Birmingham Royal Ballet recently performed for the first time in Spain. The summer temperatures - up to 40 degrees centigrade - presented them with new challenges, as Fionnuala Burke found.
The challenges awaiting BRB in Spain are onerous, with its reputation at stake.
They are to dance Peter Wright’s Coppélia, a comic ballet dating back to 1870, plus a triple bill of The Grand Tour, David Bintley’s Take Five and The Dream at the Teatro del Generalife in the stunning grounds of The Alhambra – a UNESCO World Heritage site daitng back to the 14th century – for the 61st Granada Festival.
Chief executive Christopher Barron said: “This is a different tour for us. It’s a night-time tour, due to the temperatures. We are unable to do anything in the day. And it’s outdoors. A lot of preparation has gone into it. The festival is a big cultural event in Spain.
“We are working on our reputation as a company and looking for work in the future to build on our repertoire. We’ve had a fantastic year.”
Communications director Keith Longmore said: “It’s a big international festival and we’ve sold out.
“We are hoping this tour will raise the profile of the company and the city of Birmingham. We are also hoping to generate some income and to attract dancers who want an international profile. We are bringing the business and the arts together.”
One hundred BRB members have joined the tour.
This includes 50 dancers, aged from 18 to mid-40s, from 26 different countries, including Japan, Chile, China, Australia, Canada, Italy, Spain and nine from the UK. Two had to pull out of the tour due to injuries.
But the dancing wouldn’t be possible without the technical crews, including a wig master, shoe supervisor and wardrobe staff.
Technical director Paul Grace said: “We did a lot of preparation before we came out, sending two people out earlier to understand the setting.
“We’ve had help from local crews, who have been great. And we’ve got a translator who works with deputy stage manager Eliska Robenn to give directions for the spotlights.”
Company manager Paul Grist explained that attention to detail is vital.
“It’s been interesting watching the dancers have class in their sunglasses.
“The outdoor setting against the backdrop of the trees has meant we haven’t been able to bring our whole set over. We’ve had to work with the trees, which will work perfectly for The Dream (set in a forest).
“In Coppélia, the first and third acts are set outdoors, so this setting lends itself well to that. Act two is set in Dr Coppélius’s workshop. So we’ve had to work around that.
“We brought our own flooring out. It interacts with the dancers’ shoes, acting as a cushion and offering support, so that the female dancers can go en pointe safely. But it melts if it gets too hot, so we can only lay it out when the sun goes down and the temperatures become cooler.
Performing at night leaves BRB dancers with time in the day to enjoy the Spanish sunshine, relaxing by the pool and taking a trip into Granada to see the sites. I caught up with some of them as they prepared for their first full-length outdoor performance.
Karla Doorbar, 20, from Stoke-on-Trent, said: “I’ve been with BRB for two years. I am in the Dance of the Hours in Coppélius. I’m really looking forward to performing at night. It’s not as bad as I thought it might be. I started dancing when I was aged nine. I’m really happy at BRB. It’s close to home and I get to see my mum a lot.”
Anna Monleon, 20, from Barcelona, said: “I trained at the Elmhurst School for Dance in Edgbaston and joined BRB six months ago. It’s good to be back in Spain, although we are not in my home city. It’s really hot but we are coping with it.”
James Barton, 25, from Lincolnshire, said: “I trained at Elmhurst for nine months. I’ve been with the company for six years. I knew I wanted to be a ballet dancer from the age of three. Coming out here our body clocks have been knocked a bit. We’re used to working through the day, but we don’t start class until 7.30pm out here.”
But things weren’t running so smoothly for all company members.
BRB’s orchestra had not joined the tour so principal conductor Paul Murphy had to work with a new set of musicians from the Orquestra Cuidad de Granada.
This had posed a series of difficulties, including the musicians threatening to walk out.
Paul said: “We rarely bring our own orchestra, which can be tricky. This orchestra rarely do ballets. They don’t know the demands of the choreography or the traditions.
“It’s been hard work. I had to buy a white shirt because there was problems with the lighting and they couldn’t see me and threatened to walk out.
“They were happier after Spain won the Euro 2012 championship – except the principal viola player, who is Italian.
“But it hasn’t been as bad as a trip we did to China when we did Romeo and Juliet and the orchestra there just couldn’t play it. I had to sing part of the melody when the saxophone player didn’t come in.”
Meanwhile, the technical crews were working through the night to get the show up and running.
