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Swan Lake in a sea container

Posted on September 28, 2017

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In May 2015, Dancing Times editor Jonathan Gray travelled to Tokyo with Birmingham Royal Ballet to find out what is involved when a ballet company goes on tour

We almost take it for granted that when a ballet company tours abroad the dancers will be in top condition, the sets and costumes will look pristine and the production will be as excellent as it is when it is performed at home, despite jetlag and any stresses in appearing at an unfamiliar venue. It’s a tall order for any ballet company, and one that requires complete professionalism, but what exactly goes into arranging a performance that involves over 110 people in a foreign country? Perhaps, unsurprisingly, there’s much more to it than you might think.

Between April 23 and May 9, Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB) were in Japan, where the company performed Peter Wright and Galina Samsova’s staging of Swan Lake and David Bintley’s Cinderella – the first time it had been performed outside of the UK. Starting in Tokyo, the company danced three performances of each ballet before travelling to Nagoya and Nishinomiya. The opening performances, at Tokyo’s huge Bunka Kaikan, were not without some backstage thrills and spills, but BRB was roundly applauded by a knowledgeable and appreciative audience – it had been all right on the night.

The company visits Japan on a regular basis, and the director, David Bintley, is a familiar face there, as he was, until recently, also director of National Ballet of Japan. Sitting in the foyer of the smart Hotel Okura Tokyo, where the company was staying, Bintley looked calm, relaxed and happy to be back in a city he knows well. This is the company’s fourth Japanese tour under his direction, and I asked him how they come about. “They are usually planned in detail about a year in advance,” he answered, “and we normally plan to visit Japan every four years or so. The promoters [The Japan Performing Arts Foundation] decide on the repertoire they want us to bring, and they often come to the UK to see us perform. They like us to bring a classic and something less well known in Japan. However,” he adds, “things are not really finally sorted out until the 11th hour – we were still discussing casting two weeks before the company left Birmingham.”

It’s a scenario on which Chris Barron, BRB’s chief executive, elaborates for me. “The promoters in Japan have to book the theatre a long time in advance – I’ll be having meetings about potential future visits whilst I am here in Tokyo. The company comes regularly, and the repertoire in particular is planned a long time ahead. Swan Lake was requested by the promoters, even though we have brought it to Japan before, and they also asked for Cinderella.

“Back home, we have planned our schedule ahead until 2018. I work on an assumption of state funding, and BRB needs to have a schedule of work in place. We tour England, and it’s around that structure that we plan our international visits. Japan is good for the company in many practical ways: the public transport system is very good, and you can get around easily. Japanese audiences are great, and so are the people we work with. People remember us – they still come up to Michael O’Hare and remind him of what he danced when the company was in Japan years ago.”

This will be Barron’s last foreign tour with BRB, and he has enjoyed the visit. “International tours give a good impression of the company, and I like us to be busy.” Although BRB receives public funding, Barron is currently concentrating on potential cuts to its budget by Birmingham City Council: “An elephant in the room that is being talked about, but I have to take a long-term view. BRB is a lean company, but it is solvent and busy.”

Backstage with Jonathan Caguioa. Photograph: Andrew Ross.

At Bunka Kaikan, a 20-minute journey from the hotel on the underground, company manager Paul Grist is busy working on his laptop, sorting out lists and schedules. Not only has he organised travel arrangements to Japan for over 100 members of staff and guests, he has also had to deal with additional children and actors. “A challenge on tour can be with the ‘extras’. In the UK we have a regular cohort of actors we use in our productions, but there are four Japanese children appearing in Cinderella, and you have to make sure they fit the costumes. The promoters have organised both the children and actors through Tokyo Ballet.”

That seems a minor worry when considering the number of sets and costumes that come to Japan by sea, all carefully packed into shipping containers six weeks in advance. In addition, toolkits and lighting effects for the stage crew come out by air freight, and each dancer is given a “sea box” and an “air box” to contain things they need, like make-up. The wardrobe will also have a number of new costumes flown out.

