60 dancers, 44 tutus and two washing machines: on the road with Birmingham Royal Ballet

Artist Emily Smith and technical staff with props and equipment to be loaded for Birmingham Royal Ballet’s touring production of Cinderella. Photo: Richard Battye Artist Emily Smith and technical staff with props and equipment to be loaded for Birmingham Royal Ballet’s touring production of Cinderella. Photo: Richard Battye
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The logistics of taking a large-scale ballet on tour can be mind-boggling. Key backstage workers and performers from Birmingham Royal Ballet tell Neil Norman how meticulous preparations keep the show on the road…

Organising a tour for a large ballet company is rather like preparing a military campaign. The aims and results may be different and, though injuries are not uncommon, for dancers they’re rarely fatal. But the logistics of transporting people and equipment are similar.

Although it has a home base at the Birmingham Hippodrome, Birmingham Royal Ballet is a touring company and takes everything from triple bills of new works to grand classics abroad as well as around the UK. At each venue, the team may have three or four nights of performance before packing up and moving on to the next town where the process of getting in, setting up the scenery, lighting, costumes and props begins all over again.

The statistics alone are enough to freeze the blood.

Doug Nicholson is head of scenic presentation and is responsible for getting all the hardware in and out on time and in good order.

“For technical staffing we have a basic number of 25, which comprises stage management, stage and props, lighting, lighting consultant, costumes, wigs and a shoe person,” he says. “We add local staff to assist as necessary for stage, lighting and costumes. We have between 55 and 60 dancers, plus extras for the classical full-length works. We can also have as many as 45 musicians or more, depending on rep – as well as company management. We hire sound equipment and the sound people travel to each venue.”

The stage (including their own sprung floor) and lighting teams are always in the vanguard, closely followed by stage management, sound and costumes, wigs and shoes, the company management and dancers. The musicians come last, though I am assured that they are not bitter about it. “Time is our biggest headache,” says Nicholson. “We do have high standards, so everything has to be perfect.”

The equipment travels in articulated trucks, while the human elements travel in trains or coaches. For a big production such as David Bintley’s Cinderella, 10 artics are required, according to company manager Will Mauchline: “We transport the set, costume, props and lighting up and down the country, including 1,000 hair pins, 250 hair rollers, 78 wigs, 44 tutus, eight baskets of shoes, two washing machines plus my touring office.”

‘There’s a fine line between company manager and mother’ – Will Mauchline, company manager, Birmingham Royal Ballet

The artists and crew travel in separate groups. The technical teams go first via train and meet the trucks in each venue, while the dancers and Mauchline travel by coach, arriving the night before the opening. “We then jump on the coach straight after the show on a Saturday night so we can have a Sunday at home.

Although Mauchline trained at RADA in stage management, he soon realised he preferred working as company manager. Consequently he gravitated from ‘hardware’ to ‘software’. “I was once told that there’s a fine line between company manager and mother,” he says. “A company manager works with everyone to make sure it all happens, from the company coach to performers to guests watching rehearsals and so on. When it doesn’t go to plan, I deal with it and hopefully overcome the problem, ideally with minimal upset.”

Both UK and international tours require a great deal of preparation in advance, even if the company is returning to venues it has played many times before. Each tour is planned about a year in advance.

Aside from the sets, lights and other stage hardware, the costumes and shoes are of paramount importance and require special care and constant maintenance. Vanda Hewston is deputy head of costume and her responsibilities are enough to give even the most assiduous housewife a migraine. If Nicholson’s big problem is time, her biggest problem is space.

Hewston rattles off the statistics for their recent tour of Cinderella: “620 items of costumes packed across 31 rails. This will be to house costumes for the 73 characters that will be on stage during each performance. We tour many different casts and some spares also. There are 210 items of headdresses and jewellery which are kept in six large wicker touring skips; 127 pairs of shoes and 79 wigs toured in large flight cases.”


BRB’s TOURING Timeline

Head of scenic presentation Doug Nicholson describes getting in to a new venue:

1. Bring in the floor and put it down.

2. Move locals, back border etc, into position.

3. Start loading the sets and hang all cloths and scenery.

4. Get in the peripheral lighting, front-of-house equipment and overhead lighting rig.

5. Get the stage ready to focus lighting.

6. At about 2pm on the load-in day, stage management starts getting equipment needed for costume preparation and the office.

7. Then the costume department starts moving costumes to dressing rooms after they have been allocated to the company by the senior stage manager.

8. After stage management has finalised the required setting for the lighting department, the focus begins. This continues into the evening and the following morning with the stage department changing the setting as required.

9. Once focus is complete on the second day, start lighting – this usually continues over the rehearsal. The rehearsal normally begins at 2pm, finishing by 5.30pm.

10. Stage reset ready for curtain up at 7.30pm.

BRB’s Sleeping Beauty has well over three times as many items as Cinderella. So who does the laundry? “We tour all our own washing machines, tumble dryers, steamers, irons and ironing boards,” says Hewston. “We have sewing machines, extra stock and cleaning products as well as using equipment supplied by each theatre. We prefer to look after, wash and repair costumes ourselves as they can often be delicate and valuable.”

Indeed, many of them might be classed as vintage collectors’ items. A standard tutu designed by John MacFarlane (as in Cinderella) is made by specialist, world-class costume-makers and is often elaborately decorated with expensive braids, hand beading and stones, applied individually to catch the light. If looked after properly, costumes can last for years.

Intricate costumes and complicated steps often create problems, as Hewston recalls. “On our last tour, during the Cinderella and Prince pas de deux, the costumes got stuck together and the dancers had to rip the costumes to be able to carry on,” laughs Hewston. “That was a big repair. The never-ending comedy malfunction has to be the boys’ trousers splitting in unfortunate places. Comedy, that is, until it’s time to fix it.”

She remembers the time when the leading man was about to go on but had forgotten his all-important hat. “I didn’t have time to run down side of stage, so I just frisbeed it down and he caught it just in time, placed it on his head and walked on stage. Luckily I’m good at throwing and he was a very good catcher.”

‘Cinderella and the Prince’s costumes got stuck together – they had to rip them to carry on’ – Vanda Hewston, deputy head of costume, Birmingham Royal Ballet

On a tour of this magnitude, it is essential that the artists are kept comfortable and secure. Dancers are given an allowance for lodging two months before a tour, allowing them to arrange their digs. First soloist Delia Mathews says the biggest problem for dancers is the enormous variation in the size of the venues.

“We usually have one afternoon to adjust to the different stages before our opening show, which doesn’t give us a lot of time. Now that I’ve been with BRB for a number of years, I’ve got to know a lot of our regular stages, so we often know what problems we might face before we get there and rehearse accordingly. For instance, in our recent tour of Cinderella, we knew before we even got to Sunderland that 16 stars couldn’t fit on the stage so we rehearsed a smaller group in the studio first.”

Finally, I ask Mathews how the company deals with injuries on tour. “We always take two physiotherapists with us and the company makes sure we have access to a nearby gym,” she says.

If the injury is more serious, there is always the local hospital. Mauchline recalls that during his first month with the company he had to go on stage at the Lowry in Salford to announce cast changes at every show due to illness or injury.

“I have been to pretty much every major city’s A&E across the UK until the early hours with various cast members,” he says. That, of course, is what mothers are for.

Birmingham Royal Ballet tours the Arcadia and Solitaire mixed programmes from May 5. Details: brb.org.uk