Thursday, 21 May 2015

Taking the Royal Ballet on Tour

Taking the Royal Ballet on tour (insight evening), Clore Studio @ ROH - 18th May

As well as performing at the Royal Opera House, the Royal Ballet tours internationally every summer. In advance of the company's trip to the USA in June, an insight evening explored what goes into taking the UK's leading ballet company overseas.

Marianela Nunez in Don Quixote
Photo: Johan Persson
For Royal Ballet director Kevin O'Hare, "it's very important to be seen in other countries. The company made its name through international touring. Wherever we go, we're flying the flag for Britain." In choosing locations, he tries to find a balance between visiting places where there are existing ballet audiences and new locations where people are less familiar with the art form, although "who invites us" is a key factor.

O'Hare programmes touring repertoire that shows both the company's heritage and its newer and more innovative choreography. This year, Carlos Acosta's Don Quixote is being taken to Chicago and Washington, whilst two mixed bills - The Dream / Song of the Earth and Infra / various pas de deux and solos / The Age of Anxiety - will compete with American Ballet Theatre's Swan Lake in New York. O'Hare describes the tour as "exciting" for company dancers. "It's a little 'lift' at the end of the season. And it's challenging - dancers have to prove themselves abroad as they're not known so well."

Planning for a tour begins two years in advance. There are 150-170 people in the Royal Ballet's 'touring party' and company manager Andrew Hurst spends a lot of time arranging visas and travel itineraries. He also creates a red book 'bible' which includes daily schedules and useful local information such as restaurant recommendations. (The Japan tour 'bible' even included taxi driver directions in Japanese from the hotel to the theatre!) In first artist Nathalie Harrison's words, "Andrew makes it idiot proof".

The company brings much of its own equipment - from sets and costumes (including three skip loads of pointe shoes) to lighting rigs and tumble dryers. All items have to be packed, listed for customs purposes and shipped well in advance. Technical and costume staff then fly out ahead of the dancers to ensure everything is ready for their arrival. As the Royal Ballet doesn't tour with its in-house orchestra, the company's conductor also travels out in advance to rehearse with local musicians.

For Harrison, touring is one of the highlights of being a Royal Ballet dancer, although it requires a lot of preparation. "There's always a rush with sewing shoes to get them ready in time for shipping! We also have to prepare everything artistically before we leave, especially understudy roles as people are more likely to get poorly on tour."

All this the hard work behind the scenes allows the Royal Ballet to make a huge impact across the world. O'Hare's touring highlight was when the company brought the first full-length ballet to Bombay and reached households across India through a live TV broadcast. For Hurst, visiting Cuba in 2009 was his favourite touring moment. "People just love ballet there, and our tickets were really cheap - under £1 - so literally anyone could come and see us. It was amazing."

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