Posted by Rebecca King on 08.14.2012
On Sunday August 12th, the London 2012 Olympic Games drew to a close in a theatrical fashion, second only to it’s opening. For those of us who are ballet enthusiasts, we all waited and watched for a moment where ballet would be launched onto the international stage with ballerina Darcey Bussell at the helm. The closing ceremony came and went, and before we knew it, the torch was extinguished and the newest NBC sitcom was thrust onto our screens. If only NBC paid attention to the Tweets that came from the ballet community: no one was happy. The next day we all searched for video proof of this piece choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, only to find a mere 36 second highlight.
Once again, thanks to the wonders of social media, I was put in contact with one of the dancers who had the extraordinary opportunity to take part in London’s closing ceremony. I asked her if she would give us a look behind the scenes, and she obliged. Without further adieu, I give you Elanore Franklin’s account of her experience in her own words.
RK: Could you tell us a little bit about you and your background in ballet.
EF: I’m a graphic designer for Paperchase and not a professional dancer! Hope that doesn’t disappoint. I’ve had ballet lessons since the age of 5 and have been lucky enough to have had some fantastic teachers, it’s always been a serious hobby & passion of mine.
RK: How did it come about that you were selected to perform in the closing ceremony of the 2012 London Olympic Games?
EF: I follow a lot of ballet blogs (part of my obsession… I mean passion) and one posted an advertisement for voluntary ballet pointe dancers for the Olympics and didn’t specify which ceremony. I was very hesitant in applying, but thought I’d take the risk anyway.
There were two auditions (one of which was a call back) and we had to perform a short excerpt from Swan Lake.
Around two hundred dancers were chosen; 16 Royal Ballet School students, some from the Central School of Ballet, many vocational dance students, some ex-professional dancers, and lots like me who dance as a hobby, albeit a serious one. About 10% of the cast were paid professionals who performed throughout the closing ceremony.
We had to be prepared to give up our time over many weekends and evenings, and travel costs were only covered within London. Lots of dancers travelled huge distances from all over the UK, even having to stay at friend’s houses in London just to be able to take up the opportunity.
RK: What was the rehearsal process like? How long have you been working on this piece?
EF: From March, we rehearsed with half the group at a time to start with, because of available space. There were 100 dancers learning new choreography in vast TV studios (3 Mills Studios in Bromley by Bow). I know people who rehearsed the opening ceremony with over 1,300 dancers at a time and ended up in the car park because it was the biggest space available before moving to the secondary location.
The last rehearsals were in a car park in Dagenham, East London next to the iconic Ford Motors Factory. They erected a giant circus tent in the middle but the actual stage was all outside. It must have looked rather odd from the motorway that bordered it, especially when people were running around in costumes. We didn’t always have a full cast to practice, the Royal Ballet students had an end of year show during some and the English National Ballet Company members had a massively busy season which ended the day before the show so couldn’t make any rehearsals until the day of.
RK: What was your favorite story from the creative process? Any fun anecdotes that you can share with us?
EF: Early summer in England was abysmal. We had unprecedented heavy rainfall that just seemed relentless. Every rehearsal, bar two, it rained in Dagenham. Once we had a whole day and didn’t take our rain boots off at all, it was pretty funny with 200 dancers in leotards, rain macs & clunky boots trying to do classical ballet! Another time on a sunny day (sun cream provided!) there was a flash rain pour mid-dance. We all carried on which was exhilarating. Lots of ‘woops’ and giggles, although our pointe shoes were ruined. In fact one of the thank you presents we bought for the teachers were union jack umbrellas, as the rain had become an inside joke.
When Darcey and the guys joined us to practice, I was massively star struck, as were the majority of other dancers. I’ve followed her career for years and even managed to see her second from final performance at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. It’s fun to think I can say I danced in a car park in East London with Darcey Bussell. For this project, Cindy Jourdain was head of ballet (ex Royal Ballet again) who taught us along side Jonathan Howells (RB Assistant Ballet Master) & Alastair Marriott (choreographer). The director Kim Gavin is also ex-Royal Ballet.
RK: What did Christopher Wheeldon tell the dancers that he was looking to accomplish with this piece on a huge international stage?
EF: I was not taught by Christopher Wheelan himself, all the choreography was passed on through our three teachers, listed above. The choreography had to adapt because of the stage, we started off with a flat, sound stage. Once the final stage was built, there were a series of ramps, which were steeply raked so some elements of the dance had to be changed so they were safe. The joins weren’t smooth where the sections met, so we had to keep an eye on where we stood too. Imagine being en pointe on a harsh sideways rake – especially if you’re not pro! Our costumes were fairly tricky as the base was a lycra all-in-one, so the feet were slippy inside pointe shoes, it needed a bit of careful cutting. Some girls even sewed their costumes to their shoes! The stage had to be recoated to give us more grip but it was still slippy with leather ballet shoe soles on the night. We had gorgeous black custom made pointe shoes with Swarovski crystal details on by Freed of London.
RK: Where all the performers sworn to secrecy when it came to sharing details of the event?
EF: We were all sworn to secrecy and signed confidentiality agreements. It was understood that this was also for our safety as well as to keep the surprise. For example, we weren’t allowed to ‘check-in’ to our location on social networking platforms.
RK: For you, what was most special about being a part of this performance?
EF: At the final rehearsals at the stadium, we bumped into many celebrities; David Beckham watched Victoria and the Spice Girls practice, Russell Brand was pretty friendly to us (of course), Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell chatted to us whilst they waited to go on themselves. It was all pretty surreal.
On the day of, security was tight; it was airport style check in with no liquids over 100ml, no large quantities of food, ID cards plus stamps on your wrist. Our changing rooms were beneath the stadium, so we could peer out into the ‘field’ from the sides. Experienced volunteers did all our hair and make-up expertly; it was so lovely that people shared their valuable skills for the occasion.
Darcey Bussell said hello to the corps back stage and was soon mugged by more than a hundred dancers wanting her autograph. Ever the professional, and super lovely lady she is, Darcey patiently signed shoes, programs & smiled for photos. Another reason why I love her. Something unexpected was that so many people backstage wanted their photograph with us! Passing athletes, technical crew, media, other cast etc. it was like we were celebrities. There was such a buzz backstage, everyone in a euphoric, enthusiastic mood.
RK: What will you take away from this experience?
EF: This experience was so special to me because it is something truly unique. I take 3 to 5 ballet classes a week but never have a chance to actually perform. It was an honour to work with the wonderful ballet people Cindy, John & Alistair and to perform on the same stage as Darcey Bussell, Gary Avis, Edward Watson, Nehemiah Kish and Jonathan Cope. Not to mention learning original choreography by Christopher Wheeldan. This will never happen again to me.
Monday morning after 5 hours sleep I was at my desk in the office all back to normal, still hyped from the experience. My team even gave me a round of applause when I came in.
So within the last two weeks I’ve turned 30, performed in front of approximately one billion television viewers at the Olympic closing ceremony and will be married too (as of Saturday August 18th). Crazy but good times.
Want a dance shirt to commemorate the 2012 Olympics? Click here to order your TENDUS t-shirt featuring a variation on the famous British “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster.