BIRMINGHAM Royal Ballet ends its 20th Anniversary celebrations marking its move to the city with a major event in ballet, a world premiere choreographed by its director David Bintley and designed by the man responsible for the spectacular Nutcracker, John Macfarlane. Roger Clarke talks to the man responsible for bringing all the ideas and designs for Cinderella together on the Hippodrome stage, Technical Director, Paul Grace.

 BIRMINGHAM Royal Ballet's Nutcracker has become as much a tradition at Christmas as mince pies, giant tins of Quality Street and naff jokes in crackers.

So the decision to replace a guaranteed, gold plated sell-out with a new £1 million production of Cinderella could hardly have been taken lightly.

Nutcracker was BRB's present to Birmingham from its then director, Sir Peter Wright, when it arrived in 1990. Cinderella is its gift to mark a happy 20th anniversary and the word coming from Thorp Street is that this much loved fairy tale has all the magic and wondrous wow factor we have come to expect from our annual BRB Christmas present at the Hippodrome. 

Paul Grace, left, discusses a technical detail with senior stage manager Diana Childs, who has been with the company since its Sadler's Wells days, and choreographer David Bintley, the BRB director

Just watch out for Midnight “it will take your breath away”  so I am told by the one man who should know - Technical Director Paul Grace. If it does not dance or make music then it comes under Paul from wigs and costumes to flying wires and screws, shoes and cloaks to lights and flats.

Paul has been working on this production for more than two years and is already well into future projects. The whole thing is like a military operation which, no matter what, means that everything has to be ready for opening night on November 24.

Paul said: We had the contract signed with the designer in March 2008 and we gave him a deadline for the initial designs 18 months before the first night and for the final designs 12 months before the first night.

“Being such a big production we had to be able to cost it and go back to him if the designs were too much and also talk to him about scale for touring.

Every detail is meticulously planned. Here are John Macfarlane's designs for cup cakes and below a dress box

“The last big show he designed for us was Nutcracker, apart from Le Baiser de la fée, which was designed not to tour so we have a double challenge in that we are designing a show to replace Nutcracker at Christmas so the audience expectation is that it has to be as good as if not better but we also have to be able to take it around the country to stages that are a lot smaller and more challenging.'

More than two and a half years on and the sets, costumes and wigs are ready and waiting as the skilled backroom staff ensure moving scenery moves as it should,  any special effects work and are indeed special, costumes and wigs fit, props are ready and lights come on and go off where and when they should.

So while dancers practice their moves striving for perfection so the stage crew have their rehearsals to ensure the magic of Cinderella is as much down to the scenery and lighting as the dancing.

People watch a ballet and all they see and hear are the wonderful dancers and the marvellous music but behind all the glitz and glitter is a whole army under Paul who ensure the show goes on. More than 50 skilled staff are beavering away backstage, in the wings and suspended in the flies to ensure the show is memorable for all the right reasons.

Paul, 53, is coming up to 35 years working backstage next year having started in 1976 as an art student in London. His first show?

“It was the Royal Shakespeare Company doing a George Bernard Shaw play called Too True to be Good with Ian McKellen and Judi Dench before either were well known personalities and I watched every show for three months I was so enthralled by my first experience. That was at The Globe in Shaftesbury Avenue. I hadn't had any experience of theatre but something told me inside it might be a good profession to get into.”

John Macfarlane's lizards are transformed into a prosthetic lizard head (below) by prop maker supreme Robert Alsopp

He left to go to Sadler's Wells Theatre, home of Sadler's Well Royal Ballet which was to become Birmingham Royal Ballet. So  when he joined BRB 13 years ago found he was rejoining some former colleagues who had 40 years service with the company. “It is just fantastic to have that sort of knowledge and experience.”

The job, or at least the skills needed, have changed dramatically since 1976.

“It is a lot more high-tech than when I first started which is a lot to do with audience expectation. You see musicals now that take a week to fit up into a venue with very polished technical expertise and engineering in many cases and we have to match that with a quarter of the time for shows to get in.

“We have to have a lot of new skills in the industry that didn't exist when I first started.”

Those skills have been well used in this new £1 million production which Paul promises has wow to spare.

He said: “When John Mcfarlane (the designer) was talking about his inspiration to get into theatre he used to be taken to the panto to the King's Theatre in Edinburgh and he was amazed at these live transformations that used to take place in front of your eyes and he has had that in his repertoire all his life - Nutcracker is a great example of live transformations with people seeing scenes changing in front of them - and we are doing that with Cinderella. We are doing some amazing transformations going from one scene to another and it will be as magical as Nutcracker. In Nutcracker if the transformation scenes go well they get a round of applause because they look beautiful and I think Cinderella will have that aspect to it.“The costumes are amazing and the buzz that is going around is really exciting. There is not a single dancer that has not been wowed by the costume that they have had fitted on them.

“All the scenery and props are made now and the cloths look absolutely amazing, many of which John paints himself, which is unusual for a theatre designer.

