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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.

Earth

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.


Air

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!’


Fire

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 Firebird

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.


Water

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.

Lovely weather for pas de deux

‘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.

The vivid colours and unusual shapes of the Prince of the Pagodas costumes have been packaged up in cases and covers, and packed onto trucks now heading for Salford.

While there was little space to move in the Wardrobe Department yesterday, only the labels hinted at the unusual items stored away on covered rails and wicker skips.

‘SEAHORSE HEADS’, ‘PAGODA WOMEN – FRAGILE’ and an entire skipful of ‘SPARE FABRIC’ were all securely packed up, however one curious pair of eyes could still be seen peering from an open box…

WickerSeahorses

Cardboard

Rails

Yokai

Click here for details of our performances at The Lowry, Salford, Thursday 30 January – Saturday 1 February 2014.

This autumn’s triple bill offers a rare chance to see three one-act ballets by Director David Bintley, all three of which have the potential to become your new favourite ballet. They certainly found favour with different critics last time each one was performed, as this selection of press quotes shows.

Tombeaux is a twilit counterpart to The Sleeping Beauty, with an Aurora ballerina in a delectable indigo tutu who dreams in Jasper Conran’s enchanted forest”, wrote Ismene Brown in The Telegraph, coincidentally referencing the full-length fairytale that we also dance in our current season.

“It is one of Bintley’s finest creations”, wrote Jan Parry in The Observer. “Jasper Conran’s velvety tutus, flaring into colour at the edges, are his best designs.” Meanwhile The Guardian’s Judith Mackrell – who also enjoyed Jasper Conran’s designs – noted the work’s “powered glamour and romantic simplicity”.

“Bintley reminds you that he has a very rare ability to create pure, classical ballet that’s alive with music and invention,” concluded Ismene Brown, before calling Tombeaux “one of the best classical ballets made in Britain in the last decade.”

Tombeaux

While he noted at the time the esteem that Tombeaux was held in by many, our 2009 performances of E=mc² found definite favour with The Observer’s Luke Jennings.

“The key to this investigation of Einstein’s equation is Matthew Hindson’s brilliant orchestral score,” he wrote, “to which Bintley responds with force fields of gleaming, pared-back dance.”

“A thrillingly constructed work”, agreed Judith Mackrell, who also wrote: “not only looks as urgent and brainy as the physics it evokes but is unlike anything [Bintley] has choreographed before”.

Debra Craine, for The Times, was also a fan of David’s choreographic experimentation, calling E=mc² “A stunning advance on most of what has gone before… Bintley has mined a fabulous new enthusiasm for structure and sense of pure dance. [E=mc²] bristles with excitement and a light-hearted unpredictability.”

“Bursts on us with tremendous excitement”, agreed David Dougill for the Sunday Times. “A truly exhilarating achievement, and extremely moving”, echoed Alison Wright, for Nature Physics, adding: “It’s brilliant.”

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The strength of Matthew Hindson’s specially-commissioned score continued to be a common theme for critics.

“Bintley’s explosive talent is matched by composer Matthew Hindson’s writing one of the best pieces of new dance music this side of Stravinsky”, said Jeffery Taylor in the Sunday Express.

“A tremendously invigorating score”, wrote Debra Craine, while Graham Watts, writing for Londonddance.com, described it as “the most meaningful commissioned music for ballet I’ve heard for years.”

The Telegraph’s Mark Monahan had mixed feelings, enjoying the score in places, but elsewhere saying “it sounds as if every member of the orchestra has binged on uppers and then picked up the wrong instrument. It’s a curious work overall, but I’d see it again.”

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The Financial Times’s Clement Crisp is unlikely to pick our programme’s final piece as his favourite.

“Animals, under threat or otherwise, bore the socks off me”, he said in 2009, of ‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Café.

Thankfully, the ballet is a firm audience favourite, with the Great British public repeatedly proving themselves a nation of animal lovers.

Likewise, other critics were more taken with its charms, describing it as “tremendous fun” (Mark Monahan, The Telegraph), “unforgettable” (David Dougill, Sunday Times) and “another gem” (Viki Westall, Dance Europe).

Neil Norman, in the Daily Express, had a lot of time for the “boisterous and eccentric collection of creatures”. However while The Guardian’s Judith Mackrell called it “a fleet and funny response to Simon Jeffes’s exuberantly coloured score”, and wrote that “There is no denying the bravura appeal of this ballet” she felt that it had dated since its premiere 25 years ago.

Sarah Frater for the London Evening Standard disagreed, stating that it was “still an ingenious work” (also praising its brilliant designs), and Jeffery Taylor, writing in the Sunday Express, called it “as funny and provocative as ever”.

'Still Life' at the Penguin Café

However, with these triple bills, the intention is always to provide an experience for the audience that is much greater than the sum of the individual parts. Each individual ballet should provide contrast and context for the other two, and hopefully increase your enjoyment of all three.

