IMELDA, BANQUETS AND LAMPSHADES…

and a tale of early “upcycling”

Regular readers of these pages will know that my wife Dido’s first career was as a professional ballerina, mostly, as a member of the touring arm of the London’s Royal Ballet; The Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet (since renamed and relocated as the Birmingham Royal Ballet). Being the premier national touring company, the main remit of the Sadler’s Wells was to bring top-class classical ballet to all corners of the British Isles, otherwise starved of such elite spectacle. However, during foreign tours (which occurred about every two years), the company had the additional role of being artistic, cultural ambassadors for the United Kingdom. More often than not, when meeting the great and the good of other nations, this responsibility could seem like a perk, but on occasion, it was more of a burden, when the handshakes and smiles were purely diplomatic.

Perhaps the starkest (not to mention most surreal) example of the latter occurrence in Dido’s Sadler’s Wells career happened during the 1980 tour of the Far East (to South Korea, Malaysia, The Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Hong Kong), during the company’s visit to The Philippines when they were hosted by the infamous Ferdinand Marcos, and – most especially – by his wife Imelda.

The self-proclaimed ex-diva and lover of the arts took a personal interest in the visit of the company, setting up their performances at her newly built Cultural Centre (part of the complex built for the visit of Pope John Paul to Manilla the previous year). She also attended all of their shows (including two matinees, they typically performed 7 times a week), and lavished the company with ostentatious hospitality. This included the dubious privilege, following the company’s final performance in The Philippines, of being invited to the Malacañang Palace for a banquet being held to honour another well-known visitor to Manilla, David Rockefeller.

The main banquet, with a full-service supper was held in the Heroes’ Hall, after which Imelda took the company upstairs, where she had laid on a disco, and more food – an enormous buffet – before the highlight of the evening, a tour of her shoe collection.

The first lady’s parting gesture, was to give every member of the company (over 60 dancers, management and crew all-told) goody bags, stuffed with an eclectic selection of gifts. While the audio-cassette of Imelda singing her “greatest hits” was merely an acquired taste, the set of teak salad bowls and servers were actually tasteful and useful (we use Dido’s to this day); but things like shell-decorated flowerpots (with accompanying plant), mahogany and shell-decorated light shades, were not only garish, but constituted a serious logistical problem for the already overladen company.

Ultimately, it was as much as people could manage, to schlep the unwanted extra luggage to the company’s next port of call, Singapore, where they were staying at the Mandarin Hotel. Thus, at the end of their stay there, rather than lug the goody bags to Thailand and beyond, all 63 company members left the pot covers and light shades in their rooms.

Two years later, the Sadler’s Wells returned to Singapore, and the Mandarin Hotel, where they were housed on the same two floors as on the earlier visit. To their collective astonishment, they found that all the rooms had been redecorated, and refurbished with Imelda’s light shades and flower pots! Who knew that the queen of shoes was also a pioneer of high-end upcycling – albeit, unwittingly – and as for her “greatest hits” cassettes, nobody knows what happened to them?

This was the menu for the main sit-down dinner and it’s worth bearing in mind that the meal started at midnight, following the company’s final performance immediately before. And all this on top of a matinee earlier in the day! The dinner took hours, including half-a-dozen speeches given by the hosts and the guests, all of zero interest to a bunch of exhausted dancers. Fortunately this was a Saturday night with Sunday off…
…Following the formal supper, Imelda took the company upstairs to her own private palace disco (she loved dancing) where she had also laid on this ginormous “after-dinner” buffet. While it’s true that dancers are generally ravenous after shows, this was all too much, even for them…
The first lady boogying with one of the company members. The disco (including a break for a tour of her shoe collection) lasted until almost daybreak…
…Waiting at the airport in Manilla to board the plane for Singapore, together with their goody bags…
Gisselle was one of the main ballets of the tour, and here is my lovely Dido in her costume, on stage at Manilla.

NINE SAINTS OF SANTIAGO

MY PICTORIAL tribute to nine great kids

Regular readers of these posts will be aware of how prominently our 1991 trip to Chile has featured, and of its main purpose; for Dido to study the role of folk dance as a therapeutic tool to support social integration and participation for children with learning problems. Thus far however, I’ve only ever touched upon that key element of the trip, focusing more on our impressions as first-time travellers to an incredible country (and-then reborn democracy).  

While it would be lying to say that whenever I hear a mention of Chile, my instant mental vision is not of mind-blowing epic scenery, it is also true, that this is always quickly followed by a starkly contrasting melancholy caused by memories of the faces shown here.

The plain truth is, and one of the main reasons I’ve avoided the subject as far as possible, despite the fact this happened nearly 30 years ago, there are issues of confidentiality which severely compromise my scope for description.

Suffice to say here, that with the cache of her Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship behind her, Dido was able to convince the relevant government authorities in Santiago to grant us access to a group of nine children (all boys in this case) with whom she could work. Nothing however could have prepared us for the circumstances in which the work would take place, for instead of a regular school, or, as we had naively expected, a special needs school, we found ourselves that first morning being driven through the security gates of a home for young male offenders – a borstal.

More shocking still, was that none of the nine boys – all of whom had either been orphaned or abandoned as babies and who all suffered from various forms of mental and/or physical disability – were themselves offenders or delinquents of any sort. Their only crime was to be born into a Chilean society, then-ill-equipped to properly care for them. Hopefully, during the years since, as Chile has developed into a more stable (the current, popular ructions notwithstanding) and socially sophisticated democracy, children born into similar circumstances enjoy a less bleak prospect.

Nevertheless, from the start of the week we spent with them, we were struck by most of the boy’s cheerfulness and sense of optimism, and their enthusiasm and excitement for Dido’s program of dance-based therapy. Despite some shyness and reluctance from a couple of the lads to begin with, by the end of the week all nine boys had become thoroughly engaged and were already showing significant progress with regards to their levels of creative social engagement.  

The idea had been for one or two carers and/or teachers working in the home to at least observe, and hopefully participate in the activities, and thereby learn to continue the therapy once we had left. Sadly though, despite their repeated assurances to the contrary, neither the government department who facilitated the project, nor anyone employed at the home showed the slightest curiosity or interest in what Dido was doing until the very last day, by which time, it was too late.

Thus, we left the boys for the last time with as much frustration as satisfaction, and saddened in the realisation that this week had probably been the highlight of their young lives rather than merely the beginning of a brighter future.

Following our return to England, and during the months which followed Dido often wrote to her Chilean contacts in an attempt to secure some kind of followup to her work – at least for the nine boys. Unfortunately, all her appeals went unanswered. The painting here was meant as both an expression of our frustration and also intended to insure that at least we would never forget those nine remarkable young individuals.

THE NINE SAINTS OF SANTIAGO – oil on canvas – 1992 – 100 x 78″ (254 x 198 cm)

This is arguably the most monumental of all my large paintings, and it is certainly the most deeply felt. The “missing” ninth lad, who suffered from schizophrenia, did not want to be sketched and is represented by the padlock in the centre of the painting. The padlock is obviously a metaphor for him and much more besides. The blues and lilacs represent the uniform they all wore.

The sketches above are all gouache on paper.

IMPRESSIONS OF A YOUNG BALLERINA

AND HOW TWO THOROUGHBRED “FILLY foals” HAD THE SAME NAME…

When my then-wife-to-be, Dido, took her first lead dancing role as a member of the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet Company in 1981, it represented the fruition of more than eleven years, (literally) blood, sweat and tears.

Dido’s life as a ballerina began in earnest at the age of thirteen when she left her home in Lexington, Kentucky for one year to go to the Washington (DC) School of Ballet. After attending the Joffrey Ballet summer school at the age of fifteen, she returned to New York City to train with the American Ballet / School. Later that same year Dido left America to join the Royal Ballet School in London, where as a student she danced with the Royal Ballet itself. She then took up her first professional position at the National Ballet of Canada based in Toronto, where she danced for a year. Finally she returned to London where she joined the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet Company, seeing out the remainder of her brief career before a serious foot injury – sustained while dancing at Covent Garden – took its toll. Despite attempting a comeback in Monte Carlo, her foot never fully recovered and she was forced to retire at the age of twenty-three.

It remains one of my chief regrets that I never got to see Dido dance (we only met in 1988), and perhaps that’s why I treasure all and any archive material I can find from her time as a ballerina. However, when Dido left the ballet world for her second career in occupational therapy, and being one who rarely looked back, she kept very little such material.

Thus, a couple of weeks ago, when I was in the home of Dido’s mother Ann in Little Rock (Arkansas) I was overjoyed when we discovered a small envelope stuffed with photos of Dido as a fourteen-year-old aspirant ballerina. Although no expert, even I could tell that these were pictures of an precociously gifted and beautiful dancer, truly worthy of being given the “Degas”-type treatment presented here.

