On the Road with Birmingham Royal Ballet

Linda’s recent visit to The Tokyo Ballet left us very curious to find out more about touring ballet companies and the specific challenges they face. Touring companies have to adapt to change constantly. The whole troupe is involved, starting with the technical staff – who need to design tour-friendly productions and adjust them to suit different venues – to dancers who must be prepared to cover a broad range of roles and, for most of the year, say goodbye to the comfort of their homes and main theatre (though some companies don’t even have the benefit of a base camp).

Trading the comfort of home to conquer different audiences and experience true adventures on the road sounds fun, but it also means a ballet company must be ready to often deal with unexpected situations and manage logistics. In this feature touring veterans Birmingham Royal Ballet, one of the world’s leading ballet companies, share their perspectives on what it’s like to be always on the road:

First Soloist Andrea Tredinnick is interviewed during a tour to Norfolk. Photo: Tom Stevens / BRB ©

What are the advantages of touring?

David Bintley, Artistic Director: To us, touring is vitally important. There isn’t such a large audience in any one area that we could perform 26 weeks of the year in one place. Looking back to when I was a dancer it was great, I liked touring, although I’ve been doing this for thirty-four years, so some elements of touring are not much fun anymore! But when you’re a young dancer especially, it’s great not to be stuck in the same theatre. It’s great to play different audiences, and to get different responses, to see how things go in one theatre and how they are received in another theatre.

Who travels with the dancers to support them?

Paul Grist (Company Manager) during BRB's 2009 China Tour. Photo: BRB ©

Paul Grist, Company Manager: Marion Tait, Ballet Mistress, and our three Ballet Masters: Michael O’Hare, Wolfgang Stollwitzer and Dominic Antonucci, are out on tour with us all the time; teaching class, taking rehearsals, watching performances and maintaining artistic standards – as well as dancing character roles in a considerable amount of the repertoire. AD David Bintley will usually visit each touring venue for the stage rehearsal and first performance of each programme, staying for all or part of the week depending on his other commitments and the repertoire. Also Denis Bonner, our repetiteur who stages most of David’s and Peter [Wright]’s repertoire, will usually visit each touring venue for the stage rehearsal and first couple of performances. 

In addition to the artistic staff, there is always one Physiotherapist and one Massage Therapist from our Jerwood Centre on tour each week to provide support with injury treatment and prevention.

I manage all of the dancers administratively and am in day-to-day charge of things on tour. I’m there to support the dancers with any other needs they may have whilst we’re away, from where they can see a local doctor or dentist, to finding a restaurant that’s open after the show, finding accommodation, picking up groceries for people who are sick/injured, help with taxi numbers, organising temporary gym memberships and – on two occasions since I joined the Company – driving an injured dancer back to Birmingham at the end of a touring week!

What are the biggest changes to routine?

Paul Grist: I guess the biggest routine change for the dancers on tour is due to the fact that they’re away from home; most people tend to book self-catering apartments so that they can still cook after the show as in some cities it can be very hard to find restaurants that are open that late. Warm-up routines may also change as there is less space available – in Birmingham the dancers can use empty studios to warm-up during the day or go to the Jerwood Centre to work out. On tour they have to go down to local gyms/sports centres to work out and most warming-up consists of stretching in the corridors. The corridors in Sunderland are particularly wide and are usually full of dancers warming up.

While on tour the dancers leave behind the excellent facilities at Birmingham's Jerwood Centre. Photo: Roy Smiljanic / BRB ©

Where do rehearsals take place?

Paul Grist: The touring schedule is carefully devised to take account of the availability of rehearsal space (or more usually, the lack of availability of rehearsal space!) in each venue. 

Our biggest challenge for rehearsal space on tour is class and the first choice is always for this to happen on stage but even that can sometimes be unsuitable. For example, during the recent Sleeping Beauty tour when the size of the production meant that the Company was augmented with a considerable number of students, there wasn’t really space in the smaller venues to do a full class on stage. This meant often doing two shorter classes or even, in Sunderland, two extended barres each day.

