Behind the scenes of The Nutcracker with Birmingham Royal Ballet
The Nutcracker is arguably the most popular ballet in the world that brings enormous audiences into theatres across the world every year. We caught up with the Birmingham Royal Ballet to find out what it takes to put on a production of such proportions and what makes it such a timeless family classic.
The Nutcracker is one of the most iconic, instantly recognisable ballets in the world, synonymous with winter, Christmas and fairy tales. Scored by the great Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky and choreographed by influential ballet masters Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, it premiered at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg on December 18, 1892 and has become a festive family favourite across the world.
Known for its beautiful, melodious music, lush costumes and grandiose sets, the ballet is a true feast for all senses. We spoke to the Birmingham Royal Ballet, who have been performing The Nutcracker every year since 1990, to find out what it takes to stage a production of such proportions and what exactly is the secret behind The Nutcracker’s enduring popularity and ubiquitous presence in pop culture.
Céline Gittens—Principal Dancer
Céline as the Rose Fairy
“The Nutcracker has been with the Birmingham Royal Ballet since it moved from Sadler’s Wells. The director at the time, Sir Peter Wright, was the one who choreographed it as a gift to give back to Birmingham for welcoming us. It was a gift to give back to the community and it stayed in the repertoire ever since.”
"I did The Nutcracker in my first season with BRB when I was 18 and it was very exciting because it was the first time I was dancing with a professional company and it was also my first big role which was the "Arabian Dance" in Act II. Since then I’ve gone on to do other roles in The Nutcracker, such as the Rose Fairy and Sugar Plum Fairy which is one of the definite highlights of the ballet.
"The Grand Pas De Deux that happens at the end of Act II brings a real sense of grandeur to the atmosphere on stage which radiates to the audience. It’s a very physically challenging number but it’s also very rewarding in the end."
Céline as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Brandon Lawrence
“For the Sugar Plum Fairy, I have 45-minute rehearsals two, three times a week. Usually, our ballet class is from 10:30 till 11:45, followed by a 15-minute break and then we head straight into whatever rehearsal we have at that time for an hour an a half followed by an hour-long lunch break. After that, we continue rehearsing till 6:30. Some dancers like to do their own routine before class, like come ten minutes before and do a quick stretch. Others come in 45 minutes before the class starts and do a Pilates session to get all their muscles fired up.”
Vanda Hewston—Deputy Head of Costume
"The Nutcracker costumes were designed by John Macfarlane so they’re absolutely stunningly beautiful. There are loads and loads of layers and really delicate fabrics. My favourite character costume is the Rat King because it’s really heavy—it weighs so much you can’t even dance in it. And obviously, you’ve got a head and a tail so it’s hard to see in it as well."
The Rat King
"We have a big team of dressers. There are ten of them for The Nutcracker, and they have to do all the changes behind the stage. All in all, there are 110 characters in the ballet. The biggest group of characters are the Snowflakes, there are 16 of them. But there are 110 costumes in total that need to be set and one character can have five different outfits as well, so you can imagine how many costumes it adds up to in the end! I think there are 22 rails worth of costumes."
"The dancers’ costumes get very sweaty after each performance, so there’s a lot of washing after each show. It’s boys’ tights galore, basically! So if some people share a costume, we have to dry it for the next performance. Sometimes that can be very difficult if it’s really delicate, like the Sugar Plum Fairy's tutu for example, because you can’t put it in the tumble dryer."
Will Mauchline—Company Manager
"The Nutcracker is our biggest show in the repertoire—to the point that we don’t tour with it. We’re a touring company but because The Nutcracker is so large, we only ever do it in Birmingham. We had previously done an arena version at the O2 and this Christmas we’re doing a different version of it at the Royal Albert Hall so it’s just such a large show in terms of staff, size, the set—it’s huge.
"There are about 126 individual roles in The Nutcracker, spread over 50 dancers"
Just to put it into context, on a different show, we usually have about 20 backstage staff running the show. On The Nutcracker, just the one transformation into the Land of the Snow takes 47 backstage staff: 12 stage crew, 12 lighting crew, 14 on the flies, four props staff and three stage management.
"With The Nutcracker, all departments are really busy but at different points. For example, the stage department is really busy during that massive transformation into the fairy tale world and then it goes quieter. Once we’re in that fairy tale world, the costume staff have to make so many quick changes. There are about 126 individual roles in The Nutcracker, but that’s spread over 50 dancers so there are lots of costume changes throughout it."
"I love this ballet. I grew up in Birmingham and I remember coming as a kid to watch it—it's a really fun, beautiful show. I think many people may be reluctant to see it because it’s a ballet but the truth is that it’s a really lovely, fun story."
Anna Williams—Chief Operating Officer
"The Nutcracker is the single production that brings more people to ballet for the first time than any other. For example, last year in 2016, we had a record-breaking season of The Nutcracker—the highest ticket sales to date. Of those 40,000 people who came to see it, 55 per cent of the tickets were booked by first-time bookers.
"It’s a fantastic feel-good show that’s very much about family audiences"
In terms of thinking how we, as a company, connect with the city of Birmingham and welcome everybody to come and see a ballet for the first time, The Nutcracker is that production. Wrapped together with the whole notion of Christmas and festivity, it’s a fantastic feel-good show that’s very much about family audiences."
"It’s incredibly accessible, and has a very clear story. Because it isn’t language-based, it transcends language barriers. The music is very well-known and it’s absolutely spectacular to look at. It’s a visual feast. One of the really wonderful things about it is that even if you think that you don’t understand much about ballet, I don’t think there’s anyone who can come to a production like this and not find some aspect to enjoy about it, whether it’s just the sheer spectacle or the wonderful music."
"There are bits in it that always make me want to cry because they’re so beautiful and touching, such as the scene at the end of Act I where we have the Snowflake dance which includes flame retardant snow. The scene is set, it starts to snow, the choir is singing in the pit, the beautiful Snowflakes fill the stage... it’s just incredibly atmospheric. I always find that bit very sentimental and it captures the spirit of Christmas perfectly."
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