Diana Childs, senior stage manager, who has been with BRB for 20 years, said: “We brought two trailer loads of lighting equipment, sets, costumes, wigs and two washing machines.
“We’ve been working until 7am in the morning because of the heat, which we’ve never had to do before.”
To ensure the dancers are on their best form, BRB’s head massage therapist, Phil Birch, and company physiotherapist Deirdre McKenna have joined the tour. Female dancers tend to have issues with their ankles as they go en pointe regularly, whereas male dancers need to look after their backs and knees as they do more lifting.
Phil said: “We’ve been seeing up to 14 dancers before each daily class.
“Muscle fatigue has been the main issue for us here. Their calfs seize up during the day as they are dancing so late, so we need to put life back into the muscles.
“We haven’t had any major issues out here. We haven’t had the problems with jet lag, like we do on our tours to the Far East.”
And as the time for the lights to come up approaches, wigs and wardrobe are busy backstage ensuring the final touches are in place.
Wigs assistant Lauren Fitzgerald said she was tasked with fitting the wigs on the dolls for Coppélia.
She said: “We’ve brought out 10 wigs us. We make our own back in Birmingham. It’s a dry heat out here so we have to take care the curls don’t drop. It took us a few days to unpack everything.”
The theatre is full and the audience awaits expectantly for the show to begin.
The cool night air aids the breezy movements of the dancers as they travel across the stage with the tall upright trees adding to the gaiety of the village square set where the cast first spot the mysterious Coppélia on the balcony at old Dr Coppéluis’s house, without realising that she is a mechanical doll.
Firefly dart across the set adding to the allure of the outdoor setting.
Some of the audience sway their head and hum along to the cheerful music of Léo Delibes as the uptempo melodies pour from the orchestra pit into the theatre covered by a black sky, dotted with twinkling stars.
Principal dancer Nao Sakuma is an enchanting Swanilda as she coquettishly tests the love her sweetheart Franz (Chi Cao) has for her in the face of the troublesome doll.
Laughter and clapping echo into the night air as the comic tale unfolds on stage, while the surrounding trees turn from blue to green to red.
The night ends with much cheering and more applause from the audience who enjoyed a highly professional and polished production. Plans for the next show begin as the technical crew work through the night once more to bring down the set and prepare for the triple bill. The dancers retire to their nearby hotel where they can enjoy a well earned meal and drink.
BRB looks forward to welcoming Birmingham Cathedral Choir, whose singers attend various schools around the city, the following day. They are to perform with the dancers in The Dream.
As the dancers look forward to a brief break in the sunshine before the next show, concerns for perfection do not abate. Wig master Henry Menary said: “We don’t want any burnt fairies in The Dream.”
Kit Holder, 29, from Solihull, joined BRB 12 years ago after he graduated from the Royal Ballet School in London.
The former Greswold Primary School pupil, an avid Aston Villa fan, said the Spanish tour was exceptional.
“It’s a nice schedule. We are free when it’s warm. I’ve been to many theatres over the last 12 years since I joined BRB, but none of them have been as special as this,” he said.
“When I finished Royal Ballet School I knew I wanted to come back and perform with the company in my home city. My elder brothers danced so I was inspired to go to classes by them.
“I would like to go into choreography after dancing. But that’s something that takes a lot of work.”
Kit has already choreographed his own ballet. He created 9 to 5, which takes a comic look at life in the office, set to drum and bass music by Mistabishi.
For now he said he is happy dancing, paying his mortgage and planning his marriage to his fiancée, BRB soloist Céline Gittens.
The couple have been engaged for 18 months and have been so busy working they have not yet set a date.
Céline, 24, who was born in Trinidad and later moved to Vancouver Canada, said: “It’s been a great experience coming out to Spain.”
The tour brought back some special memories for company guest and former BRB dancer David Morse, who was accompanying his wife, BRB assistant director Marion Tait.
David had previously danced at the Alhambra in 1960 with the Royal Ballet a year before he joined Sadlers Wells (BRB’s previous guise).
Marion said: “David has just been reminiscing at how he danced Giselle at the Alhambra with Margot and Rudy (Margot Fonteyne and Rudolph Nureyev).
“They were paid in cash in those days. He said that Margot stopped the show because the paparazzi were so intrusive –their cameras flashing at the front of the stage as they were trying to dance.
“Our dancers have adapted really well to the heat and late nights. I took class and told them to think of the sun as a spotlight.”
David said: “I hardly recognise it all. Everything’s changed so much. We had to stay in some very small digs back then. It will be interesting to see how different the production is now.”