The Company taking class on stage in Norfolk, VA. Photo: Tom Stevens / BRB ©

Paul Grist: At Sadler’s Wells [London] we always have two studios (one for rehearsals and one for costume storage, as the dressing rooms are so small); at the London Coliseum we always use the Royal Opera House studios nearby; in Salford there are a couple of studios around the building that we can use if they are available but if they’re booked, the scenery dock is so large that we can lay a spare floor and do an extended barre in there. Actors rehearsals are even more fun and they usually end up taking place in large dressing rooms, foyer areas or even front of the house bars.

What’s the hardest aspect of touring?

Momoko Hirata. Photo: Andrew Ross/BRB ©

Momoko Hirata, Soloist: Some people don’t really like going on tour because we have to leave behind the gym and all the facilities we have at home, and the exercise regime is very different. But as long as there’s a physiotherapist on tour with us, I’m okay. International trips are harder because it’s really difficult to pass the time, especially on a long flight. I hate having to sit still! It takes a long time for my body to get used to time differences too, and I suffer from jet lag and stiffness a great deal, so I try to get as much sleep and rest as possible and make sure I’m wearing my flight socks.

Apart from that I miss cooking when I’m away, I must say. You always have to eat well and I miss that. I cook Japanese, Italian, Thai …and steak! But we always have a good time on tour, we’re able to spend lots of time together, which is fun.

What factors affect where Birmingham Royal Ballet performs?

Jacqueline Mistry, Contracts Director: The size of theatre is one of the biggest factors for us. For large-scale national and international tours the limiting factor is usually stage size. For our split tours to mid-scale venues, it’s stage size and an orchestra pit. Most of our productions need a fly tower, though we have adapted and coped without, especially on the split tours.  A steep rake is not good for us, but again we’ve coped. We’re pretty adaptable, but can’t perform in theatres “in the round”!

Which preparations have to be made before touring?

Paul Grace, Technical Director: The whole Company is involved – we’re a touring Company by nature so everybody who works on our home shows also works on the shows when they hit the road. It’s a huge and hugely complex operation. It’s like lots of little cogs making up a huge engine – one stops and the whole engine stops. We stage anything up to 20 different shows a year. As well as our four seasons in Birmingham which often kick off UK tours, we then have the overseas tours and the smaller split tours.

Christopher Barron (Chief Executive), Peter Teigen (Lighting Designer) and Johnny Westall-Eyre (Head of Lighting) at the National Centre for the Performing Arts, China. Photo: Simon Harper / BRB ©

In addition to performing, does Birmingham Royal Ballet carry out any additional activities on the road?

Pearl Chesterman, Director for Learning: The Department for Learning delivers workshops in schools and community settings around many of the Company’s major touring venues and occasionally in smaller venues. These workshops aim to give the participants an insight into the ballets that the company is performing.

Are there any places that you particularly like to visit?

Pearl Chesterman: Recently the Learning team have delivered workshops in China and America to support the Company’s international tours, and dates like these are always exciting. Or anywhere near the sea… we are rather landlocked here in Birmingham!

How far in advance are tours planned?

David Bintley, Artistic Director: It tends to be around two or three years. Everything we do is with touring in mind, because we tour everything we dance except for The Nutcracker. The domestic touring pattern doesn’t change that much. You get one-off venues that come in, like Cardiff or Edinburgh, because we only get biannual funding to visit those places. The size of those theatres might affect what goes into your repertoire, but basically everything that we dance in the autumn, spring and summer goes on the road somewhere.

 Sadler’s Wells and the Coliseum are obviously both in London, but they require different reps that we have to plan for. Sadler’s Wells Theatre is a more contemporary, triple bill-oriented theatre, whereas the Coliseum is a more “walk up the centre of town and see the big works” sort of place. So factors like these contribute to what we do for two of the three tours. But I wouldn’t say that anywhere is more important than anywhere else.

