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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 Tokyo City Philharmonic Orchestra, who played with Birmingham Royal Ballet during our recent international dates, recently contacted Conductors Paul Murphy and Philip Ellis to express their appreciation for the chance to play with the Company. Here is a copy of their email, along with a photo explaining the safety helmet reference!

Dear Our Maestro Murphy & Maestro Ellis,

We thank you for your recent visit! The Tokyo City Philharmonic Orchestra spent a very happy time playing with you both. It was a very great honour for us to join Birmingham Royal Ballet Japan for this tour.

Many musicians cancelled their visits to Japan after the earthquake and nuclear disaster, but Birmingham Royal Ballet kept their promise. We Japanese will never forget your country’s support for Japan. Thank you so much!

We look forward to playing with both maestros in the future. We will be sure to find you a nice safety helmet! See you then. Sincerely yours.

Tokyo City Philharmonic Orchestra

More pictures from backstage, courtesy of NBS Japan!.

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Kris Kosaka, who wrote the article for the Japan Times that we featured a few days ago, has also written a guest post for TheBalletBag.com.

As well as obviously recommending that you check it out, we’d also like to thank Kris for the kind words with which she ends her article:

“With thanks to The Ballet Bag & Birmingham Royal Ballet, especially Simon Harper, for being such a friendly and gracious company. Companies are still canceling their Japan Tours, unfortunately, but if only more could follow BRB’s example, the arts world in Tokyo will revive quicker.”

NBS Japan posted some new backstage photos via twitpic yesterday! Here’s a couple of them – you can see the rest by clicking here.

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Ben Roomes and Shaun Mclaughlin, Graduate Students of Elmhurst School for Dance, have sent an update on their experiences on the Japan tour:

Tuesday 17 May
Now having been in Tokyo a few days, today was the day of the Company’s Gala performance where the company performed Daphnis and Chloë and The Dream (starring Miyako Yoshida), both ballets choreographed by Sir Frederick Ashton. The show was received very well by the audience who contributed very generously to the donation boxes and bid for a tutu once used in the Company’s performances. Miyako was wonderful to watch as Titania and César Morales and Alexander Campbell were brilliant as Oberon and Puck. Jamie Bond and Natasha Oughtred also did a fantastic job of Daphnis and Chloë.
Before the tour the staff and students of Elmhurst worked together to make 1000 origami cranes as a token of support and appreciation for Japan through the difficult times. Presenting 1000 origami cranes is a symbol of world peace and according to ancient legend grants the bearer a wish. At the end of the night, we handed them over on stage on behalf of our school. It was wonderful to present this to the Japanese and it was a very heartfelt moment amongst us all.

Wed 18th May
Today was the company’s free day however as students we still have our upcoming school summer show approaching! Marion was kind enough to rehearse the ones of us on tour so that during the two weeks we are spending here we don’t get rusty on what we need to know! We took class in the Tokyo Ballet Studios with Tokyo Ballet which was a very enjoyable class partly because the studio we were in was HUGE, which left lots of space for travelling and jumping! Once class was over we had some time before our rehearsal and we were fortunate enough to be able to watch the rehearsal beforehand with Tamara Rojo and Ian Mackay for the upcoming Sleeping Beauty show in the Bunka Kaikan. I think we can definitely say that we’re looking forward to seeing the two of them on stage.
We have had a few chances to explore Tokyo on previous days however as there haven’t been any more rehearsals for Sleeping Beauty yet, visiting places such as Shibuya and Harajuku. In Shibuya we came across a Chacott dance shop and were pleasantly surprised to find out we could get a 20% discount because we were on tour with Birmingham Royal Ballet! We also used the opportunity exploring to get presents for people back home… and a few sneaky things for ourselves too!

Thursday 19th May
We checked out of our hotel in Tokyo this morning to make our way to Nagoya for one quick show of Sleeping Beauty. We got to travel by bullet train which was fantastic however we had to shift ourselves because no matter what, it will always be on time! They only leave 60 seconds with the doors open so if you’re not on or off once they close then you’ve had it! Once you’re on however, it’s very comfy and there’s so much space, it makes a very nice change to Virgin trains!!!