As Ismene Brown wrote while discussing Tombeaux back in 1993:

“A good evening of ballet is all about variety of tastes and textures, and David Bintley, director of Birmingham Royal Ballet, is rather good at compiling the menu.”

Hopefully audiences will enjoy this rare programme of works by David himself, taking the chance to sit down with friends afterwards to discuss the pieces, and discover which are your own new favourites.

Click here for details of our Penguin Café triple bill, which we dance in Birmingham, London and Plymouth.

On our Facebook page, we’re currently running through an alphabetical list of forthcoming hightlights in the 2013-14 season. Today we’ve reached E, for E=mc², a one-act ballet that this autumn returns to the stage for the first time since its debut tour in 2009. Here’s why we’re so excited about it:

E=mc²

A few years ago, Company Director David Bintley commented that for each new work he created, he liked to head in a completely different creative direction to that of the piece before it.

In 2009 he certainly did that. Arriving between the frothy comedy of his reworked Sylvia and the festive fairytale sparkle of Cinderella, E=mc² was an abstract one-act sucker-punch that pinned you to your seat; a narrative-free contemporary dance piece based upon Einstein’s 1905 theory of mass-energy equivalence, which now returns to the stage as part of our Autumn 2013 Penguin Cafe triple bill.

Structurally, the piece is simple, with three main choreographic movements representing the equation’s elements of Energy, Mass and Celeritas (speed). A short interlude also appears part-way through. Entitled ‘The Manhattan Project’, it references America’s development of the Atomic Bomb, which they embarked upon after President Roosevelt received a written recommendation from Einstein himself, who feared that the German’s would harness its power first.

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But while the ballet’s structure came straight from the different parts of the famous equation, a great deal of the piece’s power comes from its creative elements. E=mc² is another in a long series of successful Bintley collaborations, and the team that David gathered together could not have been more perfect.

Peter Mumford’s lighting designs use the Company’s rig in ways never seen before. At times they bombard the auditorium with illumination, at others they create laser beams that frame the stage, and elsewhere drop to a strobe-like flicker, outlining the dancers and leaving you wondering where one body ends and another begins.

Costume Designs by Kate Ford also accentuated the dancers’ bodies, with the clothing pulled tight across their torsos and limbs. When the Company produced a book shortly after, charting 20 years of performances in glossy photographs, it was a still taken from E=mc², showing two dancers dressed in Ford’s figure-hugging outfits that was picked to adorn the cover.

E=mc²

But it was the marriage of music and choreography that garnered the most praise. The piece was the first collaboration between David and Australian composer Matthew Hindson, who would later return to write music for 2012’s Olympics-inspired ballet, Faster.

“The key to this investigation of Einstein’s equation is Matthew Hindson’s brilliant orchestral score, to which Bintley responds with force fields of gleaming, pared-back dance”, said Luke Jennings in The Observer. “The result has an extraordinary new-minted brightness.”

“The most meaningful commissioned music for ballet I’ve heard for years”, wrote LondonDance.com’s Graham Watts, while Jeffery Taylor in the Sunday Express commented: “Bintley’s explosive talent is matched by composer Matthew Hindson’s writing one of the best pieces of new dance music this side of Stravinsky.”

Many chorused that David has indeed achieved something quite unlike his existing body of work.

“Not only looks as urgent and brainy as the physics it evokes,” wrote Judith Mackrell in the Guardian, “but is unlike anything he has choreographed before.”

Debra Craine agreed in The Times: “A stunning advance on most of what has gone before… Bintley has mined a fabulous new enthusiasm for structure and sense of pure dance… Bristles with excitement and a light-hearted unpredictability”.

Now returning to the stage for the first time since its debut season, E=mc² will be joined by two other Bintley ballets to make a full evening’s (or afternoon’s) entertainment. With both originating from earlier in his career, the programme will allow audiences to judge for themselves if he succeeded in breaking his own mould, and creating a new winning formula.

Click here for details of all 2013 performances of E=mc².

Our split tour has already had an additionally competitive edge this year, with many members of the Company taking to twitter to champion TeamNorth or TeamSouth.

Here’s a peek at what they’ve been tweeting so far, including some behind-the-scenes pics:

Team North:

Team South:

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s split tour continues this month:

Theatre Royal Nottingham 10 – 11 May 2013
York Theatre Royal 14 – 15 May 2013
Durham Gala 17 – 18 May 2013
Buxton Opera House 21 – 22 May 2013

Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham 10 – 11 May 2013
The Lighthouse, Poole 14 – 15 May 2013
Hall for Cornwall 17 – 18 May 2013
Swan Theatre, High Wycombe 21 – 22 May 2013

It’s Friday afternoon and the jazz band are just striking up the first chords of Take Five to herald the start of our stage rehearsal for the north-east split tour!

It’s been a great 36 hours at the Theatre Royal – a venue that the Company hasn’t visited since its Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet days. Marion and Henry have been reminiscing over previous visits but most of the Company are visiting for the first time.

