Royal Ballet Live | Highlights
Last Friday, March 23rd, The Royal Ballet launched a first for them – Royal Ballet Live; a live streaming day showing daily class, rehearsals, interviews and an Insight Evening, with their media partner The Guardian. The trailer for Royal Ballet Live asked the question, “have you ever wondered what it takes to become a top ballet dancer ?”
Technically, it’s a massive undertaking, but essentially, (almost) everything that goes into a typical day as a professional dancer with The Royal Ballet was brought to you live from the 5th floor of the Royal Opera House.
I’m often asked about the Royal Opera House. Many believe that it’s simply a theatre; somewhere to pitch up backstage, for the dancers to put on make-up and costume before the show. As part of the audience, you sweep in through the gold and red plush entrance or head for the lifts/escalator and take your seat. Well, there’s a little more to the building than that.
Unlike a traditional West End theatre, the Royal Opera House is actually home to the Royal Ballet (and the Royal Opera). That means that the company doesn’t just turn up before the half (traditionally, 35 minutes before curtain up), it means that they work there all day (and evening). From as early as 8am until way past 11pm you can find members of The Royal Ballet working – doing Pilates, warm-ups, class, rehearsing, eating, drinking, chatting, preparing for the show, having physiotherapy, massage, Gyrotonics, pointe shoe fittings etc,. They do get short breaks to run errands around Covent Garden during the day but otherwise, the Royal Opera House is pretty much home from home. It’s a massive bonus for them. Not having to travel between rehearsals and the theatre, knowing the stage inside out etc brings with it huge advantages for the dancers – and for the audiences! Dancing on an unfamiliar, possibly small, raked stage isn’t fun – though of course the company does tour once or twice a year internationally. Behind the auditorium and restaurants/bars of the Royal Opera House lies an endless rabbit warren of corridors housing everything – costumes, armoury, make-up, wigs, rehearsal studios, offices, medical facilities, fitness equipment, canteen, dressing rooms, props department, technical department, shoe room and more. The site covers several acres and there’s always a lot going on; plus it’s pretty easy to get lost.
Royal Ballet Live was quite a departure for the conservative ROH. Live streaming is not for the feint-hearted! They brought in presenter George Lamb (who currently presents a Channel 4 game show), who was engaging but knew little about ballet or, quite crucially here, The Royal Ballet itself. Perhaps this helped newcomers to ballet feel at home and the ROH does maintain a relentless pursuit to attract new/younger audiences. More than once, Lamb handed over to Monica Mason or Liam Scarlett, asking them to introduce their work, only to find that they got stuck straight into rehearsals rather than engaging with the audience or explaining any background. This happens when the participants are used to closed rehearsals and could surely have been anticipated.
Lamb was co-presenting with Soloist Kristen McNally. Some might argue that she could have done the job superbly, on her own (though perhaps her rehearsal schedule prevented it). She was a star on the day with a natural presenting style – and she’s on home turf!
The live streaming was repeated later the same day, at 9pm, and since then a number of video highlights have been released. Overall, there were around 200,000 ‘views’ during live streaming. Compare that with the estimated 50,000 (the ROH & the O2 declined to confirm actual figures) who attended the O2 arena in Greenwich when The Royal Ballet performed Romeo & Juliet in the huge space for the first time.
The ROH also asked people to send in video clips of themselves doing a grande jeté as part of YouMove. This jump is a standard part of the daily class for professional dancers. McNally said, “essentially, it’s just a big jump.” They had 54 grande jeté videos uploaded from around the world to YouTube, in some cases showing just how hard it is to pull off a grande jeté, and the winning jump was this one, from Hawaii. You can see why!
Every professional ballet dancer begins the day with class (there is the odd exception - usually for Principals, where class is optional – but even then, few exercise it) though in reality the day may have begun earlier still with Pilates, Yoga, warm-ups and stretching prior to class. Keep in mind as you watch this film that class often follows a performance night, where the dancers may not have left the theatre until after 11pm. You’ll see Artist Claudia Dean and First Artist Valentino Zucchetti, who recently choreographed a piece based on James Dean for ex-Royal Ballet dancer Sergei Polunin.
After class, roughly between 12 noon and 6pm depending on the performance schedule, rehearsals take place across the studios at the ROH. In this rehearsal, Royal Ballet First Artist Liam Scarlett rehearses his own ballet, Sweet Violets, with fellow First Artist Leanne Cope and Principal Thiago Soares. Please note : The subject matter of Sweet Violets is not suitable for young children.
Here is the full version of the ballet class :
Ballet rehearsals – Sweet Violets
On the live streaming day, it happened to be Principal dancer Marianela Nuñez’s birthday so here’s her surprise Cupcake :
Royal Ballet resident choreographer Wayne McGregor has a unique way of collaborating with classically trained ballet dancers – since he’s not a classical dancer himself and can’t talk to the dancers in plies, releves, arabesques, attitude, tendu, ronde de jambe etc which is the usual language of the ballet studio. Here, he’s rehearsing Principals Steven McRae and Sarah Lamb in Carbon Life, and he uses a series of clicks and sounds that seem more akin to animal training, to communicate what he’s looking for to the dancers. Guest artist Mark Ronson was on hand to talk about the music, though he was a reluctant interviewee.
Ballet rehearsals – Carbon Life
Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland returns to the rep (it’s on now and until 17th April) and these rehearsals show the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party in full swing. Wheeldon relies on Benesh Movement Notation, which is great to see as it’s very much a niche skill. There are several resident Notators at the Royal Ballet but it’s rare for either the choreographers or the dancers to be able to read the scores, making the presence of the Notator invaluable.
For Beatriz Stix-Brunell, an Artist with the company (the lowest rank) this rehearsal was one of a series culminating in her debut as Alice the following afternoon – which was a huge success. The other dancers in this rehearsal are : Alexander Campbell (Soloist), James Hay (First Artist), and Liam Scarlett.
Ballet rehearsals – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
MacMillan’s The Prince of the Pagodas, a full length fairytale ballet, has long been out of the rep at The Royal Ballet (last staged in 1996 with Darcey Bussell in the lead role as Princess Rose), and Monica Mason has revived it in her last season as Artistic Director. This rehearsal, with Principal Marianela Nuñez, shows one of her solos.
Ballet rehearsals – The Prince of the Pagodas
Ballet Master Christopher Saunders coaches Gary Avis and Ed Watson in the art of sword fighting for their roles in Romeo & Juliet.
Ballet rehearsals – sword fighting in Romeo & Juliet
To give you another insight into the intricacies of the fierce sword-fighting, as well as a bit of detail about the swords themselves, here’s an earlier rehearsal, again with the dancers coached by Christopher Saunders, and featuring contributions from Bennet Gartside, Alexander Campbell, Lauren Cuthbertson, Federico Bonelli & Donald Macleary.
Ballet event listings
Some of the rehearsals you’ve watched form part of an up-coming triple bill, comprising Polyphonia/Sweet Violets/Carbon Life which runs from 5th to the 23rd of April. Once again, please do note that both Sweet Violets and Carbon Life contain content of an adult nature.
The Prince of the Pagodas runs from the 2nd to the 29th June and has a running time of 2 hours 40 minutes (with 2 intervals).