(7 minute read)
It’s Thursday 12th April 2018, it’s 5:30pm, and I’m in Edinburgh.
Icy rain is lashing down on my forehead as I make my way over the North Bridge, to the Royal Festival Theatre. I’m in Edinburgh to shoot for Scotland’s most prestigious ballet company, Scottish Ballet, shooting in the dressing rooms and corridors, the arteries of the theatre, in the time before, during, and after the performance.
The show I’m here to shoot is ‘Highland Fling’ – a show originally produced in 1994 by Olivier Award-winner and now Knight of the Realm, Sir Matthew Bourne. The show is a re-working of the classic romantic ballet ‘La Sylphide’ done in that classic Matthew Bourne style – it’s funny, it’s cheeky, and there’re bits of it that are SUPER dark.
I’m met at the Stage Door by Amy, the company manager, and I’m being given the tour. I’m beeped through what feels like a hundred security gates and doors marked ‘No Entry’, until I’m backstage, past the props, shoes, feathers and tartan through to the dressing rooms.
What follows are images taken in three sections. The Half / The Interval / Curtain Down.
Thanks to Tony, Amy, Beth, and everyone at Scottish Ballet for being so welcoming and friendly, as well as Sir Matthew for posing for a photo backstage.
‘The Half’ is the name given to the half hour before the show. It’s a magical time backstage, because it’s at this point that most of the performers have warmed up, stretched, and they’re putting on their makeup.
The Principles get their own dressing room, but if you’re a first artist or a soloist, you’re in with everyone – it’s here that I meet Mia.
Mia is putting her wig on, and showing me her tattoos – “They’re different every time” she tells me, as she paints on the initials.
Sat next to Mia is Melissa. Mellissa is ex-National Ballet of Portugal, and has been dancing with SB for about 3 years. I ask her to do her best Sylph face.
And with that, I’m out.
The guys dressing room is smaller than the girls, and the smell is very different. Instead of hairspray and dry shampoo, it’s Lynx Africa. Always Lynx Africa.
Anyway, it’s here that I snap some shots of the leading man for the evening, Mr Nicholas Shoesmith.
“He’s a legend” a female cast member has told me – and it’s easy to see why they’d say that. He’s easy going, calm, and focused, whilst he does his hair pre-show. I’m in the dressing room maybe 30 seconds before he’s out in the corridor – adjusting his costume, with me in pursuit.
A head pokes out of a door, asking for white makeup – it’s principal dancer Andrew Peasgood, who’s playing a sylph tonight.
For this show, white makeup is currency. In a show with what feels like a hundred sylphs, all in head to toe white makeup, everyone is reluctant to give theirs up, and it’s only after a lot of asking that Andrew gets his.
As he’s applying his makeup, we’re chatting. He’s telling me about the company, his experiences as a dancer, and what he’s looking for in the show tonight. He pauses, and I ask him to look straight at me.
Moments later I’m next door, in with Beth. Royal Ballet trained, Bethany Kingsley Garner is playing the lead Sylph in the show tonight.
I ask her how she’s feeling tonight. She’s feeling good. She tells me Sir Matthew is in the audience tonight – as if the pressure of being a Principal ballerina wasn’t enough, now she’s got one of the biggest names is contemporary ballet watching her.
Beth’s dresser knocks on the door.
“Look at me.”
There’s another knock at the door – it’s Andrew. There’s maybe 6 minutes left until curtain up, and the conversation is quite direct.
Then that’s it – the crackling sound through the speaker in Beth’s room announces she’s due onstage, and it’s here where I have to leave her.
“What do I say instead of ‘Good Luck’? I heard you shouldn’t say that”, I ask as she walks through the door.
“You say ‘chookas'” she replies with a smile – and then she’s gone. Off out into the inky darkness of the side of the stage – ready to give another show stopping performance.
I’m sitting in the corridor next to door to the stage – I’m messing around on my phone, waiting for the first half to finish. I hear some applause, and seconds later the door to the stage BURSTS open, and I’m right in everyone’s way.
I quickly realise the focus of the rush is to get to the water machine. Within moments, the cast are half naked, buzzing around the machine and chatting to each other about the first half.
I knock on Beth’s door to see how she’s getting on.
After a moment of self reflection, she’s back out in the corridor, checking in on other dancers, and chatting to Oliver Rydout, the rehearsal director.
Olly is giving a few notes to Beth and Andrew, and making sure they’re both happy. One thing that strikes me at this point is how often everyone asks if everyone else is okay. It’s really nice.
The interval is 20 minutes, but it feels more like 5 as Nicholas Shoesmith walks down the stairs to greet Beth, and the rest of the team.
He’s there for a couple of minutes, before the dancers are called to the side of the stage for the second half.
Suddenly, I’m alone in the corridor. Literally 30 seconds ago the place was buzzing, and I’m stunned by the silence again. I look around to find my bag, and I realise I’m not alone.
Artist Grace Horler is there with me, practising her movements. She’s taking every available second to practise, and for a second, I just watch her practise without firing off any shots.
I snap one, and then she’s gone, and once again all is silent backstage.
This time I’m smarter with where I stand, and when I hear the applause I’m ready for the stream of dancers to flow through the tiny door to the stage.
Moments after the company spills past me, I notice Christopher Hampson (the Artistic Director of the company) walk past me – accompanied by a guest. Before I know it, I’m face to face with Sir Matthew Bourne. Chris takes a photo for the Scottish Ballet Instagram account, and I ask if I can snap one.
I’m invited into Beth’s dressing room, and I’m greeted with a pretty gruesome sight.
I ask her how the show went, and she’s positive “Yeah great!” – and then I realise – she’s not done. After having danced intensely for a 90 minute show, she’s now off to do a post show Q&A.
All the time, people ask me why I photograph dancers, and the weird thing is I can never really put my finger on it. Normally I mention about their athleticism, the inherent beauty in photographing movement, something vague like that.
But in this moment, when I’m watching Beth go from a performing in a show where she’s giving everything, to go straight into what could be another hour of chatting in front of a live audience – this is it. It’s everything. It’s the power, the dedication, the focus, and the constant pursuit of perfection. That’s why I do what I do.
Thanks again to the team at SB – can’t wait for the next one!