It is early on a Sunday morning when I arrive at The Princess Theatre in Torquay, Devon. A day of rest and relaxation for many but the scene I find inside the auditorium is anything but as I observe ten diligent dancers from English National Ballet (ENB) going through some barre and centre exercises with co-choreographer of the show (and ENB soloist), Jenna Lee.
The class is a seemingly relaxed affair, with dancers, Artists and First Artists of ENB, often breaking off from the main group to stretch or rehearse steps from the show. That show is Against Time, which is presently in its fourth theatre out of the nine that will be visited by July 8th and is a joint production with streetdance group Flawless. Over the course of the day this heavily-structured regime shows no sign of waning as their day’s work consists of both a matinee and evening performance. “There are some very tired faces there this morning,” Jenna tells me when I ask her about the gruelling nature of the tour. “We arrived in Torquay on Saturday at 3 o’clock in the morning and then did two shows. We’re used to touring and staying in a venue for seven shows but the nature of this tour definitely takes its toll,” she adds. Despite the fatigue, the entrance of Flawless star ‘Breaker’ (Paul Samuels) causes a brief halt to proceedings as he is greeted enthusiastically by each of the ballet dancers. It is beyond obvious to see the strength of the relationship these two ends of the dance spectrum have created since being thrown together for the tour two months ago. “You build up a lot of trust very quickly,” Jenna explains. “These boys have never partnered before and have had to learn that from scratch and some really lovely connections have been built as a result. We all travel together (because) it’s so important we feel like one company instead of two who have come together.”
The morning ballet class lasts for well over an hour after which focus turns to notes from the previous day’s performances and to my surprise the switching of roles, “You’re going to be the doll today. I’m switching you and you in the masquerade scene, is that okay?” and the like. I am shocked at the short notice and the composure of the dancers, despite knowing these must be the kind of instructions they receive every day. I ask Jenna why this is. Mostly due to various injuries, it turns out, and the role switches are an attempt to save fitness levels too. “I don’t want any of the girls to have to drop out completely,” she tells me. This is her biggest fear.
Backstage the performers from both companies seem very settled and at home in their minute dressing rooms and it seems hard to believe they have inhabited these dingy little corridors for less than 48 hours, the smell of hairspray and a myriad of different cosmetics filling the confined space. I meet Company Manager, Holly Owst, and Stage Manager, Mary Browning, who will travel around with the dancers for the duration of the nineteen-date tour, neither of whom can afford to stay still for two minutes without having a problem to solve or errand to run. Long after the dancers have left it is Holly, Mary and the rest of the crew who remain behind to pack up, sort out and most importantly stay awake! “Yesterday was completely manic,” is one of the first things I’m told by Holly on arrival. “The crew arrived yesterday at about 4.30am; it’s the hardest for them, the dancers can arrive a little later.” The more time I spend with the crew the clearer it becomes that it may be the dancers who make the show but there would be no show at all without these bleary-eyed souls, dressed in black (paramount so they can go on stage unseen during scene changes) dashing about to make sure every prop behaves itself, each lighting change is seamless and the numerous mishaps that could occur, do not.
The responsibility of company manager, however, is not the only juggling act Holly must perform on a daily basis as she also ensures the dancers have clean and stage-ready costumes. With roles switching constantly – “it’s hardly fair to let them wear someone else’s sweaty costumes!” Holly tells me, in a room filled with washing machines and specially designed drying spaces so costumes can be refreshed.
At 1.45 I take my seat for the matinee with sound technician, Lloyd Town, in the lighting box, complete with headset, music and lighting cues. Over the course of the performance I experience first-hand all the hiccups and mini-dramas that the audience are so blissfully unaware of. There’s a dodgy candelabra flickering rather pathetically during the masquerade ball scene and lights, I learn, have a mind of their own, today shining red where they should be white, however all in all it’s a smooth and honed ride.
Of course I could talk extensively about the show itself, its choreography, narrative and merging of the two companies. In short, yes, the story is paper thin, but the dance on display is first-rate – visually spectacular and all-round exciting. The acting skills of the ENB’s Jennie Harrington are a particular delight, demonstrating brilliant comedic timing, and Seo-Yeon Yu’s beautiful, fluid technique is a joy too. I ask Jenna how she felt about the mixed reviews, “You have to take them with a pinch of salt …although this is the first time my own work personally has been critiqued so that was a bit odd.” she admitted, telling me that as long as the audience left happy she was satisfied, “It’s entertainment, …after the show is over the kids are all in the aisles going up on their toes – it’s inspiring for them.” And this, for her, is the priority.
For a brief moment the pressure is off, there is a quick re-set of props, costumes are washed and the crew finally have time to breathe before the second 6pm evening performance. The crew and I attempt to make a modest exit through the rear stage door. We are met by expectant young teenage faces, clutching programmes and posters of their dance idols, faces which quickly change to despondency on realising we are not as interesting as Flawless. Mary and I discussed the phenomenon of stage door antics she’s seen on tour, telling me how the Flawless boys are always willing to give a substantial amount of time to please their fans yet conversely the ENB dancers can escape from the same exit without so much as a familiar glance. We ponder why this is, “ENB are famous in dance world terms, but not really outside of it,” thinks Mary. “Whereas these guys (Flawless) have been on TV so I guess it is just the power of that exposure.” Interesting nonetheless that the ballet world still seems so inaccessible to many.
I see the evening performance from the mid-stalls, the overall production coming across a lot stronger being closer to the action. As the curtain comes down on Against Time’s final evening in Torquay and the dancers prepare to get back on the tour bus, it is the likes of Holly and Mary who are left to pack up and ensure all is left as it was found, a two-hour job at least, before they prepare to do it all again tomorrow.