“We have a lot of magic, the fairy godmother appearing and disappearing as if by magic, we have a wonderful coach and, well the build up for Cinderella leaving the ball will be the biggest wow factor. Just  look out for midnight that is all I will say. It will take your breath away.”

Paul is a great admirer of David Bintley, the director of the BRB but more importantly to this production, the choreographer. “He approaches things with quite a fresh mind and he does want to put Cinderella's story into context and wants the audience to be under no misapprehension that this is about an abused child.”

The opening puts the fairy tale into context and sees Cinderella mourning the loss of her real mother. Paul said: “It is very brief and a strong image and a very poignant moment.”

Dumpy, left and Skinny, below, just two of more than 180 costume designs

The Hippodrome production is only one piece of the jigsaw for Paul though. To show a return on the seven figure cost of Cinderella it needs to be a success not only in Birmingham but in the other ports of call for the BRB.

Paul said: “If it proves as successful as Nutcracker it will pay for itself in a very short space of time and then go on to many, many more seasons of success. It is a very sound investment.”

Very matter of fact and modestly missing out the technical wizardry which has been required to produce a ballet which can work its magic at The Lowry, in Manchester in January, then the Theatre Royal, Plymouth and then the London Coliseum in March.

Four stages of different widths and depths, with different heights for the flies, width of the wings and weight restrictions.

Paul said: “Weight is a crucial factor because there are different weight capacities on the flying bars for the theatres we go to.

“In the ballroom for instance when we made a prototype for a ballroom flat we realised that would be too heavy and we have trimmed it in many directions.

“We make a set first and foremost to fit into the Hippodrome. We never start with the lowest common denominator. But we make the set with component parts that can break down to different sizes. When we take Cinderella on tour we know that with that ballroom flat for example we can take the top three foot section off so not only is it the right height but the right weight for touring.

“We try to make sure we don't end up shoehorning something into a small space. We look at the overall design and see how we can reproduce it without losing any integrity even though it has bits missing.

“An audience with a smaller stage in Sunderland or Plymouth won't look at it and say it looks as if there is a bit missing there, it will be perfectly fitted into that space , different but just as beautiful.”

The production also has to break down easily to travel around in a convoy of articulated lorries. One will be needed for costumes alone. “There are around 180 of them, along with more than 50 wigs, then a huge amount of ballet shoes, character shoes and boots.

“There is a fantastic range of props, in the kitchen there is a sink where water comes out of the taps, there are rat traps and wonderful props.

“The scenery is just big and lumpy with lots of scenery on stage and lots of flown scenery. It will probably be about four trailers-worth of scenery, then there are two trailers of lighting and another trailer of miscellaneous stuff such as ballet bars, lino, dancers' make up boxes, so there is quite a lot travelling to other venues.”

That is eight full artics so far - not bad for a waif  dressed in rags.

Before Cinders and the bandit head off in convoy though the ballet has its world premiere on BRB's home turf.

All the scenery was built mainly at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden but that is just the start though. Next the scenery has to be tested and if it needs to be played with then it is built in BRB's stores.

A 1:25 scale model of part of one of the sets for Cinderella

This includes making large kitchen trucks which glide in and out to make sure they do actually glide and to see how many people are needed to shift them as if by effortless magic. There are also some live flame effects to test and Paul said: “There is some mechanical engineering that we are building and will be tested so that when we get on stage we will not all be scratching our heads wondering why this thing is not working. We don't have any room for delay. We have to hit the stage running. We all know that at half past seven on the 24th of November that that curtain will go up and everybody wants to be amazed.”

Everything has been collected and costumes are on final fittings. But as Paul said: “Getting everything made on time is one challenge. In most Hippodrome seasons we would get in on a Sunday and open on Wednesday and in that we would have two piano rehearsals and two orchestra rehearsals before the first night.

“It is quite compressed but with a new show such as Cinderella we will be on stage for nine days before the first night. We need time to build and rig the lights and light the show and we need time to rehearse these wonderful transformations before the dancers get on stage.

Cinderella is all about one shoe but the production needs scores  of pairs and this is just one design by John Macfarlane

“We will have a pianist in the pit, because it is all to music, and we will have the stage crew and lighting  crew on stage and stage management and we will spend three or four hours rehearsing these stage changes before the dancers come on stage.

“Then when they do come on stage we will have five piano rehearsals and three orchestra rehearsals and that is not including any comfort zone. For a show of this scale and complexity every hour of every 12 hour day will be fully utilised.”

Cinderella's clock really is ticking . . .


Paul's backstage army includes:

Wardrobe: 8 BRB plus 10 dressers provided by the Hippodrome

Stage: 12 crew from BRB plus 5 from the Hippodrome

Lighting: 11 BRB plus 2 from Hippodrome

Wigs: 2

Shoes: 1 (see FEATURE)

Stage managers: 3

Plus various mice and pumpkins . . . . and a fairy godmother's magic. 

Review of Cinderella

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