Swanning about backstage at the ballet ahead of its Sunderland show

BRB's Swan Lake
BRB's Swan Lake

The serene glide of a swan across the water belies a flurry of activity under the surface.

And the same can be said of its namesake ballet.

Regarded as one of the greatest ballets of all time, Swan Lake is being toured by Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB) this season and will be performed at the Sunderland Empire, the company’s home in the North East, in October.

Before the grace and poise of the show wows Wearside audiences, there’s hours of sweat, tears and training that goes on behind the scenes.

I visited BRB’s base at the Birmingham Hippodrome as its talented troupe limbered up for the tour, which was created by esteemed choreographer and BRB’s director laureate, Sir Peter Wright in 1981.

Based on the Tchaikovsky classic, the scene is set on a moonlit lake where a grieving prince witnesses the transformation of a swan into a beautiful princess.

Compelled by an evil spell to spend her days in the form of a bird, she can only be saved by the power of love.

Staging a show of this scale is no mean feat, particularly for the dedicated dancers. Such is the demands of the piece, the female principals can go through up to two pairs of point shoes per performance.

“Swan Queen is the Hamlet of ballerina roles,” explained BRB director David Bintley. “For some dancers it’s too daunting.

“Whereas every girl wants to be Juliet, not everyone wants to be Odette.”

BRB's Swan Lake

BRB's Swan Lake

He added: “It’s the world’s favourite ballet, and there’s a good reason for that, it’s pretty good. We have the best version in the country and one of the best in the world.

“Swan Lake is our most bankable show, after Nutcracker, it helps to pay for less well-known ballets.”

And it’s not just the Swan Queen who steals the show. More men than ever before now take up the art form from an early age, leading to an influx of men joining BRB.

“I think Billy Eliot has a lot to do with that,” explained David, who is himself a former dancer.

Swan Queen is the Hamlet of ballerina roles. For some dancers it’s too daunting. Whereas every girl wants to be Juliet, not everyone wants to be Odette.”

David Bintley, director at BRB

“For a lot of us that film was our lives, we did that, we had to change in toilets so people didn’t know we were going to dance class.

“So many people claim that film is biographical of them. For our generation maybe, we were the people who broke the stereotype.”

The closing scene of Billy Elliot sees the eponymous hero leaping in the air in, incidentally, Swan Lake.

Though that version is by one of modern dance’s greatest choreographers, Matthew Bourne, the BRB version is more true to the original Swan Lake, which was first performed in Russia in 1895.

“We do the real Swan Lake, that’s been done for 150 years,” said David, who is this year celebrating 20 years at the helm of BRB.

“It’s one of the supreme examples of classical ballet. Matthew took it and put it in a new cultural place, which is great, but the two versions coexist.”

BRB's Swan Lake

BRB's Swan Lake

Dancers have trained from an early age to step into the spotlight in a production such as this.

We visited the rehearsal rooms as the male dancers prepare to take to the road.

The pounding of feet reverberated through the room as they worked their way through the steps, a high-flying feat of athletic prowess.

Dressed in Adidas tops, headbands and shorts, they looked like athletes at the top of their game – it’s just they wear ballet slippers instead of football boots.

In the shoe department, there’s a constant stream of deliveries of shoes coming through the doors.

The lowest ranked female dancers are allowed ten pairs of point shoes a month, while principals can have an unlimited amount. Each pair is moulded by the dancers themselves: they sew their own ribbons, use cheese-graters to make the soles less slippy and it’s not uncommon to see point shoes stuffed behind radiators to make them warm and malleable.

Shoes are an expensive, yet vital, aid to the dancers at £40 a pair and are often sent to Cuba to be re-used when they are too worn for professional use.

Shoe preparation is crucial - slipping on stage is every dancer’s worst nightmare. Like other athletes, injury can wipe them out for a season.

There will be sixty touring in the company, but they won’t all make it through the tour unscathed, there will be injuries.

Cue the on-site Jerwood Centre for the Prevention and Treatment of Dance Injuries, which is run by Birmingham Royal Ballet’s medical team, including physiotherapists, masseurs and a body conditioning instructor.

It includes state-of-the-art diagnostic and fitness equipment, including a hydrotherapy pool where dancers can work safely on their injuries while being supported by the water.

While footballers may play 35 games a year, dancers do 150 shows a year. And the football training of around 12 hours a week is far less than the 30-35 hours of dance training that’s required.

But both footballers and dancers use similar equipment to strengthen muscles, which will help to aid recovery should they become injured.

One of the dancers who needed the Jerwood Centre’s expert help recently is Delia Matthews, who is in the midst of rehearsals for Swan Lake. She fell on stage in a previous production, badly spraining her ankle.

It’s a common injury for female dancers, who spend hours on the points of their feet each season. Male injuries, however, often strike the shoulders and neck, due to the lifting involved in their roles.

Delia, who has now recovered from the fall, said: “It’s part of the job, you are always warned about injuries. We do as much as we can to prevent them, we use ice baths, and we make sure we’re strong, we eat well and drink well.

“There is a stigma around the weight of female dancers, but we wouldn’t be able to do what we do if we weren’t healthy. What you eat depends on the show, it’s so physical and tiring, you need to be well-fuelled in the build up to a show.

“The day before a show we have to be particularly careful with what we eat so that it doesn’t sit badly. The men are careful too, they drink lots of protein shakes. David likes that strong look, as dancers we’re all encouraged to be strong and healthy.”

“There’s a lot of opportunities at BRB,” said her co-star Brandon Lawrence. “David looks beyond rank, if you’re right for the role, you get it. Swan Lake really goes back to the origins of ballet, it has a proper narrative, it’s what we work for. We train all our lives so we can execute these classic moves.”

•Swan Lake is at Sunderland Empire from October 22-24. For tickets Tel. 0844 871 3022 or visit www.ATGtickets.com/Sunderland

A dancer limbers up backstage

A dancer limbers up backstage

BRB's Swan Lake

BRB's Swan Lake



Dancers can go through up to two pairs of shoes a show

Dancers can go through up to two pairs of shoes a show