This St. Valentine’s Day, I’ve received a timely reminder of a couple I’ve known about for thirty years, but only more recently did I come to realise that they were never the passionate lovers their ice skating routines suggested. But Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean’s close friendship has endured, and with it their love of their sport, which is almost a performance art. Despite their numerous performances, their 1984 dance to Maurice Ravel’s Bolero, remains their most famous and arguably finest five minutes.
Plus thirty years later and they can still make it happen on the ice. Torvill and Dean were invited back to Sarajevo, where it all happened for them, to recreate their gold winning 1984 Olympic dance. Next time anybody moans they’re too old to do this or that, I kindly suggest they stop talking, and instead spend the energy on doing what they love and are good at…here is exhibit A. They are still fantastic:
Bolero thus became my own introduction to classical music, at the age of eleven. I still love it, although Ravel was occasionally dismissive of its power. Ravel once said that the piece had, “no form, properly speaking, no development, or almost no modulation”, and yet he confessed to having a surefire hit on his hands. The full version is over seventeen minutes long, much longer than the specially abridged version Torvill and Dean accompanied. Premiered at the Paris Opera on the 22nd November 1928, it proved to be a sensation; the audiences loved it. The well known dancer Ida Rubinstein originally commissioned the piece, but it went through many changes before the version we know today emerged (Ravel was originally going to make an orchestral transcription based on a set of piano pieces by composer Isaac Albeniz, before eventually creating his own original one-movement orchestral piece).
Bolero is a repetitive movement, to be sure, but that is no criticism. On the contrary, the instruments build up the whirlpool of sound slowly and hypnotically; the sound of passion climbing to the all embracing exhaustion and flood of climax. When Torvill and Dean chose it as the soundtrack to their emotional dance in 1984, it was stroke of true inspiration.
In the program for the work’s 1928 debut, the following scenario appeared, scripted by Rubinstein and choreographer Bronislava Nijinska:
Inside a tavern in Spain, people dance beneath the brass lamp hung from the ceiling. [In response] to the cheers to join in, the female dancer has leapt onto the long table and her steps become more and more animated.
However, returning to the talent of Torvill and Dean; seriously, if you’ve never seen this, watch it now. It has the same effect on me as it did as a kid; you will not be able to take your eyes off the screen. They are riveting and with what starts happening around four minutes in I’m surprised the ice didn’t start to thaw. Passion and lust and a touch of the beautifully tragic; there’s a story in those moves.
Somewhere Maurice Ravel was smiling in approval.