Behind the scenes with Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Wigs Department

One of the wigs from Coppélia

In the studios of Birmingham Royal Ballet, seven ballerinas are getting to know the stunt double that they will all be working with for this month’s performances in Birmingham.  She’s made of plaster, weighs a ton, and can’t stand up on her own. Happily, the dancers don’t mind the comparison.

The doppelganger is needed for the comic ballet Coppélia, the story of a crackpot inventor and toymaker, who builds life-sized mechanical dolls. Eventually he creates one so realistic that the local teenagers believe a new girl has moved into the street.

Sneaking into the toymaker’s house to investigate, they discover their mistake, and have to pose as toys around the workshop, hiding in clear sight until they can make their escape.

Central to this action is Swanilda, who adopts the place of the doll that fooled them all in the first place. Seven ballerinas will take turns performing the lead role each night, meaning that the doll that they impersonate has to be adapted for each show to make the switch convincing.

Elisha Willis and Maureya Lebowitz in the role of Swanilda; photo: Roy Smiljanic

“When Swanilda is played by Australian-born Elisha Willis, we have to ensure the doll has a wig of matching blonde hair” explains Wigmaster Henry Menary. “Then the next night Swanilda might be played by fellow dancer Maureya Lebowitz, who is a very dark brunette, and so we have to switch the doll’s wig to match. On matinee days, different casts perform in the afternoon and the evening, which creates a lot of additional work between shows, on top of the wigs and facial hair required by the enormous cast of human performers.”

BRB Wigmaster Henry Menary

Confusingly, the doll itself then has a stunt double – a floppy cloth version that is fleetingly tossed across the stage. She’s only seen for a moment, and yet takes longer in hair and make-up than the prima ballerina.

“She’s so floppy, I have to told her head up with one hand while stitching her wig on with the other”, explains Wigs Assistant Lauren FitzGerald – the other half of Birmingham Royal Ballet’s two-person wigs team.

Two wigs drying in the oven

None of these wigs are bought off the shelf. Each is individually styled before each season, and dried in a purpose-built oven. They’re then maintained throughout the long seasons of performances, to avoid, as Henry says, “droopy ringlets”.

While the cloth doll has its wig stitched on, toupée tape is used on the rigid plaster version. The idea is not to make the doll look completely convincing – it’s important that the audience are in on the joke long before the characters on stage work out what’s going on!

Birmingham Royal Ballet dances Coppélia at Birmingham Hippodrome, 24-28 February. To book, click here, and see the trailer (including the doll!) below:

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Creating a ballet of Beauty and the Beast…

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Birmingham Royal Ballet’s spellbinding production of Beauty and the Beast returns to the Hippodrome stage at the very end of this month, 30 September – 4 October. Here you can see a series of photos taken behind-the-scenes, back when the piece was first created in 2003:

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1. This photo is one of the earliest ones from Beauty and the Beast’s creation and was taken in 2003. Here you can see Company Director and Choreographer David Bintley alongside a 1:25 scale model of part of the set. It was created by designer Philip Prowse, who also designed Birmingham Royal Ballet’s productions of Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, and Carmina burana.

These modelboxes are created early on in the life of every new ballet, to establish the technical demands of the piece, and how scene changes will work logistically. Similar modelboxes exist for most of Birmingham Royal Ballet’s own productions, some even including miniature models of the characters!

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2. Nine months before the premiere, before any of the sets had been built, or a single piece of costume fabric had been cut, an image was needed for Birmingham Royal Ballet’s brochures to let people know about the forthcoming new production.

This photograph was staged for this very reason, with the Beast’s terrifying appearance only hinted at by the shadow of a half-claw, half-paw that falls across the storybook.

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3. Here you can see another early shot from Birmingham Royal Ballet’s own studios, with Company Director David Bintley choreographing a scene between Belle and the Beast.

Individual props had started to arrive by this point – in the background you can see a table bearing lavish banqueting items that move by themselves, as if by magic.

