets had flamingo feathers and playing cards fanned out among the stems; and, instead of a ribbon, the flowers for the dancer who played the cook were tied up with a string of plastic sausages.
They will also tailor bouquets to a dancer’s individual taste: Alina Cojocaru, a principal with the Royal, “loves” fresias; while her colleague Lauren Cuthbertson prefers “garden flowers, quite natural, not contrived”. Some of Bloomsbury’s most extravagant bouquets have been made for Tamara Rojo. “I remember one that involved £150-worth of lilies,” adds Wicks. “I left the stems really long, so the bouquet was nearly as tall as her.”
Back in the 19th-century heyday of balletomania, such gifts would have been considered cheap. Male fans would buy diamonds and furs for their favourite ballerinas – and would also expect more in return. Dancers in the Paris Opera were expected to trade sex for gifts; the luckiest became mistresses. At the Mariinsky in St Petersburg, a secret passage led from the Grand Duke’s box directly to the stage. In the 1890s, Mathilde Kschessinska, one of Russia’s most celebrated ballerinas, was as famous for the wealth she accumulated from her titled “protectors” as she was for her actual dancing.
Fan-dancer relationships are now far more circumspect, but the tradition of flower-giving has endured; it is particularly ingrained at the Royal. The culture dates back to the 1930s, when the company was a shoestring ensemble operating out of Sadler’s Wells Theatre; members of the public developed a close, almost familial relationship with dancers, subsidising their meagre wages with meals out, as well as with chocolates and flowers.
Meaghan Grace Hinkis, who got her first bouquet last year after playing Clara in The Nutcracker, says that at American Ballet Theatre, where she began her career, flowers were only given to lead ballerinas – and usually just on opening nights. At the Royal, the practice is much more widespread. Bouquet-giver McLernon often gives flowers to juniors who have just been promoted, or to dancers who have returned from injury. He also makes a point of sending flowers on second nights, too. “Dancers get a lot on opening night, and it’s a bit of a comedown if there aren’t very many on the second.”
Fans are not, however, allowed completely free rein when it comes to flowers. The Royal’s resident choreographer Wayne McGregor has a background in modern dance, where flower-giving is a rare occurrence, and he remains uncomfortable with the ritual. Dancers in his ballets have to wait until the dressing room to get their flowers.
Nor can you send a man a bouquet, according to Royal etiquette – unless he’s dancing a female role. Philip Mosley says that if he’s playing one of the Ugly Sisters in Cinderella, he drops “very big hints” to friends who come to see him. “It’s my one chance to get a bouquet,” he says, “though men often get wine or champagne instead.” Company code also dictates that only those dancing principal or solo roles can receive their flowers on stage.
What does it feel like to be the recipient? While some dancers don’t seem to mind whether they are given flowers or not, Darcey Bussell once admitted to me that, even at the height of her career, she found it reassuring to know that her mother could be relied on to send her flowers after every show. Senior ballerina Leanne Benjamin also admits the issue can get a bit political. “Of course, flowers represent appreciation, so it does raise an eyebrow when you get a bouquet that’s incredibly expensive.” Still, she insists that even the smallest posies count. ‘It warms your heart. There’s nothing like the feeling of coming home after a show with your arms full of flowers.”
At Bloomsbury Flowers, Welford talks wistfully of a magical night when Margot Fonteyn plucked a flower from her bouquet and handed it to her partner Rudolf Nureyev. In his view, the superstar couple turned the 1960s into a golden age of flower-giving. “Curtain calls used to go on for hours,” he says. “You’d see Margot coming out of the stage door at the end of the evening just laden down with bouquets.”
It also became the era of the “flower throw”, a tradition apparently started by a man who bought boxes of old or spoiled blooms at markets, carried them to the top of the theatre, and then, with the help of other fans, threw them down on to the stage. Other fans threw flowers from the stalls, often weighted with lead or Plasticine to give a better aim. These cascades of carnations, daffodils and roses (depending on the season) would form a carpet at the dancers’ feet.
Today, flower-throws are restricted to galas and farewells, but they do remain a spectacular and very emotional part of company tradition – as Wicks knows, having received one after his own final performance with the Royal. “It was an incredible feeling to stand there in this blizzard of flowers and feel them falling down on my head.” He grins sheepishly. “I took them home and pressed them. They’re a great memory of my time on that stage.”
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