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On Sunday we held our final performance of David Bintley’s outstanding production of Cinderella. What you might not know is that for our visually impaired patrons the performance was audio described and that pre-show a touch tour took place.

Firstly, the group, lead by Jonathan Nash, from Sightlines, who provide audio descriptions for Birmingham Hippodrome performances, were treated to a tour of the stage by our brilliant Deputy Stage Manager, Eliska Robenn. The group were able to get their hands on props from the ballet including cakes from the ball, Cinderella’s pumpkin and the step-mother’s wig. On stage was part of the kitchen set with its assorted pots and pans, the coach and a huge pile of discarded shoes from the Prince’s would-be princesses. It was fantastic for everyone to get a real sense of the scale of the sets and also to feel the amazing detail in the props.

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From the stage Eliska took us to a dressing room to explore the costumes from the show. What always strikes people about Birmingham Royal Ballet’s costumes is the incredible amount of work that goes into each and every one. Everybody (including us Birmingham Royal Ballet staff!) were mightily impressed with the elaborate details, from the hand-stitched sequins on the Stars’ tutus to the intricate scales on the Lizard’s head. Various costumes were handed around whilst Jonathan and Eliska vividly explained the roles of the characters who wore each outfit. Needless to say, Cinderella’s tutu seemed to be the most popular!

We left Eliska to go about her preparations for the matinee performance and made our way to the foyer to meet three of our wonderful dancers, Ruth Brill, Brandon Lawrence and Alys Shee, who were all in full costume. This gave the group a chance to ask the dancers all sorts of questions about their roles in Cinderella, their costumes as well as more general questions about what it’s like being a dancer with Birmingham Royal Ballet.

There was only one way to finish the tour and that was of course with a mince pie and a cup of tea. It was great to see some new faces as well as some old friends on the tour, who all thoroughly enjoyed themselves. The audio described performance was also a great success, with the dramatic and colourful descriptions making the action really come alive for those listening in.

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s next touch tour and audio described performance will be David Bintley’s Aladdin on Sunday 17 February, for more details click here or call Liz Leck, Education Manager on 0121 689 3064.

And finally, we’d like to wish you all a very happy Christmas and we’ll hopefully see you all in the new year for David Bintley’s Aladdin!

@willsouthworth

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A personal view on what makes a ‘classic’ ballet
Rob (or @robintheoffice if you’ve arrived here via Twitter), Birmingham Royal Ballet’s digital guru and I were chatting the other day. General conversation between the two of us rarely gets more sophisticated than discussing who’s wearing the nicer checked shirt, (in case you’re wondering why, all men who work in the arts wear checked shirts – it the rules), when conversation strayed into the dangerously serious territory of what constitutes a ‘classic’ ballet? Is there such thing? If there is, can a ‘new’ ballet join the canon? With performances of Hobson’s Choice fast approaching we wondered whether it could it be a ‘classic’ ballet?

Hobson’s Choice, for those of you who’ve not seen it, is a witty, romantic ballet that is a world away from the fantasy worlds of other Bintley works such as Beauty and the Beast or Cinderella. What makes it such a triumph is the seemingly ordinariness of the setting, and its self-contained tale of relationships that anybody can relate to. Its wonderful choreography is complimented by Paul Reade’s remarkable score, which manages to reflect the era without descending into pastiche, is full of wonderful melodies and is brilliantly orchestrated. It has become a real favourite with Birmingham Royal Ballet’s audience.

At its premiere Hobson’s Choice received a standing ovation and has been spoken about in glowing terms ever since. But does it stand alongside the classics; the core repertoire of Birmingham Royal Ballet; The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet etc? There are of course some key differences. Say ‘Swan Lake’ and most people will think ‘ballet’. So firmly established in the repertoire, it has grown beyond the ballet world, it has in fact become synonymous with ballet. How does Hobson’s Choice compare?

Paul Reade sadly died in 1997 at the age of just 54, so his music is complete in the sense that the score is unlikely to be tinkered with, whereas David Bintley is very much free to change his choreography as he sees fit. So we haven’t for certain seen the final version of Hobson’s Choice. The future of any artwork is uncertain. For example, the music of Mahler, now a staple of any professional orchestra, was largely neglected until the likes of Leonard Bernstein championed him in the 1960s. It is of course possible that a ‘new’ ballet could fall out of the repertoire, only to be revived decades from now and be hailed as a ‘classic’.

