Tuesday, 16 August 2011

My life in tights

I knew that eventually I'd have to go shopping for a pair of proper ballet tights. What I hadn't figured on was the attractive assistant at the dancewear store twirling an elaborate jockstrap around in front of a bunch of suburban ballet mums and their daughters, bellowing: 'You'll be needing one of these. What size are you? Medium … or small?'.

'These' were supports, elastic contraptions devised to hoist the family jewels out of harm's way as the male dancer plies, jettes, pirouettes and attempts other potentially nut-cracking manoeuvres. The support accounts for the lumpy bulge you will no doubt have noticed about the nether regions of male dancers. You may also have noticed that some boys are bigger than others … although it was not unknown for cheats to resort to stuffing their support with a sock or two. Such were the initiation rites awaiting a boy bitten by the ballet bug in the back of beyond.

I grew up in Townsville, North Queensland, by all accounts a very pleasant seaside burg these days. Back then it seemed like a bit of a shithole. I'd gotten into ballet on a lark, and as an arcane way to impress a girl. Donald, a school mate of mine, was keen on one particularly tasty Grade 10 girl. I fancied another.

And as sophisticated men of Grade 11, we figured a surefire way into their leotards was to impress them with our graceful terpsichorean prowess. Unfortunately we couldn't just talk the talk; we had to dance the dance. And so we signed up as extras for Cinderella, the annual gala performance by the North Queensland Ballet, now bolstered by a couple of ungainly galahs. 

Even as extras, we had to take classes at the leading regional ballet school so we wouldn't flap about like total spastics. The first few times we wore shorts. We began to learn the basics, how a ballet class unfolded. You began at the barre, and progressed through a sequence of bends, twists, glides and stretches. Then you moved to the centre, and the tough stuff began.

Naturally, we were terrible. We fudged and fumbled, groped and giggled, gawky, uncoordinated fools that we were. But from those first faltering steps, I also felt the stirrings of something I couldn't quite put my finger on, that quivering, queasy tingling that marks the start of an infatuation. After a couple of classes, it was whispered in our ear that proper male dancers - or danseurs if you wish to get technical - wore tights.

Pulling on your first pair of tights is a weird moment in the life of a relatively normal suburban small town Australian boy. It felt dangerous. Subversive. And likely to earn me some painful schoolyard taunting, if not a beating. At my high school, the real men played rugby, and possibly a spot of cricket. Also-rans like me opted for soccer (and boy, did I suck). The nerds and geeks fiddled about with Vic 20 and Commodore 64 computers or joined the chess club. Ballet was so far removed from anyone's imagination that it had no real place on the totem pole, but doubtless it was so far beyond the pale as to be underground. Basically, I was Billy Elliot.

Dancers wear tights to highlight the unadorned beauty of the human body and the purity of line ballet requires. The sheer clinging nylon prevents attempts to hide faulty technique from the hawklike gaze of the ballet master or mistress. I pulled on my first pair in the studio's little-used male changing room with trembling and trepidation.

But like some lithe Narcissus gazing into his pond, I slowly raised my eyes to the full length mirror and noticed that my legs looked rather fetching clad in navy cotton lycra. It turned out that I'd been blessed with the right kind of body for ballet: flexible hips, long legs, tapered torso. I had flat feet, but exceptionally loose ankles (which would cause me no end of heartache later but made my toes look freakishly pointed, another highly prized asset by ballet's strange standards).

But this was Australia's far north, you understand, the antipodean answer to America's deep south, where men were men, cows were cautious and sheep were scared. Townsville in those days was a hard army town with a thriving yobbo culture and an undercurrent of violence simmering beneath the surface. A town where the local weekly free-sheet once splashed with the headline: 'Poofs in the Park'. Just re-reading this paragraph makes me cringe and whisks me back to a heady, hormonal and very confusing chapter in my life. 

