The Making of Swan Lake, Part 1

The Birmingham Royal Ballet is performing the magnificent Swan Lake at Chrysler Hall this weekend.

I was amazed to find out that the three performances here in Norfolk are the company’s only performances outside of the UK this season.

Not only is Norfolk the company’s only international appearance, it is the opening of the Birmingham Royal Ballet’s 20th anniversary celebration. (Wow!!!!!)

And BRB is doing more than just performing on this trip. The company and staff arrived this past Sunday, and they had a full agenda lined up for their week in Norfolk. I have entitled this week “Swan Lake Week,” and have had the honor of observing many of the rehearsals and participating in some of the activities that were going on (as well as seeing the performance). This is Part One of the three-part “Swan Lake Week” series, discussing my adventures with the Birmingham Royal Ballet.

* * *

Tuesday began with the first of two Master Classes that the BRB is hosting this week.Pearl Chesterman (the company’s Director for Learning) and Jenny Murphy (the Education Officer) held a Master Class for the dance students at Salem High School, and I was able to observe. (I was also happy to see two of the students I teach in attendance.) Jenny, who is a former BRB company member, led the class. Ian, one of the company’s pianists, accompanied her.

Jenny moved quickly through barre, which is the first section of ballet class where dancers go through a particular progression of steps with the support of a ballet barre. She explained and demonstrated each step fully (showing her absolutely stunning, highly arched feet). The students were greatly focused as they moved through their pliés, tendus, dégagés, rond de jambes, and grand battements.

It was then time to stretch, leave the barre, and move to the center of the studio. After an initial tendu and pirouette (turn) exercise, Jenny taught the students combinations that are excerpts from Swan Lake: part of the Pas de Trois (dance of three) from Act I, which travels back and forth across the room; and a version of the Neapolitan Dance from Act III, which includes small jumps in place.

In the final part of class, the students were taught the Spanish dance from Swan Lake. This piece was very stylized, with lots of shoulder angles, lunges, and back bends (cambrés). The students danced in groups of four (two sets of partners). One group only had three students, so Pearl danced with them. The choreography certainly got the students moving–they had to dance around each other, opposite each other, and in many different directions. And they were having a great time! I saw smiles on many of the students’ faces as they worked on the steps with their partners, and tested out the Spanish style. Jenny was very accessible, answering all questions, and helping the students individually. At one point she said, good-naturedly, “Don’t panic!  If you’re not sure of the steps, just make it look Spanish and you’ll be fine!” which inspired laughter from everyone. The students all got the chance to perform the piece twice. It was fabulous.

I briefly spoke with both Pearl and Jenny after the class, and found out that the Department of Learning hosts Master Classes and various Movement Workshops whenever possible. They coordinate with organizations in the different communities they perform in, and put together programs based on the needs and wants of the organizations. It is a wonderful way for BRB to introduce choreography and repertoire to the workshop students, and give them the opportunity to experience it.

* * *

It was then time to head over to Chrysler Hall to watch the first official company class of the week. The class was held on stage, with Ballet Mistress Marion Tait teaching. The barres they used were configured out of (what seemed to be) 1×4’s put together and framed out into a large squares (almost like fences, really). The two squares filled the stage, and dancers lined both the inside and outside of each one.

The dancers were wearing a variety of warm-ups, sweatpants, shirts, scarves, socks, legwarmers … items that dancers sometimes, affectionately, call “junk.” (As in, “Are we allowed to wear junk in ballet class today, Miss Jaime?”). The best word to describe the energy at the beginning of class is “fluid.” The dancers were easing their way through the steps; working out the kinks, doing their own relaxed port de bras (arm movements) and stretches. Basically, doing what they needed to for their own bodies to get into the groove, while still performing the steps they were given.

Marion Tait gave each combination very quickly, holding her arms high in the air and showing the steps with her hands.  [Sidenote – this is very common in ballet; dancers move their arms and hands (as if they were their legs and feet) when it isn’t necessary to do the steps full out]. The class proceeded through barre at a steady pace. The technique that was on that stage was simply astounding; amazing extensions, lingering balances, beautiful lines …

They did several combinations in the center; adagio, turns, and jumps. It was clear that these are top-notch dancers. I watched in awe as they performed 4 and 5 turns, and flew across the stage with their jumps. And this was all while they were probably still dealing with jet lag.

* * *

The stage rehearsal (for Acts I, II, and IV) was held Tuesday evening. I observed Acts I and II. It was a semi-dress rehearsal, actually. The dancers wore their costumes, but full hair and make-up was not required. And it was great to see some of the ladies in their tutus with black tights, legwarmers or leggings. It was a fun mix of character and individual.

This was their first rehearsal of Swan Lake on this stage. Much of the rehearsal focused on stage placement (what marks the dancers should be on; how steep or shallow their diagonal lines should be, etc), stopping and starting a few times to sort out any spacing or timing issues. The theater was peppered with shouts back and forth from Marion Tait (in the balcony) and the dancers as they performed: “Sonya, what mark are you on?” “I’m on red!” … “Do you have enough room to get through?” “Yes, it’s fine!”

The company was taking care of the details; crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s, making sure everything would be just right for the shows.

* * *

“Swan Lake Week: Part One” is really about introductions: myself to the Virginia Arts Festival and BRB staff; the BRB Department of Learning to local students; the BRB dancers to Norfolk; and the BRB Swan Lake to the Chrysler Hall stage.  Introductions are about beginnings; they are about getting things going. And Swan Lake Week was off to a wonderful start.

Stay tuned for Swan Lake Week: Part Two

This article was originally published on AltDaily in May of 2010. Photos, Virginia Arts Festival.

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