Creating a full length school ballet
Jasper Marriott Head of Dance at Queen Elizabeth School. Cumbria.
In December 2011 at Queen Elizabeth School in Cumbria we staged a hugely ambitious and very successful original version of the ballet The Nutcracker. We received incredibly positive feedback, interest from the press and even had a Department for Education spokesperson say: “Teachers and pupils should be immensely proud of going beyond the realms of a ‘normal’ school production. We very much hope this trend will continue in the school and will inspire other schools as well.”
We are now embarking on our second full length ballet, an original take on Through The Looking Glass and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll. This time with an original score and support from the internationally renown theatre company Imitating the Dog. Our intention with this new production is to take it on a mini tour in order to reach a wider audience.
The idea for a major school ballet started with a suggestion to have the theme of The Nutcracker for our annual dance showcase. This idea became more and more ambitious until it was decided that we would create our own version of the complete ballet and present it in the slot usually designated for our main school production, which is traditionally a musical. This enabled us to have a production budget and the time and expertise of other departments to help realise the production.
The Nutcracker seemed a perfect choice for our first full scale dance production for two reasons; firstly we study Matthew Bourne’s fantastic version at GCSE and A level and secondly it is the most popular ballet, especially around Christmas, so our intended audience would be at least familiar with the name The Nutcracker if not also aware of the story. This, we felt, was important for generating interest in the production and ultimately attracting healthy audience numbers (something, we were to discover, was not an issue we should have been concerned about).
When we first auditioned for the Nutcracker we were hoping for maybe 40 interested pupils with the intention of selecting 20 strong dancers to be in the production. We seriously underestimated the interest and were blown away when 90+ dancers came to the audition. I revised my plan based on the overwhelming interest and decided that any dancers with a technical and performance ability strong enough to be in the ballet would be given a role. At the end of the audition we had a list of 55 pupils. So this became our cast for The Nutcracker. We also had an orchestra of 30+ talented pupils who were about to face their greatest challenge to date, playing Tchaikovsky’s notoriously complex score. Involving this many students was hugely beneficial and something we intend to repeat in our next production.
For our production of The Nutcracker the story was rewritten giving it a new context, a new set of characters and theme, that of a child’s resilience in a time of war. The music was also edited and reordered to fit our story. This blatantly liberal use of artistic license reflects the influence of Matthew Bourne on our production. Although our version of the ballet is very different from Bourne’s Nutcracker we paid tribute to his influence through the movement qualities of our nurses (their characters having similarities to his marshmallows).
Traditionally the story of The Nutcracker is set in a wealthy family home at a Christmas party. I knew I wanted to turn this on its head and make the child at the centre of the story homeless and helpless, having the story be one of her journey to recovery.
We set our Nutcracker in a post conflict war-torn landscape with Clara being a lost child who is taken pity on by a kind hearted soldier giving her a doll from a fallen aid package and with it a spark of hope. She falls asleep and the doll and her kind soldier merge to become her hero, the Nutcracker, other characters we have met also enter her dream in different forms.
The Nutcracker then saves Clara from a nightmarish attack by rat-like soldiers whisking her away through a snowy forest to an imagined perfect world with smiling faces and dancing white picket fences.
Here she meets the Sugar Plum Fairy, a powerful temptress who welcomes them both to her palace, entertains them but eventually separates them forcing the Nutcracker to become a part of her own army. He becomes aware that the only way to save Clara is to accept his fate and abandon her.
Clara wakes, back in the desolate landscape she dreamed she had escaped from, but now with a new inner sense of resolve and determination, a sense of hope.
Before we auditioned for the Ballet I needed to know I had commitment from male dancers, especially for the lead roles. I was double casting the lead roles so needed two very able Nutcrackers. Once we had the lead boys on board and had auditioned all the other dancers I assign roles.
