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.

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.

Revamped Brum Base for BRB…

Press & PR Assistant, Ben Wooldridge (@benwooldridge) writes…

This week we were thrilled to learn that Birmingham Royal Ballet is a successful recipient under Arts Council England’s Capital Investment Programme, securing an award of £1.85m.

This substantial grant will allow BRB to undergo major improvements to its home base right here at Birmingham Hippodrome for the first time in 23 years since the Company moved from London to Birmingham in 1990.

The award will see BRB update its Thorp Street rehearsal home from a private space to a sustainable and adaptable multi-purpose building fit to accommodate its 180-strong work-force and visiting personnel including young people of all ages.

Birmingham Royal Ballet will transform its premises into accessible first class rehearsal facilities which will welcome both members of the public and staff.  The major refurbishment will also allow the Company to host further learning and outreach work in beautiful new studios.

Adaptations to improve building management will also include the use of solar panels yielding energy savings of up to 10%.  

Congratulations to Birmingham Royal Ballet – we can’t wait for work to start!