Magical Evening at the Royal Ballet

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This post has been more than a month coming, but I finally had the time to put it together so here it is at last. Earlier this year my family and I were in the full swing of planning our trip back to Canada. This was my final year of high school and in the fall I am planning to attend university. This means I had to pack up all of my belongings in South Africa that I had accumulated over the 8 years I’ve lived there in order to ship them to Canada. As we were planning our trip overseas we were wondering if there was one last thing we could do as a family before I fly the nest later this year. Ideas came up about Hamilton tickets but they’re so expensive and you have to book so far in advance that it didn’t seem worth it to make the trip all the way to New York (which means flying through the States which is always a pain). Please come to Canada, Hamilton! When that idea fell through I threw out the option of flying through London Heathrow which is a regular route when flying transcontinental to see if it was possible to attend a Royal Ballet performance… I can’t believe it happened.

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I’ve been a dancer for coming up to ten years and I had only seen two ballets in person. However, I knew a lot about the classics; Nutcracker, Swan Lake, La fille mal gardée, Don Quixote, Sleeping Beauty, etc. One of my favourite past times (and procrastination activities shhhhhhh)  is watching the Royal Ballet rehearsal videos on the Royal Opera House’s youtube. As you start to get to know the dancers you get excited as different principal dancers are cast as different roles and you get to know more about the Royal Ballet’s repertoire.

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As our travel plans started coming together it looked like heading through London would be very possible, and not only that but the weekend we wanted to fly through Heathrow was when the Royal Ballet was planning to put on a brand new production of Swan Lake (different from their previous versions). Which ballet is more classic than Swan Lake? Is this real?

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It was pretty surreal for me to even contemplate viewing a performance in person, isn’t it only rich people who go to the Royal Ballet? Maybe not, but still, in my mind people who are paid in pounds are the ones who get to do stuff like go to the ballet and we are paid in Canadian dollars which are worth almost half what the pound is worth. Nevertheless, we wanted to make the effort for me to see this ballet, as a sort of graduation present. Generally the earlier you book, the cheaper the tickets are, but when we went to look at tickets for opening night (the night I wanted to go) they were almost entirely sold out. The best tickets we could get were roughly 80 pounds (yikes!) so while it would have been nice for my parents to come as well we decided it would be best if I went by myself and so could get a better seat that was single.

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The night that we booked was on Thursday the 17th of May. It was opening night with two of my favourite dancers, Marianela Núñez and Vadim Muntagirov as the lead roles. I don’t know if I could have been more excited. The time I fell in love with Marianela was when she danced Kitri in Don Quixote with Carlos Acosta in the Act I finale and Act II pas de deux which I was able to view on youtube and am still in love with to this day. Her theatrical capabilities, acting, and of course dancing were exceptional and from there I could see she becomes any role she steps into. The first time I saw Marianela was in a rehearsal of the old Swan Lake that had been showing in the Royal Ballet’s repertoire so to be there on opening night of a brand new production of Swan Lake sounded like the perfect night.

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As I started following Marianela, I began to notice she was being paired more and more with Vadim and as I watched more rehearsal videos I could see why; their quality of movement is so beautiful, and Vadim himself is an exceptional dancer. Was I really going to be able to see these two dancers in person?

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The night I was going to attend the ballet was actually the night after we flew into London so we would get into London after an 11 hour flight at something like 5 in the morning and I would have to go to the ballet in the evening which lasts until after 11 at night. Talk about a long day. You never know what’s going to happen between leaving the airport and arriving at your destination, I have some crazy stories let me tell you, but in the event that I lost my bags I decided it would be prudent to pack anything I needed for the ballet in my carry on so if something happened to my big bag I could at least get through the night. My camera bag also had to fit in my carry on though, so here I am with half of my bag filled with my camera, the other half filled with a dress, shawl, heels, and makeup.

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It was quite a flight. I managed to get some sleep on the plane, but of course there were a couple crying infants which made it difficult at times. When we landed we made our way to where we were staying with was a little room on top of a pub in Acton, it was quite fun actually. As soon as we had lunch though, we all flopped on our beds and had a nap; we needed it.

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I was so groggy I had to drag myself out of bed and slap some makeup on my face trying to make the bags under my eyes look less noticeable. Then I got all dressed up in my dress and heels in order to majestically walk down to the subway station and ride public transport all the way to Covent Garden. That’s right, this girl knows how to do class.

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London is such a beautiful city, I think my favourite thing about it is all of the architecture and visual interest, you can just tell it has such character, I mean, it’s been around for a long time. It was so fun walking up and down streets and exploring little nooks and crannies that you would never find anywhere else. I have to say, I fell in love with London a little bit, and I certainly hope I’ll be back.