How is this all planned? “I have an early conversation with the promoters and a schedule evolves,” says Grist. “Flights for the company were identified before Christmas, and practical things – such as who will fly out earlier or later for theatre get-ins – are sorted out. When we are here, an injured dancer might be sent home, so that has to be arranged as well.”

Despite what seems like a complex series of feats, Grist thinks, “Japan has been quite straightforward. The Japanese orchestras and our conductors have been booked, and we ensured the actors and children were available at each venue. There are the day-to-day things to look after too, such as making sure ice is on hand to help treat injured dancers. The last performance of Swan Lake in Tokyo is tonight, so we will have to get it packed-up tomorrow and sent off to Nagoya… I also have to supply a complete list of everything the company brings into and out of the country for Customs.”

Doug Nicholson, head of scenic presentation, has nothing but praise for the Japanese stage crew he is working with. “Everything arrived,” he joked. “The last five trucks for Cinderella were unpacked last night. We used nine 40-foot shipping containers to bring everything here, and it’s the first time Cinderella has gone abroad. Actually, nine was more than we needed, so it will all go back in eight instead.” Surprisingly, Nicholson revealed that Swan Lake is not BRB’s biggest production and the set is easy to put up as it was designed to tour. “It’s a fantastic production because it can be at home in an opera house or in Norwich! Cinderella is more complex, and this is the first time it will be tested.”

The handling of the sets is a major issue, and BRB are careful how things are packed, but accidents can happen. “Cinderella’s coach was placed in a cage so that it wouldn’t move in transit. Unfortunately, though, it has been damaged. When Romeo and Juliet previously went to Japan in a container, it had obviously been dropped, but luckily the columns in the crate were OK.”

The stage crew also send a selection of paints, glues and nails for the tour so that any “touching up” can be done in situ. Nicholson has never had a disaster, but sometimes there are delays to delivery that can cause problems. Part of his job is also to oversee the hiring out of BRB productions to other companies. “It’s income-generating for us. Sarasota Ballet, for example, has borrowed a number of productions, most recently Jazz Calendar and Petrushka. Next year, Enigma Variations will be going there. Romeo and Juliet is the most borrowed set, followed by Coppélia.”

Backstage at Tokyo’s Bunka Kaikan. Photographs: Ben Wooldridge.

As our backstage visit continued, the dancers were busy on stage rehearsing the “Stars” from Cinderella in front of the Swan Lake set prepared for the evening show. Later, we met principal dancer Iain Mackay, who says he is pining for his family. “Even though I am work-focused and work-obsessed, as soon as I finish a show I want to be with the kids. These tours are amazing and you want to give your best to the audience. It can be difficult; you are on tour with jetlag and different food, but you have to focus on what you are doing. I first came to Japan as a student with The Royal Ballet, but now, as a principal dancer, I have a responsibility to make sure when I go out on stage I do the best I can for the company. The company’s energy lifts when we are on tour, and the theatres in Japan are great – the stages are huge and the audiences appreciative – it creates a buzz.”

That buzz was also felt by soloist Céline Gittens who, along with principal Tyrone Singleton, danced the leading roles in the opening performance of Swan Lake at short notice when Jenna Roberts, the scheduled Swan Queen, became injured during rehearsal. “We were both ready for our performance, but other things weren’t, such as my shoes!” says Gittens. “Doing the opening night was exciting, and the company were really supportive. It brought a special energy to the theatre, and it helped massively to have their support. We know the Japanese are knowledgeable audiences, so it meant a lot to us to get such a good response.”

That evening, April 27, also appearing as Odette-Odile at short notice with guest artist Matthew Golding as Prince Siegfried, Japanese principal Momoko Hirata gave an exquisite, unaffected and unmannered account of the role, her dancing clean, strong and secure, and she even threw in an occasional quadruple fouétte in the “Black Swan” pas de deux for good measure. Golding got a huge round of applause for his Act III solo, and the production and dancers looked wonderful – a real tribute to Peter Wright, Galina Samsova and Philip Prowse’s vision of the ballet.

