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Backstage at the Royal Ballet with Radio 3

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Graeme Kay Graeme Kay | 11:24 UK Time, Friday, 9 December 2011

Photo of backstage at the Royal Opera House


Here's a Blog from BBC Concert Orchestra senior producer Neil Varley and concerts & planning assistant Tammy Daly who get a glimpse behind the scenes at the Royal Opera House’s Costume Department ...

Ballet on the radio? It doesn't sound all that promising does it; all that music without the dancers leaping and twirling, not to mention the sets and costumes which make up the whole experience? But we have Shakespeare plays and operas on Radio 3, and you can't see the actors, or the scenery, or the costumes, or the expressions on their faces either. So why not ballet on the radio? And, since the Concert Orchestra will be camping out in the pit at the Royal Opera House over the coming months providing the music for their production of The Nutcracker, we thought we’d bring a little of the Christmas magic to Radio 3 listeners.

So last Friday (2nd December) we went to watch The Nutcracker, score in hand, ready to record it twice the next day – for recordings like these, two takes are better than one, just in case.

Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker is such wonderful music that it's a delight to hear in its own right. Enthusiasm is infectious, so recording a performance live in front of an audience who cheer and whoop with delight when the Sugar Plum Fairy has performed 30-something faultless fouettés in a row, or there has been a spectacular battle between the Nutcracker and the Mouse King, only adds to the enjoyment.

Watching the performance, we were amazed not only by the sumptuous costumes and how they brought the characters alive, but also by how the dancers move so effortlessly in them. To name just a few, there are Christmas Angels that glide onto stage as if they’re on wheels, and when the toys come alive at midnight out come dozens of mice with masks that cover their faces which are probably half the weight of the dancers wearing them.

Radio 3's Neil Varley and Tammy Daly with Mal Barton

The performance over, we hot-footed it backstage to talk to the head of the costume department, Mal Barton (above), and record a short feature to go with the broadcast and help bring the performance to life on air.

We thought the costumes looked magical enough on stage, but it was nothing compared to seeing them up close. The department itself is stuffed full with rails of tutus, tights and headdresses as well as people busy altering, making and designing even more. There’s even a room just for lace and bits of material.

Mal had set out a Sugar Plum Fairy tutu and the Mouse King’s head for us to have a look at. Up close the Sugar Plum Fairy tutu is covered in sequins and the most intricate embroidery – the one we saw was from the original staging of this production back in 1987 and its still being used today.

We were bowled over by the costume facts Mal told us about. Apparently there are nine Sugar Plum Fairy tutus in action at any one time, one for each of the dancers who are performing the role that season and one spare. It takes 18 layers of netting sewn together to make up just one tutu – it's got to have just the right flexibility, otherwise if another dancer gets too close while you’re pirouetting they could push you over. Also, everything is made to very high standards so it can be put through a hot wash – incredible to think about when you see the intricate details.

Then, there was the Mouse King’s head. With holes nowhere near your eyes, it’s amazing that the dancer can see. The trick, so we heard, is to learn your choreography so well that you can perform with your eyes closed. On stage it means you’re fine, but as soon as you come off stage you’re completely in the dark. It’s so lifelike that the ears feel real and, we can report, it’s also incredibly heavy. Such a fascinating day, and it was a real treat to be shown around by Mal.

Act I of Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker is broadcast on Monday 12 December at 2pm, and Act II Tuesday 13 December at 2pm on BBC Radio 3. 



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