Birth of a Christmas ballet

What does it take to put on a Christmas dance spectacular? Jonathan Brown goes behind the scenes at Leeds Grand Theatre to witness the organised chaos
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The gentle murmur of the audience has grown to an intimidating rumble heard from behind the sanctuary of the safety curtain as a sell-out crowd take their seats amid the red plush and gilded Gothic splendour of Leeds Grand Theatre.

Though it is a freezing night outside, in the wings backstage the atmosphere is muscle-soothingly humid and as the tension builds the dancers doing last- minute stretches are getting flighty.

The mass of lithe figures in top hats, bonnets, bustles and improbable facial hair is compressed into the shadows as they count down the moments for the performance to begin. In the gantries the technicians make their final checks to sound and lighting, stage hands ensure the last props are in place while down in the orchestra pit the cat- wail of instruments being tuned has given way to an ominous silence. Then, seemingly without warning, the curtain goes up and the dancers explode onto the stage.

For the next two hours the Northern Ballet Theatre (NBT) will perform the first of its home-town revivals of A Christmas Carol – a modern interpretation of Dickens' classic redemption fable created specially for the company by the late Christopher Gable. Over the next four weeks more than 25,000 people will attend this season of shows which includes the festive favourite Peter Pan as well as two specially commissioned evenings to mark the NBT's 40th anniversary as Britain's first regional ballet company.

It is a ritual being played out at theatres across the land where the tradition of yuletide ballet is flourishing, albeit dominated by the mighty Nutcracker. Tchaikovsky's balletic fairytale will form the backbone of the Christmas season for the English National Ballet, the Royal Ballet, the Scottish Ballet and the Birmingham Royal Ballet this year. But the NBT's Canadian-born artistic director, David Nixon, has steered a course away from the Land of Sweets for what is a critical period when thousands of theatregoers visit the ballet for the first time.

"This is the time of the year that the ballet really attracts people who might not normally be tempted to try it. It is a kind of pantomime for them but it doesn't have the intensity of other (more technical) dances," he says. Not that Nixon likes to describe the traditional programmes as "accessible". "Let's say there are more options according to people's different levels of appreciation," he says diplomatically.

Ballet, with its extraordinary physical dynamism, has to be seen live to be truly savoured. Yet to grasp the full complexity of what it takes to stage a world-class production such as this it is necessary to spend time backstage.

The planning for A Christmas Carol started two years ago when the theatre was booked and the annual schedule finalised. Each performance costs around £11,000 and tickets must be sold to cover the cost. Working out who plays what and where the costume changes happen is a painstaking task, especially in a small company where dancers can be expected to play up to five different roles a night. Rehearsals begin weeks beforehand when the performers will start learning their various parts for the four different productions that make up this winter season.

The physical work, meanwhile, began at 9am the day before the opening when the company's technical manager, Steve Wilkins, and his team began unloading the first of five articulated lorries containing everything required for the show including stage, lights and several tonnes of set scenery. In addition to the eight technicians, three wardrobe staff, a wigs mistress and the stage-management team, ten extra hands have been brought in to help.

Wilkins, who has worked with touring musicals and rock bands before joining the company full time, sees his job as playing with "big boys' Mechano". Not that the ballet theatre is any place for sexism and women line up alongside their male colleagues to shift the big boxes.

"It is a very nice industry. It doesn't matter who you are or where you come from, or what your sexuality is. If you are a nice person you are OK. We are all here a lot of hours but it is still not like having a real job," he says.

On the day of the opening, company manager, Steve Hughes, is first in the building and from 10am he is busy allotting dressing rooms and getting the theatre ready for the arrival of the dancers. He will also be the last home that night. Hughes, who spent 14 years in the West End, admits that space in cramped Victorian playhouses can be a "political" issue but the cast and crew here are a tight-knit bunch – a closeness forged from years of travelling and living together in digs.

Discipline is the defining feature of a dancer's life. The 40 performing members of the company begin the day at 10.30am with a 90-minute classical ballet class. They have come to Leeds from eight different countries, including China, Japan and France. On a day when there is no matinée they will spend three hours each afternoon rehearsing at the company's leaky studios a few miles away in the north of the city.

Dancers spend a lifetime building and maintaining their incredible strength and suppleness, yet financial rewards are scant. Apprentices are paid as little as £15,000 and most will barely double this before injury or retirement ends their career by the time they are 40.

After lunch on the first day of a production in a new theatre everyone is required for the technical run-through. This is the first time that the two-dozen child dancers, including Tiny Tim, whose demise forms the centrepiece of the third act, will have met the cast.

The youngsters have been practising their moves at their local dance school and must now be put through their paces for real. There is an added complication for tonight's performance with the arrival of a 30-strong school choir. All are patiently shuffled around the stage by the music director, John Pryce-Jones, and the ballet master, Daniel de Andrade, until everyone seems to know what they are doing.

After a brief lull in proceedings in the late afternoon when everyone slips off to eat or shop, by 6pm the theatre is starting to buzz.

Premier dancer Darren Goldsmith is in make up, having a bald head applied by the wigs mistress, Georgina Gabbie, in preparation for his starring role as Scrooge. A veteran of 17 years with the NBT he has been playing the famous miser since he was 21. "It is all about concentration," he explains. "I am on the stage for every scene bar one, so I have to keep it going through the entire show. It is amazing how everyone is watching Scrooge. I only dance for the last 15 minutes," he explains.

By the time of the 30-minute call, the first members of the audience, who tonight include 15 critics, are sipping gin and tonic in the bar. Backstage the atmosphere is sober. Dancers in full Victorian attire are striking warm-up poses. A last-minute problem with a computer that controls the flying props has miraculously fixed itself and with five minutes to go, wisps of London smog are rising from the dry ice machine while chestnut sellers, market traders laden with baskets of holly and an anaemic looking rubber turkey that will form the Cratchit's meagre Christmas meal flit backwards and forwards.

Viewed from the stalls, the show itself appears to go faultlessly and as the last of the audience file out of the theatre shortly after 9pm and the dancers hurry home, the stage manager Olivia Dermot Walsh reveals that not everything went quite as smoothly as it appeared. During the second act a bulb exploded, showering the stage in glass, and it was touch and go whether the show would have to be stopped.

"There were a lot of people in bare feet and children on stage so it was very serious. We can't afford for the dancers to be injured. In the end we managed to bend the choreography around it and in the dark scenes we sent people on to sweep up with dust pan and brushes," she says. "The exciting thing about live theatre is that you have to think on your feet. It is certainly an all-consuming job. You have to have a love and passion for it to be involved," she adds.



For details of Northern Ballet Theatre's winter season, visit Northernballettheatre.co.uk

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