Over the next few years, I would watch my father struggle with alcoholism, locking myself in my room to study so I wouldn't have to witness my parents' marriage teetering on the brink. I'd see my dad resurrect himself from the edge of suicide with born-again Christianity and I'd give it a whirl myself, joining the happy-clapping hordes who flocked each Sunday to church. And I'd take to ballet like a swan to water. I became obsessed. I pored over ballet books, watched countless films of the Royal Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet and other legendary companies, and attended class compulsively. Our neighbours must have thought I was nuts as they watched through slats in the fence as I practiced my leaps in the backyard.

My twin heroes were Rudolph Nureyev, a coruscating genius with a magnetic stage presence who would meet a tragic end with AIDS, and Mikhael Baryshnikov, the other Russian defector, technically Nureyev's superior and captured at the height of his powers in The Turning Point, a movie I watched and watched until the videotape wore out. Much to my parents' displeasure, I would also turn down the chance to study law at the University of Queensland to take up instead one of the dozen or so spots handed out to boys each year at the Australian Ballet School. 

Donald and I didn't win rave reviews for our clumsy waltzing and precarious presages in Cinderella. But we did get to enjoy a bit of rough and fumble - or 'full crumpet' as it somehow became known - with our shapely ballerina crushes in the back of the bus as the show went on the road weekends to a succession of country towns. I was also offered a year's paid traineeship with the North Queensland Ballet (which was in the throes of becoming a proper professional outfit as Dance North. These days, it sports the trendier moniker dancenorth and enjoys a reputation as one of Australia's most innovative contemporary dance troupes).

Part of the funding came from the Queensland Arts Council, which meant we had to embark on a succession of school tours to some of the most remote outback towns and rugged mining outposts imaginable. I was teamed up with Trevor, fresh from a stint with Sydney Dance Company, short, floppy-fringed, acid-tongued and enormously doe-eyed, possibly the campest thing ever to flounce out of Oxford Street, and Susie, a small but perfectly formed ballerina who was sex on well-defined legs.

There were bigger performances with the full company but the arts council odysseys account for my most vivid memories. We would roll into town, locate the school, set up the stage and get our costumes ready. Then we'd slap on some pancake and ham it up in front of the bemused and wide-eyed students, and repeat the whole process one or two more times before calling it quits for the day. 

Now in towns like Mt Isa, Richmond, Hughenden, Cloncurry, Longreach, Winton, Blackall, Barcaldine, Charters Towers and Ravenswood, and many others besides, there wasn't a great deal to do at night. You drank, or you slept. So we would find ourselves in some local pub or other, where the locals congregated in sweaty wifebeaters, Stubbies shorts and thongs (the kind you wear on your feet, not the kind Trevor sported beneath his flamboyantly multicoloured overalls).

The men didn't dress up either. They would ogle Susie over their pots of XXXX beer, and she took a twisted delight in twisting her pretzel limbs into impossible shapes just to watch them pant. But they would also shoot dirty looks at Trevor and I, arty outsiders and no doubt poofs, and therefore to be reviled if not bashed.

Unfortunately, the filthier the looks became, the more outrageously Trevor would camp it up. You could see it in their eyes; torn between paroxysms of lust over Susie and the urge to beat down on Trevor and I. On more than one occasion we had to hightail it out of town at peril of grievous bodily harm, sprinting for our battered van as the lynch mob formed. This was pre-Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, but the shoe certainly fit.

The Australian Ballet School was another adventure, not necessarily from the Boys' Own oeuvre. In my day, it hadn't yet taken up residence beside the Yarra River in the posh Performing Arts Centre; rather, it was accommodated in a converted tyre factory on Melbourne's Mount Alexander Road. I was lodged in a mouldy ground floor flat in North Melbourne, near the Queen Victoria Markets and amidst a burgeoning Vietnamese community. My flatmates were Brett, a second year student beset by worries about his acne, thunder thighs and child-bearing hips (his descriptions), and Bruce, a talented fellow first year, and a lovely bloke from the outskirts of Adelaide.