The Birmingham Royal Ballet in Sir Peter Wright's The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Bill Cooper / BRB ©

How does touring impact on production design?

David Bintley: Whenever we do a full-length ballet now we always establish right at the start how we’ll get it into our smaller theatres. So within reason, our new production of Cinderella has been designed with touring in mind. We will probably remake a few elements so we have a big version of the production for the bigger theatres and a slightly smaller version for the slightly smaller theatres. That’s not to say we’ll have an entirely different set, we won’t. In most cases we’ll decide to drop a cloth, drop a bar, have half as many stairs, and so on. So it isn’t a question of us just blindly making a production then later thinking ‘how on earth are we going to get this into Sunderland?’. We don’t do that, we do it alongside the design process and build things in such a way that we can recreate them even when we go into smaller venues.

What piece of advice would you give to dancers who tour?

Céline Gittens, First Artist: The most important thing, especially for dancers is to keep hydrated, because you just get so drained from traveling. For the recent trip to Virginia, we were onto a coach at 7am, then a plane, then another coach. So try and get in some rest and get lots of water! We do class six days a week, so having a day when we can’t really move about at all is really difficult. You sometimes find people in the aisle doing stretches – I’m not used to sitting down in a closed position for too long!

Céline Gittens being fitted for Romeo & Juliet by BRB's Head of Wardrobe Lili Sobieralska Photo: Rob Lindsay / BRB ©

Can you share with us some nightmare experiences?

David Bintley: You have nightmare experiences on the road all the time. Doing The Two Pigeons when a theatre’s hot water goes is no fun – you come off stage head to toe in whatever the pigeon has decided to drop on you and you’ve no way to wash it off – horrible!

 We haven’t done one for years, but you could write a book on “tent seasons”. This was back when we were based in Sadler’s Wells. Beginning in the late 1970s, for about 15 years I would have said, we performed regularly in a huge tent. It belonged to Fossets, the old circus. The circus had finished but they still had this old big top, so they decided to put a stage in it. It was fantastic, but it was like camping. I remember the orchestra sitting in two inches of water with plastic bags around their feet!

Robert Parker and Nao Sakuma in Ashton's The Two Pigeons. Photo: Bill Cooper / BRB ©

David Bintley: I remember high winds in Plymouth when they had to get all the wagons literally in a circle around the tent to try and make this wind break so the tent wouldn’t fall down. They cancelled the show in the end because it was too dangerous and we all went and played “Pitch and Putt” in the park next door… too windy to dance but not too windy for pitch and putt! We turned up one year and all the floors in the portacabins had been changed to ply, and it was like a trampoline. And they’d got these trestle tables, and the mirrors I think had all been taken out of old wardrobes – all different shapes and quite ornate. They were just propped up against the wall with a couple of nails in the floor at the bottom to stop them sliding down. Which was fine until of course we all walked in and the floor bounced up and down. All these mirrors were skipping over the nails and falling down and smashing on the floor!

First Soloist Jenna Roberts in her dressing room. Photo: Roy Smiljanic / BRB ©

Follow Birmingham Royal Ballet on the road:

All images posted with Birmingham Royal Ballet’s kind permission. With many thanks to Rob Lindsay & to the staff at Birmingham Royal Ballet.

Likes ballets that taste like 85% cocoa: pure, extra bitter, dark or intense. Her favorites are La Sylphide, Manon, Mayerling, Ondine, Symphonic Variations and McGregor's Chroma. Her favorite Ratmansky ballets are: The Little Humpbacked Horse, Russian Seasons, Cinderella and The Shostakovich Trilogy. She is always ready to chase new Ratmanskys around the globe. Non ballet: literature, theatre, opera, rock, art, food, travel, fashion, translating and interpreting.