It is always tempting to rate and rank pretty much anything and everything. A top 10 of this or 5 favourite of the other. But in art, in its broadest sense, I don’t think we really achieve anything by doing so. A person’s appreciation of dance, music or indeed any work of art is for all intents and purposes entirely arbitrary. What moves one person to tears may be entirely baffling to another. So I would suggest that our use of the term ‘classic’ is in fact not a statement of quality at all, but is more accurately an identification of where a work sits historically.

With that in mind, it is safe to say that Hobson’s Choice isn’t a classic in the way that The Nutcracker is. The work may be 20-odd years old, but it is difficult, even at this distance, to judge the status of a ballet in terms of ‘greatness’ or its credentials as a ‘classic’, simply because we can’t yet identify its importance or its influence. Ballet is not a relic or museum piece, it is a living, breathing art-form that is constantly evolving but it is of course helpful to note important works that have subsequently defined what ballet is. Is Hobson’s Choice a ‘classic’? It really doesn’t matter. It’s a wonderful piece of theatre brought to life by hugely talented creative team and people love it for what it is, not how it compares to Sleeping Beauty.

@willsouthworth

The NutcrackerSeasons Greetings!
The company is off to the O2 to perform The Nutcracker whilst those of us still in Birmingham are just about done here until the New Year. We hope you’ve enjoyed reading about the company here ‘at home’. The 2011/2012 season has been a roaring success so far and we’re all looking forward to the wonderful ballets we’re performing in the spring and summer. If there is some aspect of Birmingham Royal Ballet that you’d like to know more about, be it sets, costumes, music, rehearsals or an interview with a dancer, leave a comment below and we’ll see what we can do!

Have a Happy Christmas and we’ll see you in the New Year!

If nothing else, you can’t help but notice that the O2 Arena in London is big. Like very, very big. Whilst we have tremendous facilities here at our home, preparing The Nutcracker for our performances in London (from the 27 – 30 December) required a rather more expansive space, so off the company went to the NEC which, like the O2, is very, very big. In order to demonstrate this, Eleanor Morgan, who is the Senior Lighting Technician at Birmingham Royal Ballet, sent us this amazing picture from rehearsals at the NEC.

BRB at BBCThe Nutcracker may have finished here in Birmingham, but as I’m sure many of you know, we’re off to the O2 Arena in London to perform over the Christmas period (click here for details). Normally the dancers would be having a break, with many of them going overseas to see family over the festive season, however, they’ve been busy, busy, busy! Most have been in rehearsals, but Laura and Jonathan (pictured) were down at the BBC yesterday on BBC Breakfast, with Joe McElderry, who’s introducing the show, to perform a except from act 1 of The Nutcracker. You can watch the interview and the perfomance here.

But wait! That’s not quite it for Birmingham Royal Ballet on the TV. We also appeared on Central News on ITV last night, with interviews with Sir Peter Wright, Marion Tait and Victoria Marr. It’s a fascinating little feature on up-scaling from Birmingham Hippodrome to O2 with some lovely footage from the show and rehersals. Click here to watch it!

(Photo: Jeanna Nash)

Sunday may have been the last performance of The Nutcracker at Birmingham Hippodrome for a while, but it was also a bit of a first for Birmingham Royal Ballet. For a number of years Birmingham Hippodrome have been running ‘touch tours’ and ‘audio described’ performances for theatre fans with visual impairments. As the name suggests, the tours allow them to get up on stage and into the costume stores to get a genuinely hands-on experience of props, the set and costumes. And then during the show, via a set of headphones, have elements of the performance described so as to fill in any details they may have missed.

The group gathered in the foyer before heading on to the stage, where they had a chance to get to grips with the tree, a few Nutcracker dolls and a Sugar Plum Fairy. The group then spent quite some time in one of the dressing rooms with a vast array of costumes, from Clara’s dress to King Rat’s coat to the Winds head dresses. Everyone was particularly impressed with the detail in the costumes, and in the case of King Rat’s coat – the weight (believe me it weights a ton, how anyone dances in it I have no idea). From there we returned to the foyer for a mince pie or two and a cup of coffee. But that was not quite the end of proceedings, as Jade Heusen and Laura Purkiss came to join us for an impromptu dance class(!) and chat about the show and the roles they’ve been playing this year.

We’re really pleased to have been involved in such a brilliant event, being able to give as many people as possible access, in a really meaningful way, to ballet. Please have a look at the pictures and let us know what you think. If you’d like more information about access for people with visual impairments at Birmingham Hippodrome email Liz Leck, Education and Audience Development Manager at lizleck@birminghamhippodrome.com.

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