October 05, 2004

Don't Mess With My Tutu!

El-Branden Brazil Backstage On The
Production Of 'Swan Lake'

Many years ago, I was employed to work for the Birmingham Ballet Company and The Royal Ballet Company, as an actor. Having been a professional performer from the age of ten, I was very excited to have the opportunity to experience working for these prestigious companies.

Apart from a very brief stint of ballet lessons, at the ripe old age of three, I had absolutely no skill in the pirouette to contribute to any professional production. However, both ballet and opera productions require professional actors to support the dancers, either working as background movement or as small featured roles. The opportunity provides no chance of fame, but it does allow a wonderful insight into the workings of a ballet production from behind-the-scenes.

The first I worked on, was Cinderella for the Birmingham Ballet Company. In this particular production, I had the respectable role of 'Footman'. This required me to don 18th. Century attire, as well as a short powdered wig. There was some responsibility, as I had to be on cue to open the door on Cinderella's coach, as she arrived for the Prince's ball.

Timing is crucial, as the orchestra stops for no one. Unfortunately, on the first night, I forgot that the coach's door handle needed to be pushed up, rather than the more natural action of down. I could hear from the wings, the stage manager screaming, "UP!!! UP!!!", and Cinderella, looking so graceful, whispering, "Get the fucking door open!" Finally, after what seemed like minutes, but was actually seconds, the door opened, and Cinderella leapt out to catch-up with her missed cues.

People have many misconceptions about ballet dancers. The first is that they are incredibly fit. In so many ways they are, but it seemed ironic to catch the ballet dancers coming off stage, bent over and exhausted, but immediately lighting up a cigarette to "clear" the lungs.

The second misconception, is that they are snobby, serious and distant. Nothing could be further from the truth. On the production of Swan Lake I worked on, for the Royal Ballet Company at the Bristol Hippodrome, it was difficult to keep a straight face on the stage.

In one scene, I played a lord arriving at the Swan Queen's ball in the Second Act. After entering and bowing nobly to the Queen, I then had to spend a torturous ten minutes, standing stoically in the background. This should have been a simple task, had it not been for the ballet dancers' insatiable desire to make me laugh by pulling silly faces, as they pirouetted by!

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