“I have never prepared for Swan Lake so quickly before,” Hirata told me later, “but it was a lot of pleasure and I was really excited about dancing it in Tokyo. My mum and sisters came to see me [her dad stayed at home to babysit], and my teacher is coming to see me in Cinderella. I really felt the support of the company – they made me feel special – and I was proud to have danced the Swan Queen in Tokyo.”

Backstage with Momoko Hirata and Arancha Baselga. Photograph: Andrew Ross.

With the final Tokyo performance of Swan Lake over, what happens next? The following morning, Elaine Garlick, BRB’s head of costume, was packing the costumes away and getting Cinderella ready for rehearsal and performance. “We prepared for Japan six to eight weeks beforehand,” Garlick said. The dancers had to be fitted before they left Birmingham, but, as a new member of staff, Garlick was still finding her way around the production. “There are 30 rails of costumes for Swan Lake [you can get about eight tutus to a rail], plus 14 costume baskets, so in total we are talking about 300 to 400 costumes just for Swan Lake. Cinderella is slightly smaller in scale, but there are at least 600 costumes on the road that have to be maintained and looked after by the wardrobe staff.” The tour to Japan has given her the opportunity to look and see what work needs to be done in preparation for the autumn tour of Swan Lake back home.

“When the costumes are unpacked,” Garlick continued, “they need a day to ‘rest’, then we get them ready for the stage. Cast change costumes are always brought and made ready as well, so that if there are any injuries, a replacement costume can be found. Swan Lake will now be washed and cleaned before we go to the next venue, and washed again once we get back to Birmingham.”

Whilst all of this work is going on, the wardrobe staff are also preparing for BRB’s mid-scale UK tour, with some shoes for that tour brought out to Japan in preparation. “Once we get back, we also begin fittings for Sylvia and The King Dances!” Garlick concludes.

On our way to meet Henry Menary, BRB’s wigmaster, and his assistant, Lauren FitzGerald, we pass rails and rails of laundry in the corridors waiting to be washed. “The wigs for Cinderella came in sea crates too,” smiles Menary, “but they can get a bit ‘square’ on the journey, so they need to be teased out again once they are removed from their boxes.” “There are about 60 wigs in just one case,” says FitzGerald, “but Cinderella is a big ‘wig’ ballet. For new productions, wigs are made on individual dancers, but later they will be shared. We started preparing for Japan just after Christmas, so we could get them done on time.” With the season coming to a close, they will soon be packed away again for the journey home.

Two people who will be sad about returning to the UK are dancers Miki Mizutani and Reina Fuchigami, both of whom are Japanese. “I don’t feel like I am at home,” said Mizutani, “as everyone from the company is here!” Fuchigami agrees, adding, “It’s so nice to have everyone here.” The pair acted as unofficial tour guides for the dancers, as well as taking people to the shopping district of Shinjuku. “We would like to have stayed longer with our families,” they concur. Nevertheless, the two were pleased with BRB’s success in Japan, and it seems it won’t be long – sea containers permitting – before the company are back there again. 

This article was originally published in Dancing Times June 2015.

Top image: Céline Gittens and Tyrone Singleton in Swan Lake. Photograph: Roy Smiljanic.

Jonathan Gray is editor of Dancing Times. He studied at The Royal Ballet School, Leicester Polytechnic, and Wimbledon School of Art where he graduated with a BA Hons in Theatre Design. For 16 years he was a member of the curatorial department of the Theatre Museum, London, assisting on a number of dance-related exhibitions, and helping with the recreation of original designs for a number of The Royal Ballet’s productions including Danses concertantes, Daphnis and Chloë, and The Sleeping Beauty. He has also contributed to the Financial Times, written programme articles for The Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet, and is co-author of the book Unleashing Britain: Theatre gets real 1955-64, published in 2005.

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