Trade secrets: Real swords on stage
Ballet Master and Principal Character Artist Christopher Saunders shares the secrets of swordsmanship on stage.
When I started out, the swords were quite solid and made of much softer metal. They used to bend – Wayne Eagling used to come off stage with his blade at a right angle. The new ones are much harder and the blade is actually V-shaped. They’re stronger, but if you hit too hard they can snap, which is very dangerous – the broken tip flies off and the handle end is jagged and very sharp.
If you pass the studio when we’re rehearsing, you’ll hear me shouting ‘Up down, up down’ in time to the music. That’s the only way to convey what everyone should be doing with their swords. The tricky thing is making sure that they’re not all going up and down with their eyes as well. Each fight builds up gradually, so people will be doing things at different times – the first fight in Romeo and Juliet starts with Tybalt and Benvolio, then two other couples, and you wind up with eight couples in total.
Apart from ‘up down’, there’s another move called a ‘Twyla’, so-called after the ballet was staged in New York and a particular sequence needed a name. It reminded someone of Twyla Tharp and the name stuck.
People do get injured. The most common problem is a cut on the thumb knuckle, from accidentally putting your hand into the ‘cup’ the wrong way and gripping the sword upside down. Dancers sometimes get blisters on their hands if we’re rehearsing a lot. Also, it’s natural for the couples to get closer as they fight, and they can catch each other on the calf – cut tights and cut legs. It’s not very popular with wardrobe.
There’s always one boy, usually a student or the newest member of the Company, who doesn’t fight at all. It’s one of the Montagues, and he just does a bit of jostling on the sidelines, then runs across and gets stabbed.
The boys with more experience can do the easier fights – the big circle and the diagonal – and by the time they’ve done the production a couple of times, they can do anything. In fact, they get so into it that when the Montague and Capulet lords come on, we really have to push our way onto the stage. They’ve forgotten that we’re coming and the ‘It’s the boss!’ terror in their eyes is actually genuine.
You can watch a sword fighting lesson with students from The Royal Ballet School, filmed as part of Royal Ballet LIVE:
Taken from About the House magazine, received by Friends of Covent Garden quarterly alongside other benefits such as priority booking and special Friends events.