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I am sitting on a balcony at L’Opera listening to Bolero. I asked an attendant if I could borrow a chair for 15 minutes and I have been screened off with a curtain so I am not disturbed by other tourists or I do not disturb them. I explained my intentions. I said I was a writer from England researching Ravel and that Bolero received its premiere here in 1928 and without replying he simply nodded and pulled a curtain around me as if it happens all the time. So here I am having my own private performance of Bolero. It is an awe inspiring space. Two tiers of seats in the stalls. Four levels of circle. Two royal boxes either side of the stage and four private boxes next to those. For regency. For aristocracy. For the people who wanted to see and also to be seen. I always think of John Lennon’s quote from the Royal Variety Performance in 1963 when I sit in theatres like this: ‘Those in the cheap seats, clap your hands. The rest of you, rattle your jewellery.’ It speaks about theatre hierarchy so perfectly. There is an orchestra pit dimly lit at the moment and a large grey safety curtain. When I walked into the viewing gallery the safety curtain was open and the stage was bare. I could see the bare black wall and a scaffold tower, some tools on the floor. When they are off duty many theatres are the same. I imagine the get in for Bolero in 1928. Ida Rubinstein staged it as a dance on a table top surrounded by male admirers who became more lustful as the dance progressed. Much to Ravel’s disapproval. He imagined it as a theatricalisation of workers outside a factory, moving to the rhythm of the machinery, enacting the story of a matador. I imagine the table being brought on. Technicians spiking the legs. In Russia, when they use tape onstage they recycle it by wrapping it around a stick. The lighting being focused. The dancers warming up. I imagine the dress rehearsal. Ravel sitting near the front his head politely in his hands as he contemplates Rubinstein’s interpretation of the music. Perhaps a modest round of applause when it is over. He was a modest man. He smiles at her. He is kind. And she has been kind to him. She has given him a set of Russian teaspoons and a set of glasses for Russian tea with her initials IR engraved upon them. She paid for him holiday in the South of France, when he was unwell before he died. There is no one else here now. This is my own private theatre. My own Bolero. The special feeling you have as a writer in a rehearsal room when you are the only person in the audience and you think the actors are performing just for you. I have that feeling here but there are no actors here. The stage is bare behind the safety curtain. There is only music. And the sound of other visitors to the balcony now. Taking photos of the domed ceiling. It’s pastel colours illuminated by their flash photography and their camera phones. They gasp as they enter the theatre. That first view of the velvet seats and the gold leaf pillars and the sun king on the proscenium arch. It says ‘ANNO 1669’. In some ways the architecture remains the same as it was then. The Corinthian pillas. The heralding angels. The chandelier. Only traces of modernity bleed into its history. The modern chairs for the musicians in the orchestra pit, designed for comfort and function now as well as decoration. The fresnels and profiles and follow spots above the Royal Box. The electric light not candle light. The digital cameras. The mobile phones held aloft. Flickering like candles as they capture this. Yesterday at L’Odeon, we were asked to switch off our mobile phones before the performance by a woman standing in front of the proscenium arch and it felt so at odds with the ornament. They are a vocal audience in Paris. Yesterday people booed and slow clapped at the end of the performance. And when it came to the curtain call they shouted ‘Pour les acteurs, pas pour le mise en scene’. People left. And you could see sadness in the actors’ eyes as they took thir bow. And I wonder how Ravel felt after the premiere in 1928. What memories he took away apart from the Russian teaspoons and the Russian teacups.  What was the audience response? Were they moved by the music. Did they rise to their feet. Or did they leave. When the dancers and Rubinstein took a curtain call did they shout ‘bravo’ and ‘encore’ and throw flowers at their feet. Red roses. And I imagine Ravel was the kind of man who would sit at the back during the performance to gauge the audience response. Maybe even the kind of man who would leave early. During the applause. He was too modest to receive it. He was too modest for a monument. Not wanting to make a scene. Maybe he would go backstage to thank Ida Rubinstein for the opportunity. To give her a gift. A token of his affection. A trinket from the Orient. An exotic souvenir of a place he never went to but was always drawn to. And maybe he was sitting here then. Where I am sitting now. Listening to his music swell and grow, ebb and flow, into the vast ocean of the theatre. The stage, a wooden ship. The Orchestra pit, the galley. Technicians in the rigging. Manning the sails. Male dancers on the deck. Ida as the figurehead. Braving the storm. It is an ark, like his house, filled with memories. Bracing the tide. Racing the wind to the end of the music. And the breath quickens. And the heart beats faster. And it finishes. Silence. Applause.


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