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4. As the premiere drew closer, and with designs now available, a new, more atmospheric poster design was created. The artwork above shows Belle deep in the forest, while the Beast’s face can be seen in the corner, above the outline of his castle.

With the vast sets still being completed, Birmingham’s Aston Hall was photographed at dusk to provide a suitably spooky silhouette. Meanwhile, David Bintley was the man behind the Beast’s mask which at this early stage had not yet had the countless individual hairs threaded over its surface, and so was partially obscured.

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5. During the course of the ballet, the action alternates between the Beast’s castle, and the home that Belle has left behind. With the exception of her father, all of the humans that flow through her home are far more ‘beastly’ than the animals that populate the Beast’s court.

Two notable examples of this are Belle’s sisters, Fière and Vanité. Throwbacks to the original fairytale, they are wicked and selfish in contrast to Belle’s kindness and sensitivity, but their ridiculous behaviour provides some fantastic comic moments. David has since admitted, however, that had he known at the time that he would go on to produce a ballet of Cinderella six years later, he would possibly not have given Belle such a brilliantly wicked pair of evil sisters!

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6. Here’s a close-up of another scene from the designers original scale model of the set. While the Beast’s castle is the more mysterious location, Belle’s home, shown here, is represented by a much lighter, ‘artificial’ looking set. This simple back wall drops down onto the stage when needed, hanging in front of the ever-present forest.

Over the course of the story, a flock of birds builds in numbers across the top of the wall, possibly checking up on the behaviour displayed in the household that Belle is due to return to!

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7. Here are two of the birds that perch atop the walls in Belle’s father’s house – a pair of critical-looking owls…

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8. When Belle is first transported to the Beast’s castle, she is flown there by a flock of a dozen Birds of the Air. These are played by long-legged ballerinas in feathered head-dresses, who form lines across the stage like The Rockettes. For those audience members familiar with David Bintley’s jazz ballets, they may also bring to mind the glitzy showmanship of The Orpheus Suite or The Nutcracker Sweeties.

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9. The Birds of the Air are led by a character called The Raven, a Principal role played by one of the men of the Company. In a sleek, shimmering costume, he is at once imposing and charming, and ensures that Belle’s journey to the castle is a safe one.

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10. Where the set for Belle’s home is simple and lightweight, the Beast’s castle is of far greater substance. The dense canopies of the forest reveal heavy wooden panels decorated in ornate carvings. While it is a magical place, it is clearly one that has been here for some time.

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11. When the Prince was turned into a Beast, his court were similarly turned into a set of half-animal, half-human hybrids, and a number of different creatures are clearly recognisable. Bears and badgers rub shoulders with wolves and warthogs, with each mask different from the next.

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12. While they bear the paws and claws of animals, the courtiers still retain their finery, and appear dressed in dinner jackets and ball gowns. However, in these original character designs, you can see that the costumes have frayed edges to indicate that the curse has been in place for quite some time. And as each year passes, the Beast has grown slowly more lonely…

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13. When the process of interpreting the designs into actual costumes is complete, a master document is created listing the source of all the different fabrics used, with samples attached. With this record, replacement material can be obtained in the event of damage, and in fact large quantities of spare fabric are kept on site in case of emergencies.

The costume that this document refers to is a ballgown which Belle wears during a ball that the Beast throws for her in an attempt to win her heart – a scene which you can now see below:

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14. Finally, with the efforts of every member of Birmingham Royal Ballet, combined with an army of freelance costume makers, theatrical milliners and technicians – and a consultant magician for the effects in the Beast’s enchanted castle – the curtain rises on another spell-binding production!

Have you seen Beauty and the Beast yet? Let us know in the comments box! Click here to book for this autumn’s performances, Tuesday 30 September – Saturday 4 October.

Two decades of posters for Birmingham Royal Ballet’s The Nutcracker

The Nutcracker returns to the Birmingham Hippodrome stage this winter, 28 November – 13 December 2014. It’s nearly a quarter of a century since this production was created here in Birmingham, dedicated to the city that adopted the world-famous touring ballet company. Here is a selection of archive poster artwork from over the years.

