Song of Surrender

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Backstage Notes from the Royal Opera House

By Shrinkhla Sahai

If I were Alice, this would be my wonderland, I thought as I made my way through the revolving door of the Royal Opera House. The ballet had always held a magical charm for me, and each visit to London had been marked by the regret of not having been to one yet along with a strong mental footnote in my must-do-next-time list.

The Royal Opera House (ROH), in the heart of London, is home to both opera and ballet. The outer appearance of the building humbly masks the architectural grandeur of the theatre inside and its compelling historical legacy. I was excited about the backstage tour I had registered for and wondered if it would really take me through the looking glass, into the world beyond the wings. About 15 of us assembled at the theatre entrance for the tour, waiting for the guide. We made an interestingly assorted group comprising elderly connoisseurs, adventurous art enthusiasts, serious young dance students and tourists who had just wandered in. Shortly, we were greeted by the tour guide—a pleasant, petite lady. We discovered later that she could be rather strict and matron-like when anyone from the group wandered off a bit or attempted to stealthily click photographs.

We halted briefly in the lobby as the guide pointed to the entrance that might have extended into a portico in the earlier days. I was transported back to the 18th century as she vividly created scenes of horse carriages drawing up at the entrance, nobility stepping into the outer lobby, drinking and dining and then making their way into the grand theatre. In a world without lifts and escalators, it would have been quite a journey to the balcony with unending staircases.

“In that era, the theatre was not so much a place to see, but rather was a place to be seen,” remarked the guide insightfully. Later, inside the theatre she pointed out the box where Queen Victoria used to be seated. At the lower right side of the theatre, it would hardly provide the best view, I was intrigued. The guide expected our momentary confusion and broke the suspense after a dramatic pause, “As you may notice, that particular box definitely does not have the best view of the stage, but it certainly is a place that can be best viewed by the entire theatre.” It was specially chosen so that everyone present in the hall could witness the entrance of the queen herself. The significant social performance around the actual stage performance distinctly differentiates audience behaviour then and now. It is also important because it historically denotes the changing functions of the theatre itself.

The Royal Opera House, is almost like a set that has had many lives and various avatars. As we know it now, the building was largely renovated in the 1990s. The present one is the third theatre, the earlier ones having been burnt down in fires. The space transitioned from being a playhouse initially, later converted into an Italian opera house. During World War I it was used as a storehouse for furniture, and in World War II it was recreated as a dance hall.

I noticed an exhibit box that looked like a miniature set of an actual production. As we looked around the lobby, there were many more. These were ‘model boxes.’ Each model box was 125th the size of the stage and was critical part ofstagecraft as well as an active archive that played a major part in the exact recreation of sets of an earlier production that was being revived. We were told that the ROH has an opening night every 7-9 days, with 7-10 new productions each year including opera and ballet and the rest being revival productions. Not surprisingly, Romeo and Juliet is the ROH’s longest running ballet, for almost half a century.

It was a moment of overwhelming beauty, as we finally entered the theatre that can seat more than 2000 people. The pulsating red decor and the magnificent chandelier that I had often seen in images and postcards were breathtakingly grand in real life. A rehearsal was in progress and the guide informed us that each revival production followed a six-week rehearsal process with merely four rehearsals on stage.

Next, we made our way to the costumes department. This was indeed a labyrinth, with as many as 180 chorus costumes for one show. The guide pointed out that sometimes quick changes were as short as 30 seconds and dancers were responsible for their costume changes. As we made our way to the props department we also caught a glimpse of the set being moved behind-the-scenes. “Set change is a performance in itself,” said the guide. It was colossal and the exercise had to be swift and silent.

The props department had the aura of a carpenter’s workshop. There were objects of all kinds—from pillars, glasses, wands, gates, anything one could think of. The only difference was that they weren’t real objects, they were deceptively lighter and fragile, yet durable.

Our last stop was the studio. We were a little disappointed when we saw the empty studio with silent bars and encompassing mirrors. Just as we had given up hope, someone from the group exclaimed, “There is a tutu!” We all watched entranced as the ballerina practised her pirouettes, extensions and leaps. It was interesting that she also chose to rehearse the facial expressions with the recorded music. Behind the tender beauty and glamour of the ballet is a painstaking life of labour, discipline and competition. The rehearsal routine is tightly packed along with performances, vacations are few, specially during the performance season. With a huge number of aspiring dancers, the absorption rate of the Royal Balletis heartbreakingly low. Career span is short and there is always a high risk of injury. And that, is life, on the other side of the glass.

We were hypnotised, watching the ballerina in action at such close quarters. We observed her rehearsal-performance, our silence punctuated by sighs at a brilliant posture, a surprisingly quick pirouette or a poignant pause.

I gracefully landed back from the reverie of a parallel universe where I aspire to be a prima ballerina, as the tour guide said softly, with a wink in her voice, “Ladies and gentlemen, let me lead you back into the real world.”

No comments:

Post a Comment