Once we arrived in Nagoya we quickly checked in to our new hotel then made our way to the Aichi Performing Arts Centre. We had class and then did our show in the evening. After the performance we promptly made our way back to the hotel ready to leave again in the morning to travel back to Tokyo.

Saturday 20th May
Yesterday was the first day at the Bunka Kaikan for our next three performances of Sleeping Beauty, two of which with Tamara Rojo. We had a rehearsal to get used to the stage. The walls of the theatre are full of history as certain sections and pillars in the backstage are covered with markings of when previous companies had performed in the theatre and at the side of the wings there is a giant collection of signed posters and t-shirts hailing from such companies as the Mariinsky Theatre Ballet, La Scala and ABT (to name a few!). There were two BRB posters there as well from the tours in 1995 and 2008.

Today’s matinee was one of the Ian and Tamara shows, and it was absolutely fantastic! The applause from the audience was tremendous and several of us couldn’t help but grin at the noise as we stood at the sides as court ladies and gents.

We only have a few days left in Japan, but our time here has been absolutely fantastic! We’ve seen so many new things and have been to lots of new places. This is definitely a trip to remember and it would be amazing to come back again. Now back to school!

Ben Roomes and Shaun Mclaughlin.

An update on our arrival in Tokyo from Simon Harper, Media and PR Manager:

Saturday 21 May and the first two performances of The Sleeping Beauty at Tokyo’s Bunka Kaikan Hall played to full and enthusiastic houses (2300 people for each performance!). Following the first performance, company members made their way out of theatre to find a huge crowd waiting for them at the stage door. Many dancers signed programmes and met members of the audience who all expressed their delight that Birmingham Royal Ballet had gone ahead with the tour.

Amongst those dancers signing autographs were Iain Mackay and guest Principal Tamara Rojo (Tamara and Iain danced the roles of Aurora and Florimund this afternoon) with Alexander Campbell and Victoria Marr also happy to meet their fans.

Nao Sakuma and Chi Cao danced the principal roles for the later performance today and once again, an eager, satisfied crowd waited for them, and other cast members, post show. Both shows received rapturous applause from audiences that were clearly enthralled by the company’s presence in Japan.

Between shows it was a quick turnaround for the technical crew to pre-set, for the company to grab something to eat and for Marion to hit a few poses for the blog camera!

Tomorrow sees one more performance of The Sleeping Beauty at Bunka Kaikan before we make our way to Osaka on Monday morning…

Simon

The Birmingham Post website published an article today by writer Diane Parkes, who joined the Company out in Japan for part of the current tour.

http://www.birminghampost.net/life-leisure-birmingham-guide/birmingham-culture/theatre-in-birmingham/2011/05/20/birmingham-royal-ballet-s-eastern-promise-65233-28716467/

In the piece, our Director David Bintley discusses the impact that the recent disasters nearly had on the tour, but that the Company quickly resolved to proceed with the tour despite the difficulties.

He said: “There were a lot of question marks over the tour after the disaster and the ongoing situation at Fukushima but we were determined right from the outset to continue the tour as long as it was safe to do so. A lot of companies have cancelled their visits here and they are letting Japan down.

It quickly became clear we were not dealing with a Chernobyl situation and there were no plans to evacuate Tokyo. We were monitoring the situation very closely and quickly saw how the country was settling back down.

“From day one people in Japan were very keen to stress that they needed companies like ours to visit. It is good for Japan that we are seen to be supporting them.”

David, as well as Chief Executive Christopher Barron, also discussed the benefits of strengthening links between the two Companies, and their respective arts organisations.

You can read the full article here.

Our next three performances in Japan (Thursday, Saturday and Sunday) are of The Sleeping Beauty. Here you can see a rehearsal video filmed in our Birmingham studios, and featuring Company dancers Ambra Vallo and Mathias Dingman:

Last night’s fundraising gala was a fantastic success, thanks to everybody who supported the event! We’re delighted to have been involved in such an amazing evening.

Here are some photos of Birmingham Royal Ballet dancers collecting additional donations after the performance, published early this morning on the @NBS_Japan twitter feed!

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You can also read a report of the evening (in Japanese) and view further pictures, here.

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s website

Birmingham Royal Ballet on twitter