I had three groups of character; Red Cross Nurses (the head nurse would morph into The Sugar Plum Fairy in Clara’s dream), UN Soldiers (including the Nutcracker soldier) and the lost children (including Clara). I then had a Corps de Ballet who danced as part of the larger scenes; the Snowflake scene and the Perfect World. As well as my boys dance group who became the Rat Army.
Each scene was written out long before I had the first rehearsal with the dancers. I listened to the music, relentlessly scribbling the stage action in notebooks, describing the story with exact timings. But I created very little movement material before meeting the dancers. The choreography was developed in the studio and much of the movement came from the dancers themselves. This was a long and arduous process in which we pushed to create one to two minutes of dance every hour. Jan Winstanley (our other dance teacher) and I would often rehearsing across two spaces, working on two scenes simultaneously, forever conscious that we would need to be finished three or four weeks before the performances in order to rehearse with the orchestra.
Many of the challenges with this production were the same as the challenges faced on any school musical production; sourcing props and costume, rehearsing with the orchestra, managing a large amount of pupils and time constraints. These are element that we are use to, but there were also many challenges that were unique to a large scale dance productions.
Firstly there is no school version of Tchaikovsky’s score and it is not an easy score for any orchestra to tackle. Tchaikovsky writes sweeping melodies that are familiar if not famous but has very fiddly and fast counter parts, often written high up on the violins which make playing them a technical challenge. Our Head of Music, Jen Hartley, re-scored and arranged the music for our orchestra but even so they were against the clock learning whole pieces in one session with barely little time to rehears.
There were also surprises when the dancers first met with the Orchestra. Many instruments were different in our school arrangement, especially in the brass section, and tempos varied greatly from the Berliner Philharmonic Orchestra’s version we had rehearsed to. But the excitement and energy from the pupils about bring the dance and live music together smoothed over any initial panic the conducted (Gareth Leather) and I experienced.
I was also very aware that I wanted the ballet to be story driven and very accessible to non dance audiences. This meant the dancers needed to act, and not in the traditional over the top ballet mime way, but with a more naturalistic style. I worked closely with the Head of Drama Jason Brown and our Head of Theatre Arts Lee Fleming to bring each character alive and keep the story at the forefront of each scene. We also employed the technique of projecting graphic novel style artwork with snippets of narrative text. It worked and many of comments we received pertained to grandparents being dragged reluctantly to a ‘grand daughter’s dance show’ only to find themselves applauding with tears in their eyes at having been moved by the story.
One major technical challenge came with my idea of having the aid package being delivered on stage by an actual parachute dropping from the sky. After many failed attempts it finally hung precariously from the ceiling, with only a week to go before the first performance, ready to be released by a discrete length of fishing wire. We were told at this point ‘if this doesn’t work, your not having it!’ It worked like a dream and we all cheered with nervous release.
Tickets went on sale for the run of five performances two weeks before the opening night. The Friday and Saturday night performances sold out in 24 hours and the rest went in the following couple of days. And still people were phoning for tickets. The demand was so great we felt compelled to put on an extra performances.
We also had a performance just for our year 7 pupils. They sat in rapture for the entire show and gave an honest standing ovation at the end. This was real proof to us that we had achieved our aim of creating an accessible and enjoyable dance production.
So what’s next?
Or next project, Alice, is now underway and aims to be even more ambitious, building on the success of Nutcracker. The music is being written whilst I am developing my interpretation of the book.
Lewis Carroll’s sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland seems a perfect sequel to our Nutcracker. It enables us to present familiar characters (many characters appear in both books) whilst also adding our own twists and turns to help tell a memorable story through dance.
We will be working with Imitating The Dog theatre company to create a tour-able construction of a ‘theatre within a theatre’ as well as some sophisticated multimedia elements they are renown for in their own shows. This is a very exciting time for dance within QES and I feel very privileged to be able to attempt such ambitious projects with very talented pupils and support from the entire school. Long may it continue.
Alice will be performed in December 2013.