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Introduction to Petrushka
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What's on

Birmingham Hippodrome
3 - 5 July 2008

The Lowry
8 - 12 July 2008

Click here for a full diary of performances and links for how to book.

Full performance diary

Click here for performance listings.


At the start of the 2007-08 season, we asked various members of the Wardrobe department about which shows they were particularly looking forward to. Some made their choices based on which productions they enjoyed working on, others on which they enjoyed watching. Scanning through the list of ballets being performed, Michael Clifford, Birmingham Royal Ballet's Shoe Supervisor, went directly for Petrushka.

With its opening and closing scenes of a vibrantly colourful carnival, the ballet sees masses of performers jostling on the stage, with Birmingham Royal Ballet's dancers joined by local students and even actors to fill out the crowd. For Michael, this brings with it the challenge of fitting and changing vast numbers of people - all in the space of a one-act ballet.

'It's like doing Sleeping Beauty but in about 45 minutes', he explains. For audiences less familiar with the Company's mixed bills, which typically see three one-act pieces staged in a single evening or matinee show, there can often be the preconception that these shorter works feature lower production standards. But in reality, nothing could be further from the truth. While just one of three pieces being performed, Petrushka has all of the scale and spectacle of a two- or three-hour narrative ballet like The Sleeping Beauty or La Fille mal gardée, - simply condensed into half the time. This can make things a little frantic for the Shoe Supervisor. 'There are these huge crowd scenes, with a lot of things happening within the crowds with particular characters. You've got peasants, stable-boys, coachmen, nursemen, aristocrats, vendors selling hot meats, flowers...' As the list continues, Michael shows us a reference book he has full of copies of the original designs for all of the characters, that he used to ensure that any new footwear he has to buy is true to the original look of the ballet.

'It's been so long since we've done Petrushka that we don't still have any of the original footwear. I have to source it all from the designers sketches, so it's just like doing a new production for me. I've got copies of the designs by Alexandre Benois - the originals I think are in the Vienna Theatre Museum.' The book is an invaluable resource, also containing letters documenting the creative process, and duplicate tracings made before illustrations could easily be copied by machine.

'I look through these drawings and find footwear that matches the illustrations,' explains Michael, 'and ensure that if required, it is something that a performer can dance in. So these stable boys look shoddy, but they have to dance, so you have to make sure the footwear is sufficient for them to dance in while looking authentic. Some of the others are in felt boots, so I have to find somewhere that will make those for us.' We come across a picture of a girl wearing crisp white boots lined with fur. 'We'll use fake fur for those,' the Shoe Supervisor reveals, 'but the look must maintain the integrity of the design.'

Michael continues to turn through the pages of the book, revealing drawing after drawing, with samples of different fabrics attached to each one. Each one is labelled with a number, and these numbers keep on rising: 38, 44, 51, 66... - each one a new and unique character.

'We used to have two versions of the production, one with additional actors, so we could bolster the crowd scenes when we performed on larger stages,' Michael reveals. This is often also done with scenery, where panels can be removed to subtly reduce the width of a set without changing the overall look of the presentation in smaller theatres. 'With these additional actors this meant we had skips labelled "extras"', smiles Michael, 'and then others labelled "extra extras"!'

The actor roles that do stay in from one venue to another can cause other problems. 'There'll be different local actors in each city, so things have to fit more than one person,' explains Michael. 'You tend to get larger sizes to play it safe, because you can always pad them out, or the actor can wear extra socks. Some of the boots in this stand up by themselves, and trousers get tucked in which can help too, so you don't worry about them too much!'

Once all the preparatory work has been done, sourcing shoes and going through initial fittings, the second biggest challenge is getting through the performances themselves. 'There are a lot of quick changes in scene four,' says Michael (correcting himself after originally describing it as Act IV, such is the scale of the work for him). 'There's a crowd scene at the beginning, then two quieter scenes in the middle, then again at the end when all hell breaks loose. It's all done near the stage. The performers all come off and get fitted into their new costumes and footwear then move straight through and back on again. There's a quite a lot of people hanging around at times too, so you have to make sure that everybody's got the right items.'

Michael seems happy that he only has to worry about the shoes. 'In the final five minutes the scene gets more and more manic,' he explains, 'and a large group of lads all run off then run back on again dressed as animals! There's a crane, a pig a goat, and a bear! There's actually a costume and someone has to get dressed up and walk from one side of the stage to the other.'

The performer in the bulky bear's costume is not alone however. 'It's set in winter so it snows and everybody has to look like they're cold,' Michael explains. 'However like this year we always invariably end up doing it in the summer so nobody feels cold at all, but everybody still has to wear all this large, Russian-influenced winter clothing!'

And remember, this is only one third of the programme!

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