We open The Prince of the Pagodas in Salford this week, in which the heroine faces a string of challenges based upon earth, air, fire and water. To mark the occasion, here we look back at a few times when, as the UK’s largest touring ballet company, we’ve had to battle with the elements behind the scenes.
In the early summer of 2011, Birmingham Royal Ballet were due to perform in Japan. The Company had been developing a close relationship with the country following Director David Bintley’s appointment as Artistic Director of the National Ballet of Japan, and in March of that year David was in Tokyo overseeing rehearsals of his ballet Take Five when a vast earthquake struck the east coast, followed by an equally devastating Tsunami.
‘Music, singing and dancing, which can so often bring joy and happiness to the spirit, seemed inappropriate,’ said David, speaking two months after the event, ‘and the New National along with most theatres in Tokyo closed its doors as the people of Japan began to count the cost of the tragedy visited upon them.’
As the weeks passed, Japan began to rebuild, with – in David’s words – ‘a bravery and stoicism that has become the admiration of the world.’ However, fear of nuclear instability following accidents caused by the tsunami had already caused many overseas arts companies to cancel planned visits, and it was unsure as to whether or not Birmingham Royal Ballet’s tour would go ahead.
David, having witnessed first-hand both the earthquake and then the aftermath, knew of the overwhelming public desire that things return to normal as soon as possible. Not only did the tour go ahead, but charity gala performances were added to raise funds for the relief effort.
Back in the 1970s and 80s, under the name Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet, the Company used to perform in a touring circus Big Top, allowing us to appear in cities where the local theatre was either too small or completely non-existent.
However, while it solved the problem of performance space, it brought with it a set of unique, new obstacles to be overcome.
‘You could write a book on the “tent seasons”‘ says David Bintley. ‘It belonged to Fossets, the old circus. The circus had finished but they still had this old big top, so they decided to put a stage in it. It was fantastic, but it was like camping. I remember the orchestra sitting in two inches of water with plastic bags around their feet!
More dramatic was a trip to Plymouth, when a mighty gale threatened to bring the house down. Or rather lift it up, and send it away out to sea.
So forceful were the high winds that the trucks used to transport the sets and costumes were hurriedly corralled into a ring around the Big Top, to form a protective windbreak. While this technique thankfully did work, the weather was still deemed too great a risk, and the show was sadly cancelled.
‘We all went and played “Pitch and Putt” in the park next door’, remembers David. ‘Too windy to dance but not too windy for pitch and putt!’
Given the size of the theatres that we play, and the number of people that they hold, most of the venues have sophisticated air conditioning systems capable of ventilating the spaces within. In fact during stage rehearsals for The Nutcracker, the audience-less auditorium gets so breezy that members of the lighting crew can be seen sporting hats, scarves and fingerless gloves.
Naturally, the technical effects used in a large-scale show can put even the most modern temperature control systems through their paces. Pyrotechnics, and smoke and mist machines can all play merry havoc with the different sensors, requiring technical staff to monitor the isolation of different parts of the system throughout a show.
The only time there has ever been a serious problem was during a performance of – appropriately enough – The Firebird. This colourful one-act ballet, at the time the third in a triple bill, was just 54 seconds in when the alarms were triggered resulting in the venue’s first-ever full fire evacuation.
Thankfully there had indeed been smoke without fire, and the venue staff escorted everybody from the building swiftly and safely. While the show in this instance did not go on, the audience were treated to an impromptu photo session outside the theatre, as the dancers – all still in full costume – posed for pictures, including one with the attending fire fighters.
Our final battle with the elements took place at our long-time home in the North East, Sunderland Empire. While in the auditorium audiences were enjoying the climactic shower of confetti at the end of The Sleeping Beauty, backstage staff had been presented with a slightly more dramatic downpour.
As Company Manager, Paul Grist, reported at the time: “The fun really started during Act II when water began dripping from the ceiling above one of the entrances to the stage.
‘A spot of investigation quickly revealed that the source of the problem was in the sprinkler system pump room directly above. The local crew moved swiftly into action with buckets and mops during the interval, an emergency plumber was called and we started Act III without a great deal of concern.
‘However, a couple of minutes into Act III as one of the guys mopping up the leak turned the valve to stop the supply of water to the leaky pipe, the entire valve (and most of the pipe it was fixed to) sheared off in his hand unleashing a significant torrent of water! Having ascertained that we were safe to carry on with the show, every spare pair of hands was enlisted to keep the water at bay as it ran through ceilings and down staircases; it was mopped, vac’d, swept out of firedoors and every spare towel and blanket was assembled to form an absorbent dam across the doorway to the stage to keep the water away from scenery, costumes and shoes.
‘The performance finished uninterrupted with the delighted audience completely oblivious to the drama occurring backstage (unless they walked past the rear of the theatre on the way home and saw the water pouring out of the building!); Company and orchestra were directed out via alternative staircases and the emergency plumber had a very busy night.’
Everything was apparently fixed by about 1am, and by the following afternoon’s rehearsals, everything was back to normal.
Assuming, of course, that any of this can be considered ‘normal’…
Our newest heroine Princess Belle Sakura, faces up to the elements in The Prince of the Pagodas this week, at The Lowry Salford, Thursday 30 January – Saturday 1 February 2014. Click here to book.