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So let me tell you a little bit about the ballet; you might have heard me say that this is a “new production of Swan Lake” but what does that mean? You may think that Swan Lake is just Swan Lake, but in reality there must be hundreds of versions of this ballet, all slightly different. The way ballet companies produce classical ballets is they make their performance unique to all the others so while it may be the same music and parts of iconic choreography stay the same, they will fill in places with light and shade in order to make their production different. This makes it so that you won’t see the Royal Ballet version of one ballet put on by the New York City Ballet; they each have their own versions. This makes classical ballets rather unpredictable because in Swan Lake you might have a happy ending, sad ending, or even an ending resulting in mixed feelings. No two Swan Lakes are exactly alike.

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So this production was choreographed by one of the Royal Ballet’s resident artists Liam Scarlett. I’ve seen a bit of his work online, namely Frankenstein so right away you know he’s a bit different from the typical choreographer, he’s a bit darker and thinks a bit more outside of the box, so I was interested to see what he was going to do with Swan Lake. Also, costume design can change from production to production, as does set design, it all depends on the kind of feel the choreographer is going for. On social media leading up to the performance I saw teases of the tutus here and there and they looked absolutely stunning; the excitement was starting to build!

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So when we finally arrived at Covent Garden we had to have a bite to eat before my parents could drop me off at the Opera House and we ended up at a Vietnamese restaurant with a group of South African friends who also happened to be in London (small world!). Afterward which we finally got to make our way to the Opera House.

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How majestic is this building? If I could just explore the Opera House I would be 100% happy, but to think I actually got to see a performance? Well, that’s just…. well… wow.

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Can we take a moment to appreciate these two? Look how graceful they are together (pictured below)

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As I entered the Opera House I just walked around exploring anything I could. I was a good half an hour early but there were already hordes of people. A lot of people were in the Paul Hamlyn Hall which is basically a massive gallery with glass walls and ceilings where they’ve set up a bar and restaurant for people to eat beforehand and have drinks during intermission. I was so happy to be there I just kept doubling back on myself taking in the grandness of it all. Whenever I entered a room I had a jerk reflex telling me, “Don’t go in there, you’re probably not allowed in there, this is for people who have money to pay” and then I had to stop myself and say, wait a minute, I did pay! Well, my parents paid (thanks mom and dad, love you) but seriously, I had a ticket so there should be absolutely no reason to refuse me entry to any of these rooms no matter how socially unacceptable it was for me to wander around without paying for a drink. Once I got that mentality into my head I started relaxing and just enjoying everything about the Opera House. I traveled all the way from South Africa for this, I wasn’t about to let it pass me by! The staff were extremely nice and just smiled, not bothering to tell me whether my aimless exploring was socially acceptable or not. Honestly, I didn’t much care.

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And then, I got to the theatre. Um, wow. So, funny story. I was originally going to get a ticket in the amphitheatre (the cheapest option haha) and generally you want some form of binoculars to help you see some of the detail of the dancing because when you’re that far away you still want to be able to see what’s going on. So we packed our heavy-duty binoculars that we normally use for safari game viewing and carted them all the way to London. When we left for the bus station (to take us to the subway station) I realized I had left them in our room so my poor dad had to run all the way back to the pub to pick up these binoculars so I could use them to see the dancers. We missed our bus and had to wait for the next one, but at least we had the binoculars now. So remember when I said I was going to be in the amphitheater? Whell when we saw there weren’t many seats left and decided I would be going on my own, we decided to book my seat in the left circle stalls which were lower and closer to the front. Only when I took my seat in the theatre did I realize just how close to the front I was. I could see the stage (almost) perfectly from where I was sitting, no binoculars needed. I had been so prepared to see tiny moving dots on a stage far below me I was shocked when I realized I was wrong. Well, if anyone needs binoculars, let me know.

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So we all took our seats, and I couldn’t have been sat next to a nicer gentleman. He was an elderly man but I later found out that he was at the very first performance of Sleeping Beauty when the Royal Opera House reopened after WWII in 1946 and has been going to performances ever since. So here I was sitting next to a man well acquaintanced with the Royal Ballet as I got to experience my very first performance. It was a lot of fun chatting with him during intermissions about principal dancers and who has the best technique. It was extremely insightful as he also knew a lot about other versions of Swan Lake so some roles even I wasn’t aware of he was able to explain, which made the whole experience that much more enriching.

