By Leila Russack
After a sunny spring tea, I walked through the cream and damsel pink tulips and violet irises of Kensington Gardens and on down to Markova House, which is hidden sweetly in a cobbled South Kensington mews. Great Friends of the English National Ballet were welcomed into the Green Room. This is where sixty-five dancers chat and lunch every day between lessons, strictures in choreography and technique. ENB is a touring company, billing internationally and across the United Kingdom, it is also currently taking productions to Japan, Ireland and Sadler’s Wells, spreading the sparkling magical dust of ballet around the world.
Production stills and photographs of the new arts hub buildings on City Island, Canning Town surround us. Some of us Great Friends cringe at the thought of travelling so far East of London to visit the studios, open from 2019. Although the mews location is idyllic, only two studios are available to accommodate practice and choreography, for more often than not, a three production group. We have been assured the ENB requires a much larger capacity for its dancers. The multi-million-pound purpose-built investment is a necessity for the sheer number of often sold-out performances. Akram Khan’s Giselle was sold out days after ticket release, so try your luck early for getting a seat for the Nutcracker in December!
Traditional patrons and modern philanthropists meet to support the fine performing arts. The delightful charm of Giselle, from a back of tier seat, is felt as well as the privacy of a box near the stage. Lovers of ballet travel the country and the world to see Giselle Act Two with sixteen fluttering tutus covering the floor in synchronised pirouettes and demi-plies. We are soon escorted to Level 5, the humble Costumes Department, where we pile in next to a window full of snow globes from around the world. The Costumes Manager, Geraldine Tiernan, brings forth a shimmering waterfall brocade and a gilt braided men’s jacket. The tie-dyed dirty frocks, designed for Giselle in September, look like they could have come from a grungy back-alley runway. We are all intrigued by the difference in the intricate ornate and the pared-down modern.
Stock of fabric can be pre-planned for two decades, so as not to rely on ‘fashionable’ fabrics and accessories, which can be quite constrained to eras rather than to production requirements. The ideal measurements for ballerinas are posed by several tailors’ mannequins and drawn up in books, so that when a production is approved, the Costumes Department can begin cutting designs quite accurately. Rolls of fabric for every production line the walls of one room. Drawers full of thick German leotards and tights are seen as well as enough pointe shoes to twist the ankles and bend the toes of every person in the audience.
The first act in the ballet tells the story of a misfortunate youth and despondent hope through the ramshackles of poverty with often brown, torn garb on the protagonist and all the villagers. After a drinks intermission for the audience, the second and third act surprise us with the key to glamorous success via a noble suitor or a iridescently posh antagonist, which means a change of costumes to brighter hues of fuchsia, aquamarine and of course filigree and paste jewels. When Gerry announces that we are allowed to try on Aurora’s crown from Swan Lake Act II, we all gasp with excitement at the chance of becoming ballerina- princesses, even but for a moment! We inspect with awe the citron, tangerine and turquoise headpieces. Gerry eloquently upturns a tutu by the crotch and we are shown the caprices of expertise and expense that comprises of one feathered Flower dress, broken down by taffeta and corset. Gerry laughs when one of us asks about the laundry bill – “Enormous!” She does not burden us with the task of calculating the facility for ENB Coppelia tour to Tokyo in July. Rather, there will be eight very specialist wardrobe staff who will be responsible for the logistics of costume shipment and laundering requirements. What really touches me is how modest the Costume Department is in size and setting, considering how prestigious the ENB’s spectaculars are on stage. There is not a snub of snobbery among the team, yet the work being done here is as essential as their ballet dancers.
As Great Friends of the English National Ballet, we are invited to join the company’s events, such as Working Stage Rehearsals. We meet more Friends at the Gore Hotel for cream tea, discussing our various involvements and interests in ballet as a classical art form and its grueling use in modern fitness, otherwise known as ballet barre. We then stroll over to one of the mews studios to watch a rehearsal for the Frank Anderson’s La Sylphide. Several sets of dancers are choreographed for the scene in which James commits himself to an engagement with Effie, much to Gurn’s dismay and the Witch’s cruel delight. Anderson skillfully projects the body language and signals that are required by the audience for them to understand what is being communicated in each scene. Celestial omens of holiness and of evil are regarded by pointing and looking longingly or frantically toward the heavens. Placement of the dancers in line with one another for purposes of practicality is important too. James can easily scold the Witch with a cold hard stare and Effie can run forth with loving, seductive gazes. Anderson promises that the dancers will be humanised with honesty and belief with his modern interpretation of La Sylphide, coming out in September 2017.
The Emerging Dancers practice session is next and instantly the pas de deux incites those je ne sais pour quoi emotions that classical ballet brings to the audience. My tears remind me of why I cannot attend the ballet with people who do not feel the same way. There is something about the pain that scars a ballerina’s soul, which brings such passion to the audience. We pain to see her hurt and we desperately want her to pirouette and him to arabesque with ease and agility. The ballerina practices her solo with determination, however her focus today is threatened by heavy fatigue on this Friday afternoon in the warm fan-cooled studio. Dare I say the ballerina has been affected by the horrible pollen this week like the rest of us Londoners, yet she pushes herself to be superhuman en pointe. She is disappointed in her efforts; however, we absolutely commend her grace despite her suffering. One instructor brings precision to her en pointe bourree transitions while the other shows her the shape her limbs must create for aesthetic pleasure. The competition will be held at Sadler’s Wells Theatre 25th May 2017, we are looking forward to it!