Behind the velvet curtain: a true insight into a company at work

More than a decade ago, Christopher Millard, director of press and communications at the Royal Opera House, explained to me his concept of the great divide between those who know what’s happening behind the red velvet curtain and those who don’t.

He was speaking mainly of the media who would never really know the backstage truth – they would always be outsiders – but also the audience as a whole.

Times have changed, not so much for the media but for the general public. Now, mainly due to the power of social media, the curtain has been raised – not completely of course, but a lot higher than it was before.

Our appetite for the sweaty and not just the pretty was fed partly by TV dance shows based on fierce competition and brutal elimination but now we have ballet reality shows such as Agony & Ecstasy, which revealed much of the inner workings of English National Ballet, and The Secret Lives of Dancers, a series about the dancers of the Royal New Zealand Ballet and how they are coping with their new star artistic director, Ethan Stiefel.

These ballet shows are controlled and edited by the producers, not the ballet companies, so there’s some risk involved for the dancers and staff.

But what if the ballet companies themselves completely controlled the content, used the show to promote their own productions and presented themselves in the best possible light?

That’s exactly what happened last Friday when the Royal Ballet in London went live with a day in the life of the company within the Royal Opera House.

Streamed live on the Royal Opera House’s YouTube channel and The Guardian’s website, it began at 10.30am GMT and ended at 7.45pm. At the end, the entire show was re-streamed, allowing those in countries far from European time zones to watch as well.

Highlights are being gradually uploaded to the Royal Opera House YouTube channel with the first two being a class for about 30 dancers and Liam Scarlett’s rehearsal for his new work, Sweet Violets (see videos below).

Presented by the radio and television host, George Lamb, and the Royal Ballet’s bubbly soloist, Kristen McNally, a number of rehearsals and interviews were interspersed with tweets from viewers.

The popular UK dance website, The Ballet Bag, also had a blogger commenting live on the day.

To date, there are no reliable statistics on the reach of Royal Ballet Live, although the videos posted in the last few days have attracted around 5000 to 6000 viewings each.

Among the positive results of the experiment:

. The plugs for forthcoming or current shows were relatively subtle yet sufficiently direct to encourage new audiences and not too obviously the reason for the event.

. The interviews and commentary were not saccharine and fluffy, but genuinely revealed aspects of dancers’s lives.

. There was enough detail to satisfy the cognoscenti but also sufficient explanation for those who don’t know a plie from a pirouette.

The choreographers and the teacher conducted the rehearsals and the class as if there was not a viewing audience of thousands – not an easy task – and the dancers did not look overly inhibited by the cameras all around them in the studios.

The overall mood – cosy, non-threatening – was in direct contrast to intellectual and artistic documentaries such as Frederick Wiseman’s La Danse, in which there is no narrative. That’s a film you can love, as I did, or dismiss as far too long and bloodless.

The young dancer, Beatriz Stix-Brunell, was impressive in everything she did, from class to rehearsals, even more so considering she was making her debut as Alice in Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice in Wonderland the following day.

Wheeldon was equally impressive as a man who took complete control of the rehearsal process with a firm touch but also a light-hearted approach.

As he rehearsed his Polyphonia, part of a triple bill opening next week, he told the dancers: “All the positions are etched in space…cut clearly in space…the music is disorder – you’re the order…think of yourselves as pencil drawings”.

The day began with class taken by the Russian guest teacher, Olga Evreinoff, a graduate of the Vaganova Ballet Academy. She has taught at many companies and worked with Natalia Makarova in setting her production of La Bayadere.

Evreinoff missed nothing, often taking a dancer aside for individual corrections. Dancers are used to intensive scrutiny, but this was something more for them – scrutiny by camera as well as by their teacher. Not for the faint hearted.

Class was followed by an interview conducted by Guardian critic Judith McKrell, with Royal Ballet resident choreographer, Wayne McGregor whose work, Carbon Life, is part of the forthcoming triple bill.

McKrell was a confident interviewer and McGregor a very relaxed subject. Asked what was distinctive about the Royal Ballet dancers he answered “infusing the material with emotionality. It pours out of them”.

It was good to see soloist Alex Campbell rehearsing the role of the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland. He is sharing the role with a fellow Australian, Steven McRae, who learned to tap early in life. Campbell taught himself to tap – an impressive achievement.

The director of the Royal Ballet, Monica Mason, spoke of her 54 years with the company (she joined aged 16) and the great moment in her dancing years when aged 20 she was chosen for the leading role in Rite of Spring by Kenneth MacMillan.

She remembered Rudolf Nureyev as “a wild animal…dancing with Rudi was like standing in a high wind on the edge of a cliff….he was scary. You only had to see his nostrils flaring and you knew you were in trouble”.

Mason rehearsed Marianela Nunez in Prince of Pagodas but the rehearsal was really managed in astonishing step-by-step, note-by-note detail by Grant Coyle, an Australian, who is principal dance notator at the Royal Ballet. (Two videos of this rehearsal are now available on YouTube).

One of the highlights of the day was the rehearsal of Liam Scarlett’s new work, Sweet Violets. This third ballet in the triple bill is based on the dark paintings and strange life of the artist Walter Sickert.

Scarlett, 25, appears very secure with the concept and completely clear with what he wanted from his dancers, Thiago Soares and Leanne Cope. I’m looking forward a great deal to reading the critical response to Sweet Violets. I hope it’s positive.

Scarlett’s talent was evident as far back as 2004 when, aged 18, he showed the maturity of a man at least 10 years older when he created Monochromatic, a ballet for the Royal Ballet School, set to Prokofiev’s first piano concerto.

As for the day as a whole, it was not the last word, but it should have been when the principal, Tamara Rojo, spoke briefly about why she began to dance and why she still does.

“Ballet”, she said, “is the way I speak, communicate with other human beings”.