My Royal view
The Royal is coming to Australia! This being the Royal Ballet (RB) and not the Royals themselves, although Her Majesty, The Queen is patron of the company, and His Royal Highness, Prince of Wales is the company’s president (I met Prince Charles once while in costume as a pimp … another story). Let me introduce you to my view of the RB from behind-the-scenes – though from down the road a bit with another Royal.
First some facts. The RB is royalty, heritage and stars all wrapped inside the five-star Royal Opera House package. Most alluring. At $249 for a premium vantage point at Queensland’s Performing Arts Centre (QPAC), where it will be performing in Australia, it is also quite expensive. It is testament to the RB’s deluxe brand that its 12 Brisbane shows, from June 29 to July 9, are expected to sell out. Audience’s would most likely not even have heard of, or seen the two newly choreographed full-length ballets: Christopher Wheeldon’s The Winter’s Tale and Wayne McGregor’s Olivier Award-winning Woolf Works. Yet it matters little. The Royal’s stamp of approval and brand will guarantee an outstanding product … we hope. (How rare and fortunate that a ballet company can afford such creative risks.)
The Royal Opera House (ROH) at Covent Garden, or “The House”, which accommodates the ballet and opera (and accompanying orchestras), is a successful brand as well. Its appeal even extends over the Atlantic Ocean, enjoying support from the American Friends of Covent Garden, a popular US-based philanthropic fund. Outrageous! Its physical location, situated at the heart of London’s theatre district, makes it a readily accessible tourist attraction. An evening spent at the ROH promises an opulent, classy and sophisticated night out. After extensive renovations in the 1990’s – costing squillions – the building’s classical exterior, horse-shoe auditorium, champagne-centred foyer and back-stage spaces are a complementary mix of traditional and modernist architecture. This in many ways represents the RB’s own artistic offerings, a successful merge of old and new.
There was a time I fancied a stint as a dancer with the Royal. Earn some serious pounds, celebrity profile, 90 shows a year (of which the “stars” perform around 11). You would be crazy not to try. I partly blame my Dad for this aspiration. As a Londoner and balletomane, he would often (and still does) reminisce of the RB performances at Covent Garden in the 1950s and 60s. He would wax lyrical about watching ballet royalty -- Margot Fonteyn, Michael Somes and Antoinette Sibley -- all great performers of their time. As such, Covent Garden’s theatre -- which to the young me sounded like a garden where nuns hung out -- became something of a pinnacle. I nursed an ambition to dance on its sacred stage.
As it happened I ended up the road, so to speak, from Covent Garden -- with Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB). As a principal dancer with BRB, I frequently rehearsed at Covent Garden’s studios, but never danced on its stage. It became for me a parallel to Abraham’s Promised Land (yet in my case less promised and more wished for): sacred ground, only viewed from a window afar.
In stark contrast to the RB’s red carpet location, BRB’s was less salubrious. Situated in the heart of Birmingham’s Chinatown, and buffered by strip clubs, night clubs and fried-food outlets, BRB’s headquarters were like a moral beacon in a hedonistic jungle. I have fond memories of navigating past puddles of Friday night’s excesses while walking to stage door. Nice! The reason Birmingham has its own “Royalty” is that in 1990, as part of the UK government’s initiative to spread its arts organisations away from cultural-centric London, Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet – the Royal Ballet’s sister and touring company – was asked to leave its well-established home in London. Birmingham City offered the company a permanent home at its Hippodrome Theatre, which was accepted; hence BRB. As such, the two “royal” ballet companies, although affiliated through history, are now essentially separate organisations, and gently competitive. Yet much of the historical repertoire is still shared between the two companies. Productions may vary slightly; where the RB’s sets are opulent and lavish affairs, BRB’s will be of simpler design -- necessitated by touring logistics and budget. Mind you, BRB would claim it fills its unpretentious sets with more heart (and less ego) -- nudge, nudge.
History and tradition, and its careful preservation, are hallmarks of the royal ballet companies. Ballets like Ninette de Valois’ signature piece, Checkmate, choreographed in 1937 for the RB’s predecessor, Vic-Wells Ballet, is still in repertoire with both companies. As a dancer, this engenders a sense of lineage. You become part of the caretaking team. Audiences too feel this permanence, of belonging to a historical chain.
Particularly over the past 10 years, the RB has actively re-established itself as not just ballet’s curator, but also innovator and creative risk-taker. This future-looking vision was to large degree instigated by former RB artistic director Ross Stretton, who really shook the traditionalist tree by introducing new repertoire. This paved the way for his successor, Monica Mason, to re-shape a future tree (led by three resident choreographers), which has been dutifully watered by current director, Kevin O'Hare.
Boasting the talents of established and emerging British choreographers Christopher Wheeldon, Wayne MacGregor and Liam Scarlett, the company is attempting to reinvigorate ballet’s creative landscape. Ballet, as we all know, is blessed and plagued by an over-reliance to reimaging Petipa and Tchaikovsky’s classics. (Without box office favourites The Nutcracker and Swan Lake, many ballet companies would cease to exist.) So it is refreshing to see the RB leading the creative risk-taking charge.
In closing, some small gripes. Given it was 15 years ago since the RB’s last Australian visit, and the vast wealth of its repertoire, the two-week tour seems a little short (I am being greedy now). And accompanying its new programming, some classic Royal repertoire, of an Ashton or MacMillan ilk, would have capped off a balanced royal banquet – for me. After-all, no companies do these pieces more justice than the RB (except BRB). The subtle choreographic nuances are embedded in their techniques. However, from the slightly envious dancer up the road, it is still a “bravo!” and standing ovation for the royal-risk-takers. It promises to be a cracking event. See you at QPAC!
- MATTHEW LAWRENCE
Matthew Lawrence is a former leading dancer with the Birmingham Royal Ballet, the Australian Ballet and the Queensland Ballet.
This article first appeared in the April/May 2017 issue of 'Dance Australia'.