With the Christmas period drawing ever closer, we went along to Birmingham Royal Ballet to get a sneak peek of the rehearsals for The Nutcracker and chat to First Soloist Delia Mathews.
Having joined the company in 2008 First Soloist Delia Mathews has 17 years of dance experience under her belt. When we meet her in the studio on a Friday afternoon she’s preparing to do a run through of her iconic role as The Sugar Plum Fairy in Sir Peter Wright’s The Nutcracker.
Originally from New Zealand, Delia trained at London’s Royal Ballet School for three years where she was spotted by the company’s director David Bintley and found herself moving to Birmingham to join Birmingham Royal Ballet full time. “I actually worked with the company a lot in my final year as a student. I would do the extras and I worked with them on both Swan Lake and The Nutcracker,” Delia says.
No stranger to the role of The Sugar Plum Fairy, and now in her ninth season with the company, Delia tells us how she always dreamed of taking on the role when she began dancing at the age of nine. “The Sugar Plum Fairy is a role that I always wanted to play, I think it’s every little girl’s ballet fantasy,” she beams. “Ballet is not only my job, it’s my life and a lifestyle choice.”
And we can understand why. The Sugar Plum Fairy is one of the most iconic roles in the world of ballet, not to mention Birmingham Royal Ballet has brought the production to the Hippodrome for the past 25 years, winning over crowds year after year.
“I love the Hippodrome, it’s our home theatre,” Delia says. “It’s attached to our studios so we can just walk across to it. It’s a lovely theatre to dance in, it has a really warming feel to it.”
“In different productions of The Nutcracker the storyline varies; in our version Clara, who’s the young girl who gets given The Nutcracker doll by Drosselmeyer, gets transported to this fairytale place,” Delia says of the production.
“We’re very lucky and we’re very proud of our production of The Nutcracker,” Delia says. “I only do the role of The Sugar Plum Fairy twice in the whole run but I’ll be doing other roles throughout. We have around 60 dancers in this ballet, and the majority of those dancers will be on for every show.
“It’s really nice because in our production we’ve got young dancers in the party scene, so it gives them a taste of what it’s like to be in the company and get involved in shows”.
The company’s production of The Nutcracker is one of Birmingham’s biggest Christmas traditions, with its stunning scenery, costumes and of course, breathtaking dancing. Just one week into rehearsals Delia tells us just how challenging the role of The Sugar Plum Fairy actually is.
“As The Sugar Plum Fairy you only come on at the very end of the ballet, so Clara’s been through lots of different scenes such as The Land of Snow. It’s the Grand Pas de Deux; the traditional Grand Pas starts with the woman and man dancing together, then the woman does a solo, the man does a solo, and finally they dance the Coda together to finish,” she says.
“In rehearsals, we usually start by breaking everything down, we won’t run something all the way through straight away,” Delia continues. “We work with the Ballet Master on the Pas de Deux, pay attention to certain sections, discuss it and work to make it right. We always try to keep the stamina going each time so that by the time it gets on stage it’s perfect because we’ve done it so many times.”
There’s no hiding in ballet and the dancers work tirelessly to achieve a flawless performance. “The hardest part is trying to make it look effortless because the audience doesn’t want to see how hard you’re working, they want it to be beautiful to watch,” Delia adds. “Ballet has an artistic side to it, so you have to make it look like you’re not working as hard as you are.
“It’s a lot of work and hours, there’s no shortcut in ballet, you really need the passion and love to always carry on. There are times in the studio where it gets really hard, but then you get on the stage, you do the Pas de Deux and hear the audience clap and it’s just the most amazing feeling.”
Alongside working on her solo section, Delia will be taking to the stage with her partner Brandon for the Grand Pas de Deux, where they will be performing elegant lifts. “Brandon and I have worked together quite a lot which is really helpful because we know how each other likes to work, but often in the very early stages you’re taking that time to get to know your partner.
“You have to have so much trust in your partner, because if you hold back even a little then the lift is ruined. It’s all about coordination, it really is key.”
Delia tells us that the week leading up to opening night is always when the nerves begin to kick in as the dancers head into final rehearsals. “The last week of rehearsals we all have full calls, we’ll run the ballet with a lot of different casts.
“It’s a big cast with a lot of us taking on numerous roles, so everyone wants to have a run through. We spend a lot of time clearing things up, making sure everyone knows what they’re doing and that things are being done right,” Delia adds.
“We’ll do run-throughs with our costumes for the Pas de Deux, wearing a tutu actually changes the movement a lot, because of the construction of the costumes.
“For the male dancers their jackets can often become a bit restricting when they’re doing the big lifts, so we like to do as much as we can in costume in that final week to make sure that the performance is as polished as it can be for the audience.”
Birmingham Royal Ballet’s The Nutcracker runs from Friday November 25 – Tuesday December 13
Words: Becky Weaver