• Su Crossland

Feature Friday - Show Planning Part 1 (from 06/11/2020)

Welcome to Feature Friday. After last time’s trawl through the not-quite-so-exciting Covid Secure feature I’ve decided to swing to the opposite end of the spectrum and talk about one of our most exciting events: The show! Here I will give you an insight into what goes on, not just behind the scenes but before we even get there. This is what has happened from the end of the last show to this point. 🎭

🎭 I’m sure you are all aware that we are planning for our biennial show at the end of this school year and we are doing Sleeping Beauty. This is always the first decision I make, what we are going to do, and this process starts almost as soon as the curtain has come down on the previous show. And it’s not always an easy decision! There are many things I need to consider in deciding which ballet to perform:

  • The total number of students in the school

  • The number of senior students capable of taking on solo roles

  • The different groups of junior students to cast as other roles

  • The appropriate number of students in each dance style for the roles

  • Appropriate musical scores

  • Appropriate story lines

  • Creative inspiration for choreography, etc

Our very first show, back in 2017, was quite an easy decision to make. We only had 15 students, with 1 senior and 5 older students capable of taking the main parts. This worked perfectly for the Peter and the Wolf with its mainly solo cast, suitable length score and potential for group ballet and tap dances for the juniors.

🎭 These days it’s a bit more difficult! We have more students, over a greater range of grades, and we also have students taking any combination of 3 dance styles. However, we do also have some very skilled seniors in the higher grades now who are very capable of taking on the principal roles. Those that know me will not be at all surprised to know that I have a spreadsheet with pages for all the different show ideas and variations of how I would cast each one! I will spend weeks, possibly months, considering which roles will be ballet, tap or contemporary, which seniors would make good pairings for which principal roles, whether I have enough dancers in each style for each group, who is physically tall enough, strong enough, has matching hair colour (eg: Odette and Odile in Swan Lake are supposed to be identical but were played by 2 different dancers), etc. These cast lists get written and re-written many times for each of the show ideas until I find a combination that feels right.

🎭 During this time I will also be looking at the music for each ballet to see which pieces can be used, which need editing, or if there’s any additional music I need. Most full-length ballets are over 2 hours long so I don’t need the full musical score – but there are always a few key pieces of music that need to be used as they are synonymous with the story or characters. If I need to add in pieces then they need to be in keeping with, or complimentary to, the original score so that it works overall. Last year, as well as Tchaikovsky’s orchestral Swan Lake score we also used pieces from the Stardust film soundtrack, a Café del Mar remix of Swan Lake, and Madness’ version for the finale. All this editing of pieces is done by our very own technical wizard, Mr Matt. His editing of Tchaikovsky’s classical Swan Lake onto Café de Mar’s electronic version was seamless and worked perfectly with a change from our contemporary style Mist dancers to our classical ballet Swans!

🎭 Another very important thing to sort is the venue; there will be no show without somewhere to show it! Fylingdales Village Hall was perfect for our first show, with its small cast and being the only location for classes. It was quite obvious after Peter and the Wolf that we had outgrown this as a venue though so we had to look for somewhere else. Somewhere affordable for our small school, yet big enough to put on the scale of performance planned. Swan Lake was performed at Caedmon College Whitby’s Scoresby site, now Whitby Sixth Form Centre. This was a perfect venue, with a large stage, plenty of backstage accommodation, car parking facilities and centrally placed between the two class venues. This would have been our chosen venue for many shows to come, however, the developments completed with the transition to the Sixth Form Centre have reduced the hall capacity drastically and this is no longer an option.

🎭 So here I was again, looking for a 3rd venue for our 3rd show! I revisited Eskdale School to discuss the reasons I hadn’t used it last time and see if there was any way we could overcome some of the issues (such as making the curtain winder physically accessible!). Thankfully, there is a great team at Eskdale and following a few visits and several discussions we have overcome the little niggles and found a way to make it work for us. If it is as successful this year as we hope then this may be our performance home for the foreseeable future.

🎭 All we have to do now is agree on a date! Usually this would have been done months ago, but with the uncertain nature of things at the minute this hasn’t been possible yet. But it will be booked before the end of this month – with an agreement to alter should any future lockdowns dictate!

🎭 Another very important part of the show that needs a decision early on, is which charity we are going to support. Part of our MESH ethos is bringing people together, both within our school and within our wider community. One way we do that is by donating proceeds from the show to support a local charity. We also invite members and users of that charity to attend the performance to support the dancers. Each show students and families are asked to nominate and vote on which charity they wish to support. This year we are raising money for the Trinity Centre, Whitby, a not for profit social and activity centre for older people from Whitby & surrounding villages. You can find out more about Trinity Centre by visiting their Facebook page

🎭 Alongside the musical adaptation I will be completing a storyboard for the show. Obviously, choosing a story ballet gives me a general story, however, as the original ballet is so much longer than our performances, and has a much larger cast than we have, the story usually needs editing to accommodate our own cast. This involves ensuring the important moments happen and fit with the identified music, plotting out the order of events with the accompanying playlist, editing the music to fit the story, etc. this will also lead into the next stage of show planning: choreography.

