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:


Birmingham Royal Ballet Open Day!

Darcey Bussell pictured with Dance Track Students

Darcey Bussell pictured with Dance Track Students

Following a dramatic transformation costing around £2.7m, Birmingham Royal Ballet unveiled its new look home  at the Birmingham Hippodrome complex this week to a selection of invited guests who have supported the fundraising campaign including Campaign for the Future President, Darcey Bussell CBE.

Now YOU have the opportunity of  seeing the new look as the company hold a free Open Day this Sunday (25 January) – find out more here and please tell your friends! #BHbrb




James Barton on BRB and rehearsing with a legend…

Birmingham Royal Ballet Soloist, James Barton blogs about his time with BRB and working with Dame Gillian Lynne on ‘Miracle in the Gorbals’…

James Barton

James Barton

I started dancing at a very young age but never really specialised in one thing. I loved ballet, but also really enjoyed jazz, tap, acrobatics, drama and singing. It was for this reason that, at the age of eleven, I turned down a place at The Royal Ballet School, opting instead for Elmhurst School for Dance and Performing Arts, which at that time was situated in Camberley, Surrey. The school has since moved to Birmingham and is coincidentally in association with Birmingham Royal Ballet.

This meant that I could keep all my options open and still study all aspects of performing, instead of just ballet. I have never wanted to do just one thing, I loved so many aspects of the arts that it seemed a waste to limit myself to just one discipline. As I got older I still didn’t seem to have a clear direction, in fact rather ironically my dream was to be in the musical ‘Cats’ which was choreographed by Dame Gillian Lynne!

James in rehearsal

James in rehearsal

At the age of 16 I got the opportunity to come and work with Birmingham Royal Ballet when David Bintley was first creating Beauty and the Beast. I think as soon as I came here I knew it was the right place for me. I loved the people (still do!), I love the broad range of repertoire and I’m incredibly proud to be part of such a wonderfully talented (and slightly bonkers!) group of dancers.

Miracle in the Gorbals was originally created in 1944 by Sir Robert Helpman. The setting is the 1940s slums in the Gorbals area of Glasgow, which was renowned at the time for not only being immensely over populated but also an extremely dangerous place to live. The people who lived in the Gorbals had nothing and yet there was a real sense of community.

There are currently only four members of the original cast still alive today (none of whom, unsurprisingly, can remember a single step of the choreography!) so it has fallen to Dame Gillian Lynne to re-create the piece from scratch. She was there when Helpman first made the ballet and although it will not be the original choreography, the essence of what she is creating is very symbolic of the 1944 version.

We also have the original designs by Edward Burra and of course the beautiful score by Sir Arthur Bliss, which was commissioned especially for the ballet by Helpman.

Birmingham Royal Ballet currently has a lot of heritage works in our repertoire and it is incredibly important to keep those ballets alive. I have to confess that before I started this project I had never heard of Miracle in the Gorbals and I find it sad that had Birmingham Royal Ballet not decided to re-create the production, it would most likely be lost forever. We are all incredibly excited to be bringing this work to a completely new generation of ballet audiences and in doing so honouring the genius that was Robert Helpman.

Miracle in the Gorbals

Miracle in the Gorbals

Dame Gillian- or Gilly to her mates!- is a legend within the dance world and having spent the last four weeks with her it is easy to see why. She is renowned for being an incredibly hard task master. She expects you to always do everything ‘full out’. You repeat things over and over until you get it right and she will not settle for anything less than 100% commitment from each and every person in the room. In that respect she lives up to her reputation.

What I hadn’t anticipated is just what a warm and incredibly generous person she is. She expects as much of herself as everyone around her and wants you to have as much information and be as prepared for a performance as you possibly can. She has the most amazing sense of humour (I thought I was cheeky but I ain’t got nothing on her!) and without fail always brings her wit and warmth in to the studio each day. She doesn’t demand respect because she doesn’t need to; we all just have it for her.

She is unlike other choreographers in that she often asks for your opinion on things. She has asked me several times if she thinks my character would do a certain action or if I would behave in a certain way. I have never been in a rehearsal process which included this much repetition. We can learn a small section of movement or mime and then we are asked to repeat it over and over, often with a different idea in our heads or with a different intention. She also encourages us all to think like actors as opposed to dancers, which has given the ballet an entirely different feel.

We are all so excited for people to see this. We did our first full run in the studio the other day and although it may be difficult for me to have an unbiased opinion, I think it is an incredible piece of theatre. Firstly it is really quite moving- especially the final scene- but has just the right amount of humour. Dame Gilly has paced the ballet very well so you don’t get too overwhelmed with the drama, there are plenty of moments of light relief! For anyone who comes to see Birmingham Royal Ballet perform regularly it is a chance for them to see us do something completely different, not just in the style and context of the piece but also in our individual performances. It is like nothing we have ever done before.

I urge anyone who has an interest in theatre (not just ballet) to come along and see it. I feel very privileged to be part of something that is incredibly special and is also a little bit of history.

Miracle in the Gorbals forms one part of the triple bill, Shadows of War – for more info and to book click here.