1-1991

This is from 1991, right back in the early years of the production, with a poster image painted especially by set and costume designer John MacFarlane. There’s no sign of our young heroine, Clara, yet, but we can see the Nutcracker Doll that she receives on Christmas Eve, and a teasing look at the rat that will later cause so much trouble. John MacFarlane later went on to create gorgeous designs for our recent production of Cinderella.

2-1997

This poster is from 1997, and marks the start of a long battle for poster supremacy between the heroes and villains of the story. When a magical spell causes Clara’s living room to grow around her, and all the toys and Christmas decorations within it, the rats that live beneath the fireplace grow too. Led by their ruler, King Rat, they attempt to take control of the living room, and it is up to Clara and her Nutcracker doll to stop him.

3-2002

In 2002, Clara and King Rat called a truce long enough to share the poster between them. Clara lifts the doll, while King Rat bears the tattered flag that he waves to rally his rodent ranks. While it looks worn and torn, the flag used in the show actually undergoes regular maintenance throughout each Nutcracker season. Rips are stitched and strengthened to ensure that it remains suitably tatty without ever falling completely to pieces!

4-2001

In 2001, the poster showed the character responsible for the conjuring – Drosselmeyer the magician. It is he who gives Clara the gift of the doll, later spotting her creeping back down to play with it in the middle of the night. And so begins the most unforgettable Christmas Eve of her life, as Drosselmeyer summons up tests and treats before guiding her safely home.

5-1999

Drosselmeyer first appeared in 1999, with this photo taken during a live performance. In the ballet Drosselmeyer is a guest at a party thrown by Clara’s parents, and producer Peter Wright enlisted a professional magician to design tricks that the dancers taking on the role could perform live. Later, Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Director, David Bintley, sought similar advice for his production of Beauty and the Beast, to help bring objects in the Beast’s castle to life.

6-2007

In 2007, with the nights drawing in, the Nutcracker poster showed a moonlit scene from the start of Act II. As the orchestra plays, and the curtain rises, we see the stage flooded with a cloud dry ice, and Clara flying above it atop a magical white bird. The scenes takes careful preparation during the interval, with the lead ballerina having to wait, suspended 25 feet up in the air while the dry ice rolls out. Senior Stage Manager, Diana Childs, reveals: ‘Some of them really don’t mind, and I can send them up there and they’re happy to wait, but some of them get really scared up there, so I send them up at the last possible second!’

7-2004

Having met all manner of colourful characters, Clara ends her magical evening by being transformed into a beautiful ballerina – the Sugar Plum Fairy. In 2004 we saw her on a poster for the first time, cradled in the hands of Drosselmeyer. Incredibly, this was also one of the first times that a dancer appeared on a Nutcracker poster in a tutu, despite the production featuring around two dozen of the beautiful, hand-made dresses!

8-2006

The Sugar Plum Fairy swapped Drosselmeyer for a new poster partner in 2006, being joined by the Nutcracker Prince. TV audiences may recognise the ballerina featured as Elisha Willis, who played the title role in the BBC broadcast of Cinderella in 2010. Her dancing partner Chi Cao, meanwhile, appeared in the feature film Mao’s Last Dancer, with Star Trek‘s Bruce Greenwood.

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In 2009, a previously unseen character made her first appearance, in the form of dancer Jenna Roberts as the Snow Fairy. Heralding a cascade of snowflakes that fills the stage, her appearance is a standout in a production full of beautiful, unforgettable moments.

10-2014

For our 2014 image The Snow Fairy takes a step back, and our heroine, Clara, takes centre stage once again. To make sure that King Rat doesn’t gatecrash the poster, she is joined by not one but two versions of the Nutcracker, in both the form of the doll and the handsome Prince!

Did you come and see The Nutcracker during any of these seasons? Let us know in the comments box, and click here to book for this year’s shows, 28 November – 13 December 2014.