When I saw that the Royal Ballet would be pirouetting into town for the final performance of their summer tour of Japan, I couldn't resist responding to their call for extras.
Being an extra for the Royal Ballet – in Japan
Though never having been a ballet buff, I was, however, well aware of the reputation of the UK's Royal Ballet, and rather liked the idea of sharing a stage with those at the very top of their game. I was confident I wouldn't be required to dance, though I did fear I might be asked to wear tights.
The performance was Romeo and Juliet and the application form stated the minimum body measurements for the various roles (guards; townsmen; peasants, etc). Sadly, my scrawny frame didn't cut it – even the chest measurements for the beggar were larger than mine. I decided to apply anyway, thinking that if they were short of applicants, they could, if necessary, pad me up a bit.
A week after applying, I was called for audition. Still worried about how I might look in tights, I threw on my thermal underwear and stood in front of the mirror to double-check my figure. It wasn't a pretty sight, what with my matchstick legs and knobbly knees, but I still wanted to give it a go. I was confident the Royal Ballet wouldn't risk their reputation by putting me on stage if they thought my legs might draw unwanted attention. “They know what they're doing; it's the Royal Ballet,” I reassured myself.
The day before the audition, which took place in Kobe, the Guardian website posted a set of behind-the-scenes photos from the Royal Ballet's final Tokyo show, which brought to a close the 25-year career of principal dancer Miyako Yoshida. She played Juliet at the Bunka Kaikan Hall in front of a packed house. This was the exact same show I was auditioning for. The fascinating photos served to stir my interest further.
The audition took place at the Hyogo Performing Arts Center and brought together a motley bunch from across the world, most working or studying in the local area. As we waited to be called, we pondered as to what the audition might be like – would we need to answer some questions about the storyline? Maybe demonstrate a deep and long-standing interest in ballet? Perform a perfect port de bras, perhaps?
In the event, all we had to do was stand in a line and be quiet. First, they dished out the roles for the women.
A small posse of Royal Ballet staff, which included artistic director Dame Monica Mason, and principal character artist Chris Saunders, walked up and down the line clutching a bunch of sticky labels, each marked with a specific role for the performance.
Thirty women stood in line, and 12 were chosen. Eighteen crestfallen faces were thanked for coming, and then it was the men's turn. There were 22 of us. The stickers began to be handed out one by one, but nothing was coming my way. It wasn't looking good.
I saw the 'beggar' sticker go to a French guy with long hair and a frame no larger than mine. And then, from about five metres away, Dame Monica suddenly turned and looked straight at me. I cracked a half-smile; it probably wasn't my best look, but she saw something in my eyes (an expression of self-pity, possibly) and offered me the part of one of the townsmen. I was in.
Once the extras had all been chosen, Chris led us to a rehearsal area backstage. We walked through the wings and could see the set being built. The amount of equipment spread about the place was astounding – and all for just one performance. This was a massive operation.
Chris, an excellent communicator and clearly a popular figure in the company, went through the moves for each group of extras. “No walking with pointy feet,” he ordered. “You're not dancers.”
It can't be easy dealing with a bunch of off-the-street amateurs who've never set foot on a stage before, but he knew what he was doing, and was patient with it. He kept the mood jovial and the initial rehearsals appeared to go well.
I was paired up with the delightful Melinda, a French woman who's been working in Japan for several years. “Japan's good for these kinds of opportunities,” she commented. I agreed with her, recalling the occasion when I was asked to write some English lyrics for a Japanese thrash-metal band.
Day two, the day before the performance, gave us a chance to rehearse on the actual set, this time in our costumes. The men's changing room went a little quiet when the wardrobe manager pointed at the tights. “You all have to wear them,” she said sternly. We all looked at each other a little shiftily. There was no backing out now. “Do you know how to get them on?” she asked. “No, but I know how to get them off,” one extra quipped.
In the event, the tights proved quite a hit with the extras, with some commenting on how comfortable they felt. They were extremely stretchy and fit my bones like a glove. Even better, I had an enormous gown to wear, the bottom of which came down to my shins. My humiliation was spared.
For the dress rehearsal, we were on stage with the Royal Ballet dancers. Some scenes involved only Romeo and Juliet (Stephen McRae and Roberta Marquez), whereas others involved as many as 60 people, a mix of dancers and extras. Melinda and I had to enter from the side of the stage, walk grandly among several dancers and then make our way up a staircase to a fairly narrow platform from where we overlooked the action. It was hot work in all the gear, but fun to look out over the stage.
There were some scary moments in the dress rehearsal where various performers came pounding up the steps behind us – they had to get in front of us so the audience could see them, which involved Melinda and I taking a few steps back. It got pretty crowded up there sometimes – and there were no guard rails – but thankfully no one toppled over the edge.
Occasionally, in the middle of rehearsing a scene, Dame Monica, who had now become a disembodied voice, came over the speaker system, barking directions at dancers and extras. “Beggar, move a little more slowly, please,” she commanded. “The man at the back – don't hide behind the pillar.” I looked out into the auditorium but couldn't see her anywhere. She was our god, looking down from above, calling the shots, all powerful and all knowing.
After leaving the stage for the last time during the dress rehearsal, I paused to watch McRae and Marquez from the wings as they performed their key scene. It was a real privilege to see them at close hand; the elegance and grace with which they moved about the stage looked to come with effortless ease. When he passed me coming off the stage, however, sweat was pouring off him.
On the day of the performance I felt a pang of excitement. We all made our way from the dressing rooms to the stage area. There was a real buzz about the place, and the curtain was soon up. Once Melinda and I were up the stairs and in position, we could look out at the full house looking back at us. Below us, the world renowned Royal Ballet performed Romeo and Juliet to a spellbound audience while I sweated profusely in my thick gown and heavy hat. But so taken was I by this wonderful spectacle that I hardly noticed my rising body temperature.
Unsure about when to make our final exit from the stage, I suddenly saw Chris in the wings waving at us to get off. “Let's go,” I whispered to Melinda. She turned to leave but didn't walk. “We should go,” I said again. She turned to me slowly, not wanting to draw the audience's attention. “You're standing on my dress,” she told me quietly. And then down the steps we went. For us, the show was over. We were only extras, but it had been a lot of fun – and the tights worked out just fine, too.