🎭 Once we have a show and venue we need a cast and some dancing! This year the principal cast was announced during lockdown. I knew the original spring date of the show would be delayed owing to the break in classes over lockdown, but wanted to keep the students excited with some good news. One of my favourite parts of show planning is announcing the principal roles. We don’t audition for roles specifically, but I use my knowledge of students’ abilities in class and preferences for parts / dance styles, as well as all the considerations discussed earlier to allocate parts. I just wish I had thought to video each student’s reaction when I asked them to dance their roles, they were fabulous! Some of those students I have never seen speechless before! The group roles are not announced until we start working on the show choreography as these are more class based and there is some flexibility depending on changes to class numbers.

🎭 Then there is the huge task of choreographing a story ballet with 3 different dance styles and a range of abilities! Once the principal dancers are confirmed I can use their strengths to choreograph their solo pieces and make each dance specific to them. I will also identify themes for characters or groups, often there is a musical theme that is repeated for each character so I will identify specific steps or gestures for each character or group to continue their theme. Having characters dancing together with different dance styles is always interesting to choreograph too; last year we had ballet and tap soloists dancing together, this year we have added a contemporary soloist into the mix and there will be at least one point where all three styles will be together on stage.

🎭 This is probably the bit that takes the longest for me. There are approximately 22 dances in our production of Sleeping Beauty. Some of these being around 1 minute in length, but with several pieces being over 8 minutes long and involving a lot of mime storytelling as well as lots of different characters dancing. Sometimes a piece of music will almost choreograph itself as the rhythms or phrases almost dictate what steps need to be used. Sometimes I struggle with creativity and will listen to a piece over and over again without inspiration. At this point I will usually leave it, try another piece and come back to it at a later date with the hope that inspiration will strike that time. I have to take into account the level of the students who will be dancing and use steps that they are able to perform competently. However; I also believe that a show is a great time to push the students outside their comfort zones somewhat. For exams we are limited to the syllabus work, but for a show, anything goes! Therefore, I will often add in steps that the students haven’t come across in class to add to their skill level and the interest of the choreography. And it’s always lovely to see students mastering steps that they know are above their grade level, they are usually so motivated to get them right for the performance so they can shine on stage.

🎭 Then there is one of the most exciting parts of show planning – as well as one of the most-time consuming and headache-inducing tasks: costumes! Back when I was a child dancing in my school shows, my mum was given a pile of fabric and instructions on how to make my costume and she spent many stressful hours creating fabulous costumes for me back then. As a parent I would hate to be handed this task now, and I know many parents who feel the same. I know many parents work full time and may not be able to make costumes for their child/ren. Thankfully, these days there are many companies that sell costumes ready-made and appropriate for dancing.

🎭 It is important that the costumes not only look right but also fit properly and move appropriately for dancing – I remember the days of wearing homemade tutus with no stretch in the fabric and velcro closures on the shoulder that popped open every time we raised our arms! Not an experience I would like to put my students through! Many hours are spent looking through costume catalogues to find costumes for each character in the correct size and price bracket. For groups, the costume often needs to be available in a range of sizes, styles or colours, and they also need to be returnable if they don’t fit. I have had parents ask in the past why I don’t use cheaper costumes available off sites such as ebay. I cannot guarantee that these cheaper products will meet appropriate safety standards or quality standards. Sometime you cannot guarantee that the costume will even arrive on time or look like it does in the picture! Therefore, I will only use reputable costume companies that I know I can trust. It may involve paying a little more but the students get to keep their costumes following the show and they always come in handy for book day or fancy dress in the future! Or, feel free to sell them on ebay or any of the facebook costume selling sites to recoup some of the money afterwards!

🎭 A parent of some of my students once said to me that she always assumed dance schools bought in dance shows pre-choreographed, with a story-line, musical score and cast list all ready to go, as many local authority schools do for their Christmas and end of year shows. She was genuinely surprised that this was not the case and that it was all done by me. It is a huge amount of work to undertake and does explain why I only do a biennial show rather than an annual show! It would be a lot easier for me to do a show case of dances, where each group performs a dance they have been learning in class. However, for me storytelling is a huge part of dance and I want to teach my students this art through a story ballet; all working together to tell one story rather than limiting their story to their individual dance. It also challenges me as I am constantly developing my skills in choreography, project management, artistry, etc to develop a coherent story to capture the audience’s imagination. As always, striving to Achieve Our Best Together! 🎭

That turned out longer than anticipated - and there's still so many aspects of show planning I haven't discussed. Maybe we'll come back to some of those in the future!

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