They date from when her family lived in Lexington, Kentucky, and from about the time Dido realised she had what it took to go far on her chosen path. Studying under Nels Jorgensen, who had recently started the Lexington Ballet, Dido went on to win the Southeast American Ballet Competition, and subsequently perform a solo dance before the great and the good of Kentucky at the mansion of Henry Clay.

As it happened, the lady who arranged the performance at the Clay Mansion owned a stud farm in Lexington, and was so enchanted with Dido that she named her recently acquired filly foal for her. The fact that Dido the foal was a daughter of the great Secretariat made the gesture all the more special. Talk about naming a thoroughbred for a thoroughbred…

VARIATIONS ON THEMES

obsession or INTERPRETATION?

Generally, one associates the concept of theme and variations with music. From Classical to Heavy Rock (e.g. Brahms’ wonderful takes on that tune of Haydn’s or more recently Leslie West’s fabulous live improvised versions of his own Swan Theme on the album Flowers of Evil) and all idioms in between and beyond, most composers have enjoyed playing around with a basically good tune (their own or other people’s) and taking it to new places.

This is the original photo of Dido in that doorway somewhere in the Alcazar gardens in Seville. This was our first trip abroad, soon after we met, and we could not have picked a more romantic city (including Paris!!)

However, this is hardly unique to musical composition and if anything, an exercise exploited far more by visual artists, and most famously by both the Impressionists (e.g. Monet’s Waterlilies) and then the post impressionists (e.g. Cezanne and Mont Sainte-Victoire).

This was my first take on the photo, in oils, using a palette knife…

The greatest distinction between the musical and painterly approaches is that in the former the variations are normally presented together within a single work, whereas in the latter they typically appear as a series of individual pictures.

My favourite of the four versions here (there were several more in other media) – a roughly painted gouache

As a regular practitioner of the latter painterly approach in my past life, I often mused whether or not I was merely obsessed – struggling for an unreachable perfection – or rather practising the artistic imperative of interpretation.

1989, was during the height of my poster phase – hence this version

In the end, I came to conclusion that it was a mixture of the two and that in fact, the secret of all good art, and good science too for that matter, is an obsessive love of a particular subject and the interpretive skills to channel that love into something coherent and meaningful. The four pictures shown here present my first ever paintings of Dido, before we were married, standing in a doorway in the gardens of the Alcazar in Seville: The object of my love, obsessively interpreted…

SKATING (AND DANCING) ON THICK ICE

We’re now back on our finca here in southern Spain for the Easter / Passover break (and a happy whichever one you may or may not celebrate), and in our case, dozens of farming chores of varying degrees of arduour. In other words, time is precious and I can only devote the bare minimum of it to this post, which will be mostly about the pictures. Fortunately, during our recent spell in Jönköping (Sweden) something particularly picturesque and photogenic occurred, in that the local Lake Vättern froze over. While the main lake itself was covered in great chunks of ice and snow drift, its small tributary Lake Munksjön, around which the center of the town sits, became a perfectly level and smooth outdoor ice rink. This proved a great winter tonic for the locals who seem at their happiest when on skis and especially on skates. The resultant images of impromptu ice hockey games, ice fishing and townsfolk simply strolling across the lake reminded me of paintings by the elder Bruegel.

I hope that these “gouache” enhanced pictures (taken with all I had to hand – my iPhone) give some sense of the stark-yet-charming beauty and drama of the scenes, of both Vättern and Munksjön…

 

 

BEFORE WE MET…

These are a photos of my wife Dido from her previous life, before she met me and before she became a leading UK paediatric occupational therapist and internationally acclaimed researcher into the development of children’s brains. In her first professional career she was a ballerina and danced with some of the world’s greatest companies, as a student and then later as a professional dancer. She was best known for her time at Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet Company – the old touring company of the Royal Ballet and since morphed into the Birmingham Royal Ballet Company. During that time, normally when she was injured and could not dance, she got modelling jobs. Some of you might recognise Dido as the face of the British National Savings Bank from back in the mid-80’s. Dido was the “National Savings Girl” – so when we first met I knew I’d seen her somewhere before…

Literally, beauty and brains: (click on the photos to enlarge…)

For more information about this exceptional person and the early days of her second professional incarnation see this follow-up picture post: My Gal the Fellow…