The School, as we called it, attracted a certain species of ageing queen which couldn't resist the bulging legion of young men in tights. I suppose they fancied themselves as patrons of the arts, but patrons of the arse would be closer to the truth. They would offer meals and lodgings to young fellows who were down on their luck, with an unspoken agreement requiring payment in kind.

My circumstances were fairly exigent in those days but I eschewed the importuning of these 'Uncle Monty' types and managed to make ends meet working in a succession of Melbourne's grand old hotels at night, prowling the corridors doing turn-downs, pilfering wine, cheese, chocolate and the odd bathrobe, and almost nightly managing to barge in on people mid-bonk. As I was still a virgin at the ripe old age of 17, this turned out to be a handy crash course in sex education.

One of the most active patrons was a gravel-voiced old luvvie named Maximilian, Max for short, maximally interested in the contents of one's boxer shorts. Maxmoid, we called him, if we called him at all. Why, I have no idea.

In his wisdom, he sometimes saw fit to donate his swanky South Yarra pied-à-terre to the school's students for parties. I remember my first. A callow lad straight off the bus from Townsville (literally - a hellish three day trip that nearly ended my budding ballet career before it had begun), still settling into the big city, I overindulged in spirits and became tired and emotional.

In those days I was a pretty young thing, and in between fending off the unsolicited ministrations of Max, managed to capture the attention of a third year man-eater with the unlikely name of Cherie Dick, a willowy sexpot with big breasts and a creamy olive complexion. It was a nailed-on dead-set cert, and my best opportunity yet to rid myself of my virginity. Instead I burst into tears and demanded to be taken home. Brett was only too happy to oblige and tucked me into bed, listening to my sobbing litany of suburban dislocation and teenage angst. Our briefly flowering friendship was to end when some hours later, I thickly awoke to find him trying to wrestle my trousers down.

It wasn't to be my last brush with Brett. He became obsessed with me, and I took to spending as little time in the flat as possible. I'd loiter after class, practicing my spins and leaps. I'd dawdle at the hotel, drawing out my shifts as long as possible. Things finally came to a head about eight months into term, when Bruce and I heard a faint rustling in our cupboard. Smelling a rat, I put a finger to my lips and crept out of bed. I put my ear against the door and discerned a muffled groaning. I grabbed Bruce's cricket bat and flung the door back. There, with his hand down his pajama pants and a stricken rictus on his face, crouched Brett. I screamed. He curled up into a catatonic ball, star of his own fetal attraction. A week later, Bruce and I moved out.

I shacked up with Joanne, a lissom, Barbie doll blonde who would later become my wife. I'd study diligently and make good progress but somehow my infatuation was running out of steam. I'd have the opportunity to see the stars of the Australian Ballet up close and personal, extra-ing in performances of Swan Lake, Giselle and Don Quixote. I'd meet a doddering Sir Robert Helpmann, impossibly frail and literally on his last legs. I'd witness my favourite teacher and one of the best danseurs of his day, Kelvin Coe, wither away from AIDS. And I'd win the favour of Maina Gielgud - 'Mainly Feelgood' as we called her - the company's artistic director and niece of uber-thesp Sir John. After I announced my intention to hang up my tights, passion spent and beset by niggling injuries, she'd pen me a lovely letter, urging me to reconsider.

Some time in second year, I would finally lose my virginity, fumbling beneath a fluffy doona to the crooned strains of Julio Iglesias (Joanne's choice, not mine). I'd also have one more run in with Max, in the toilets of an inner city shopping mall. Pants around my ankles, going about my business, I suddenly felt the hairs on the back of my neck rise and was seized by the conviction that I wasn't alone. I raised my eyes and leering over the cubicle wall were the beady blue eyes and Father Christmas eyebrows of Max. A grimace of recognition swept over his features and, no doubt, my own. I leaped from my porcelain perch, arse unwiped, and burst from the stall like a racehorse erupting from the Melbourne Cup gates. As I threw open the bathroom door, grabbing at my pants, the last thing I heard was a stupendous crash and an anguished moan from Max.

Two months later, I found myself in Brisbane, ballet bug cured, pondering just what the hell I would now do with my life.


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