It’s a real treat to be starting the tour here – it’s a lovely theatre; great stage, beautiful auditorium and loads of space backstage. All of the staff are very friendly and welcoming, too; the get-in went very smoothly and everyone is looking forward to getting the tour underway!

Paul Grist,
Company Manager, Northern leg of the 2013 split tour.

Birmingham Royal Ballet is heading back to America this week, to perform Coppélia at the Virginia Arts Festival.

Here you can see Principal casting for the performances, which take place at Chrysler Hall, Norfolk:

Friday 19th (matinee)
Swanilda: Maureya Lebowitz
Franz: Joseph Caley
Dr. Coppélius: Valentin Olovyannikov

Friday 19th (evening)
Swanilda: Nao Sakuma
Franz: Chi Cao
Dr. Coppélius: Michael O’Hare

Saturday 20th (evening)
Swanilda: Carol-Anne Millar
Franz: Jamie Bond
Dr. Coppélius: Rory Mackay

Sunday 21st (matinee)
Swanilda: Ambra Vallo
Franz: Tyrone Singleton
Dr. Coppélius: Jonathan Payn

Photo: Andrew Ross

Photo: Andrew Ross

Above: Dancers in Plymouth outside TR2, before morning class; photo: Jonathan Caguioa

Last night was our first performance of Aladdin in Theatre Royal Plymouth, and we were absolutely bowled over by the audience response!

A number of dancers took to twitter to thank the audience for their support, including Steven Monteith, Tzu-Chao Chou, Kristen McGarrity, Lachlan Monaghan and Céline Gittens – click each name to see their thank you messages!

Company Manager Paul Grist also commented: “The audience in Plymouth are always brilliant, but they really were amazing last night. Their warmth and support really lifted the whole performance, and the whole Company were on a real high, feeding off that energy.”

Enormous thanks must also go the venue staff – While there is extensive building and renovation work going on at the theatre, they’ve ensured that this has had minimal impact on our visit.

Again, Paul explained this morning: “They’d liaised with us a long time ago to let us know what would be happening and how they’d be dealing with any issues, and in actual fact it’s been nothing like as disruptive as we were anticipating. As usual, the whole team at Plymouth Theatre Royal has worked seamlessly, and I can’t praise them highly enough.”

Emily Withers is a cultural intern working with Birmingham Royal Ballet, and has currently written blog posts for us from Plymouth and London. Here she writes from The Lowry, Salford, during the week of the Company’s first touring performances of Aladdin:

The sun is shining gloriously upon Salford, and given its location overlooking the waterfront, the glittering water has truly become a feast for the eyes.

For the tour back in the autumn, the internship began the week after the company had been to Salford, so I’m glad I’ve been granted the opportunity to visit Greater Manchester before it finishes!

I’m currently in the ‘Company office’: a dressing room equipped with a fully working fridge, a fan and a monitor displaying the various ongoing activities on the stage; at the moment the dancers are taking their daily morning class on the stage, but at other times there are rehearsals, stage and lighting work going on, as well as the performances themselves.

The Lowry has two theatres: the Quays and the Lyric, and Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Aladdin is being performed in the Lyric, the larger of the two. Its neighbouring attractions include MediaCity and the Imperial War Museum North, although I highly doubt I’ll have ample time to visit such places!

It’s great being out on tour again, and considering that this is how I began the internship there is a certain symmetry that makes it easier to see how much I’ve settled in during the six months, the skills I’ve learnt and all that I’ve discovered whilst working for a ballet company. There is now a familiarity with staff and a confidence in my responsibilities that allow a different kind of ease and enjoyment each day.

The project I’m currently working on is the compilation of the blue book for the Company’s upcoming trip to Virginia in April, whilst continuing to do ongoing daily tasks required for the current tour, such as updating the cast sheets ready for publication, managing general enquiries, and just absorbing the feel and workings of a new theatre!

This afternoon I will be covering the show, which involves being present in the foyer before the start of each act, for each curtain-up in case anything goes wrong, and also be responsible for ticket allocation for the ballet staff.

Backstage at The Lowry this week

This evening I’m watching the ballet. It’s been great having the opportunity to watch a performance in every theatre we’ve visited. I like the idea of ticking each one off a list. Each time I watch one of the ballets it’s an alternate cast, which makes a surprising difference and adds a real freshness, especially the more I’ve gotten to recognise individual dancers simply by the way they dance, and the signature they create. My eyesight isn’t the best, so to simply be able to recognise dancers through their movements is a rather helpful practice.

I’m heading back to Birmingham tomorrow, so the trip has felt surprisingly short, but very pleasant nonetheless. The initial friendliness and warmth I was shown by the dancers and staff when I first started has only grown as time has gone by and I can now honestly say that I very much feel part of the company now, and have been fortunate enough to work with many wonderful people.

The Aladdin score by Carl Davis is often playing in the background in the office, a gentle reminder of why we’re in Salford. I trust that the show will be received well and that it will be a mighty success!

Here’s to Plymouth next week…

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s website

Birmingham Royal Ballet on twitter