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THIS IS YOUR BACKSTAGE PASS
For more than half of this year I have followed every feathered footstep of the dancers of English National Ballet, as they prepared to dance Swan Lake in-the-round at the Royal Albert Hall.
I began way back in snowy February, when 90 dancers converged on the company headquarters in London. They had all been invited to audition as ‘extras’ because the company doesn’t have enough corps dancers to stage an in-the-round version (which has 60 swans on stage together). The successful dancers will gain a temporary contract and in rare cases, will be invited to join the company.
Once they’d unbundled themselves from layers to protect against the cold, the dancers were split into three groups – two of girls and one of boys, and over several hours they were put through their paces by teacher Stephen Beagley, watched by the panel of 5 members of English National Ballet’s artistic staff – Wayne Eagling (Artistic Director), Anthony Dowson (Repetiteur), Rosalyn Whitten (Teacher/Repetiteur), Jane Haworth (Artistic Co-ordinator) and Derek Deane (choreographer).
The audition took the form of a normal class, which ballet dancers take every day of their working lives, the structure of which is pretty much the same wherever you find yourself in the world. There was tension and adrenaline in the air, but the dancers had an advantage. Being invited means that, unlike an open audition, they are assured of completing the class rather than being cut very early, perhaps even at barre (the start of the class). No dancer wants a dreaded tap on the shoulder just as they are hitting their stride & getting over some of those nerves – it’s just like being in an exam!
The dancers gained valuable experience as Stephen gave them corrections – just as he would in a normal class. Stephen took the classes through some classic Swan Lake steps & extracts, to allow the panel to see how the dancers might transform into swans, for example the Pas de Chat (or ‘cat step’ because of it’s likeness to a cats’ leap), and excerpts from the Czardas (or ‘Hungarian dance’ which consists of two movements, lassú– slow, and friska – fast).
30 girls were chosen as Swans, to swell the corp to 60 (normally you’d only see 20-30 swans.)
But that meant 30 went home empty-handed.
The successful dancers started rehearsing a month before the opening night on June 9th, eventually moving to a vast, hangar-like film studio to rehearse the Swan scenes as there is not enough room for 60 dancers, let alone 60 tutus, in a standard rehearsal studio. Here the apprentice swans learnt which position they should hold on each beat of the music; the absolutely precise positioning of arms and feet, and the swans in this production had some complex chorepgraphy and a lot of steps to remember. They also had fog (dry ice) to contend with ! Perhaps the hardest task to accomplish is for each girl to be absolutely in line & in time with her fellow apprentices – being just a feather out of alignment is unacceptable to Derek Deane, who coached the girls in the final rehearsals right up until curtain up.
At the same time, the company dancers were rehearsing their roles (e.g. Pas de Douze, Neapolitan, Spanish, Waltz etc), including Senior Principal Daria Klimentová, partnered by First Artist (and here dancing a Principal role, his first as Prince Siegfried) 20 year old Vadim Muntagirov. When I interviewed him in June for The Stage, he was excited at the prospect of dancing another Principal role but he takes nothing for granted.
As well as having a large corps, this production magnifies almost everything so that whereever you are sitting, you will get a great view. There are also jugglers and acrobats. In-the-round means that the dancers can be seen from almost every angle; there are no resting places or chances to catch their breath, and the stage is huge, so rehearsals are crucial in building stamina to be able to cover the space and hide that effort ! They truly are elete athletes, but as ballet dancers they also have to layer artistry on top. The Principals spent time learning the Pas de deux and their solo variations before joining the rest of the company at the film studio for full rehearsals.
Backstage at the Royal Albert Hall on the First Night, everything was calm; even the extra company dancers who might have been in awe of such an occassion were quietly preparing for their debuts with friends and family in the audience. Everyone knew their role and had prepared thoroughly. Everywhere I went backstage, I saw dancers warming up, scratching in the rosin tray to stop their pointe shoes from slipping, sretching and using every available handrail as a temporary barre, or banging the noise out of their shoes (the deafening sound of which reverberated throughout backstage & I’m surprised you couldn’t hear it in the Hall). ENB is a touring company and they take the foibles of every venue in their stride. At the Royal Albert Hall, backstage fits the shape of the stage, so you can never see more than a few feet ahead as you walk the curving corridors. Which I did, a lot !
I reviewed the First Night performance, at the Royal Albert Hall,where stars including Carlos Acosta gathered to watch the show.
By the last night, on June 19th 2010, sadness seeped backstage as the extra dancers acknowledged that this was their last time as Swans with this company. Many of them know each other – ballet is such a small world and they regularly audition together around the world. But there was celebration too – Vadim Muntagirov was promoted before the show to First Soloist, so he has skipped another couple of ranks just as he did when joining the Company a year ago (missing the corps de ballet). Since then he has danced 5 Principal roles – it won’t be long before he holds the rank to match.
I hope that you enjoy the image gallery where you can see the dancers backstage before the show. It’s another world and quite possibly not what you’d expect !
UPDATE MONDAY 23rd Auust 2010
If you missed YOU magazine yesterday, some of the feature is online (though not all of it).
All of the images are available for purchase, so if you are interested in any of them please get in touch with me & the easiest way is via the contact form.