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Margot Fonteyn as Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty (1946), Sadler’s Wells Ballet (later The Royal Ballet). Photograph by Frank Sharman © ROH
The Royal Opera House entrance on Bow Street © ROH 2012

Disclaimer: The above two photos are not mine and I take no credit for them. All rights belong to the Royal Opera House, I am merely using them for visual purposes. They were taken directly from the ROH website and I highly recommend taking a moment to read their history page to learn more about the backstory of the Royal Opera House.

During WWII the Opera House was used as a dance hall and following the war, they decided to make it the official home of both the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet.

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So the lights begin to dim and the very first scene is vivid and dramatic. Tchaikovsky’s music begins playing and there’s a little girl in a white dress… Rothbart approaches her menacingly, preparing to turn her into a swan. This is when Marianela Núñez bursts onto the stage; the Swan Queen in all her glory. What an opening! After the intro, we are taken to Seigfried’s kingdom and you see these huge golden gates dominating the stage, setting the scene in the purest form of the phrase. I was dazzled by the set design, my mouth literally dropped open and hung there for a good two minutes. Dancers started flowing onto the stage and I couldn’t believe my eyes. I’ve waxed and waned about the lead principal dancers on this particular night but I didn’t know just how many principal dancers were going to grace the stage, another one of my favourite dancers Alexander Campbell played Seigfried’s friend and Seigfried’s sisters were played by Francesca Hayward and Yuhi Choe. Alexander was in a beautiful red coat while Francesca and Yuhi were in the most dazzling silver dresses I think I’ve ever seen. It was just magnificent. The performance only got better from there, I could detail every little thing I remembered and tell you about how amazing it was, but this kind of experience can never be put into words and I feel blessed and grateful to have been able to have the pleasure of witnessing it. If you want a peek at some of the amazing choreography, check out this rehearsal video showing Marianela and Vadim in their roles dancing Liam Scarlett’s expert choreography. I’m probably going to go and watch it now if I’m honest….

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Vadim Muntagirov as Prince Siegfried and Marianela Nuñez as Odile in Swan Lake, The Royal Ballet © 2018 ROH. Photograph by Bill Cooper
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Artists of The Royal Ballet in Swan Lake, The Royal Ballet © 2018 ROH. Photograph by Bill Cooper

Disclaimer: Again, all rights belong to the Royal Ballet, I take no credit for the above two images. Read more about the ROH’s production of Swan Lake here.

“The Royal Ballet performs a new production of Tchaikovsky’s magnificent classical ballet. Production and additional choreography by Liam Scarlett and designs by John Macfarlane.”

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I’ve said so much already, but as I’m recounting all that happened I’m reliving the night in my head and there’s so much I can say. The first act was, of course, incredible. During intermission I walked around a bit, had a drink of water upstairs (it was free) and just enjoyed the Opera House. The second act was even grander than the first with a massive gold ballroom and throne for the Queen to sit on. The Black Swan pas de deux (this is a link from an older production but it’s the Royal Ballet’s choreography) is possibly one of my favourite pas de deuxs in ballet because it’s so theatrical and exciting to watch. I got to see the Moscow Ballet do just the Black Swan at the Playhouse in Durban with my dance studio, and ask them; I was gasping excitedly telling them all what was going to happen next, “here come the fouetté’s!” I would say. One of the most iconic segments of Swan Lake are the Black Swan fouetté’s during the coda which is basically when the ballerina gets to spin around a million times on her pointe shoe (32 to be exact). Of course, Marianela and Vadim did not disappoint. I also loved how the black swan’s tutu mimicked the white swan as they both had silver threads lacing up and down the costume making for a detailed effect and less ornate than the previous tutus. I appreciated this because in my opinion it made the tutus more elegant and less stuffy than they had previously been while tying the story together.

Tutu drawing ROH
All rights belong to the Royal Opera House and Royal Ballet. This image was taken from their facebook page. Visit their instagram page as well if you want to do a bit of stalking and find some more photos.

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Then, as if this all wasn’t enough, the director of the Royal Ballet himself was there and I got to walk right past him on my way to the amphitheater viewing gallery during one of the intermissions. I pretty much just stared at him as I walked past and I think he saw me and probably wondered what on earth I was doing. And then the man I was sitting next to pointed out Liam Scarlett in the crowd as he was taking his seat so I stared at him too. What a surreal experience.

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Honestly, if I lived in London I would go to as many ballets as I could, even if I had to get cheap nosebleed tickets in the amphitheater. Just being in that theatre and hearing the music would be enough for me. I hope it is not my last visit to the Royal Ballet although it may be a number of years before I get the chance to go again, but until then, I love you London, I love you Royal Ballet, and until next time….

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