To set the scene:
Two giant silver masques hung high above the stage. The huge speakers were housed in large cages above the stage on either side. An enormous white movie screen was hovering above the rear of the stage.
Well before the show was due to start, as the audience took their seats 15-20 minutes beforehand, a white dot (spotlight) "about the size of a softball"1 was projected onto the screen2, accompanied by subsonic pulse, so low as to be inaudible but slowly rising in pitch until noticeable at a low level. The dot gradually expanded, pulsing in time with the (still barely audible) Lifebeat. When it filled the screen, it turned red3, and was replaced by a photo of the dead ballerina in the album cover pose: lifeless, bleeding from the mouth.
As the Lifebeat built up, the audience were given a shock - the ballerina started to move.
The 'still photo' was in fact a film Ian had shot using a high-speed camera operating at about 180 frames per second; once played back, the film ballerina's fingers slowly started moving, her hands turned palm down, then suddenly from the abdomen alone she lifted her torso off the floor and gradually rose to her feet. The camera angle shifted to watch over her shoulder as she danced before a mirror. Frames were cut out of the film, slowly accelerating it to normal running speed as she pirouetted, accompanied by synthesiser 'swirls' (John Evan was on stage, but obscured by a black sheet). At the crescendo of the 'swirls', the ballerina suddenly hurled herself through the mirror, shattering the glass in slow motion, and ran through the other side, away into the music.4
John was spotlit as he played the scale runs at the opening, with a crazed look on his face. Both Martin and Jeffrey leapt out of explosions on the first two big beats and the piece began, Ian suddenly just appearing on stage, twirling his flute (actually, it must have been his saxophone), as if he'd been there throughout.5
In a 1979 interview for the BBC, Ian recalled his enjoyment of the audience's reaction:
" I watched that every night, I used to watch to see if I could spot the first person in the audience who said, "Here, she's moving! She's moving!" Because for me it was a great moment of excitement, the fact that she'd already been moving for about thirty seconds before anyone really noticed.
"Nobody knew when the show began, and I thought that was great: there was none of that programmed hysteria, "The show is now going to begin; ladies and gentlemen: Jethro Tull"... the show began, really, twenty minutes before it was supposed to begin and if you didn't like it, well, what the hell, because at 8 o'clock sharp, we were on stage, and nobody had to wait longer than they expected."
Unfortunately, this unsettled some people, and Ian attributed some of the overall critical reaction to this phased beginning:
"The stage show got criticised by a lot of the same people who criticised the album, the same journalists, when they came to see the show. I would prefer to think it was because they had already made their minds up and were irritated by the slow-motion sequences at the beginning. it was just that it irritated them being given something sort of... not quite entertaining, and being a bit confused as to when the entertainment did start. They didn't like that, whereas I found that to be really great fun."
1: Source: Mark Colman (Kram). Back to text
2: Iva recalls the dot having been projected onto the stage curtains at the 28 & 29 August Madison Square Garden shows, whilst Meyers recalls that at whichever show(s) he attended, the "white dot (very bright) could be seen through the veiling". Presumably the 'veiling' was a lightweight stage curtain or backdrop. Back to text
3: Many reviews record the dot as having been white, but most audience members remember that it did indeed change to red, reinforcing the impression of a beating heart. Presumably the initially white light was difficult to notice (remember, the house lights were up at this point), just as the subsonic beat was inaudible at first. Back to text
4: Meyers recalls the sequence slightly differently:
This pulse started pounding as the dot vibrated to the sound. It throbbed larger on the screen as the heartbeat became louder. A strange sort of transporting music began to unfold on tape. Suddenly the houselights were extinguished. Total darkness saw the white circle pulse to the sound. The strange music continued on the tape, but then the multicoloured stage lights came on and Jethro Tull were playing the music. The prophet sang those first two lines. Somehow a ballerina appeared on the screen. After some few moments,... she came to life and danced. Back to text
5: Thanks to Michael Corbett for many of the specific details in these two paragraphs. Back to text