Calling on London: SF Ballet on Tour

The glamour quotient is high for a ballet company arriving in a foreign capital: scintillating repertory, elegant artists, and brilliant designs all bring the allure of the new and different. When San Francisco Ballet dances at Sadler’s Wells Theatre this week and next, Londoners will see the accolades, the flowers, the festive parties, and (hopefully) the positive notices play out over a fortnight stay. What won’t be as apparent is the two years of planning behind the scenes that make this 11-day performance series as seamless as possible.

Breakfast, Room Lotteries, and Luggage Tags

As SF Ballet’s Company Manager, Juliette LeBlanc handles the logistics of the more than 114 dancers, musicians, stage crew, and staff on the London tour—from plane tickets to hotel rooms, ground transportation to work permits, per diems to onstage flowers. To prepare, LeBlanc visits the venue more than a year before the tour, sussing out hotels and transportation for cleanliness and convenience, and some less expected characteristics, too. “I’m looking at what the breakfast is like, because dancers are really into the breakfast,” she explains. “And whether our gigantic shuttle bus can fit down the very quaint cobblestone streets.”

Flights and hotels are booked a year in advance; entire flights and hotels are taken over, even with most of the dancers doubled up in rooms. The 20 percent of the rooms reserved as singles are parceled out by the luck of the draw: instead of giving them to the highest-ranking dancers, SF Ballet has a single room lottery. “We actually draw names out of a hat,” explains LeBlanc. “It makes it certainly more equitable and exciting. It could be an apprentice or could be a principal who gets a room all to themselves.”

One of the hottest tour items? Luggage tags. “We’re swimming in them,” says LeBlanc with a laugh. “People love the SF Ballet luggage tags, which is funny because I just make them from card stock. But people request two luggage tags per tour, and some of the touring party have gone on 15 tours.”


Shipping Ballets

Think your summer vacation packing list is long? Try packing all of the costumes for nine ballets, as well as sets, props, and stage-sized floor coverings. This, along with theater cases for the dancers, crates for the staff containing all that’s necessary to set up mobile offices, and a physical therapy table are sent to London six weeks before the Company’s arrival. It’s enough to fill five 40-foot shipping containers, and each item’s weight, size, and value has to be documented.

Back in April, Production Director Christopher Dennis oversaw the backstage crew carefully placing the different components into the shipping containers like assembling a giant puzzle. The containers were then taken by truck to the Port of Oakland and shipped to London. SF Ballet pays extra for the freight to be in a lower position on the ship where it’s less likely to be swept off to sea (and resultingly pays less for insurance). And that’s not the whole of it: Alexei Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy, made up of three distinct ballets, was onstage in San Francisco from May 7–12, then opens in London on May 29. Without enough time for shipping, the costumes and sets had to be air-freighted to London.

All of the set pieces and costumes from Shostakovich Trilogy (above) had to be sent by air freight to London to arrive in time for performances at Sadler’s Wells Theatre.

Adjusting to a New Stage

Dennis and the stage crew arrive in London before the dancers and make sure the trucks arrive on time with the shipping containers. The load-in at Sadler’s Wells Theatre is at street level, so the street has to be blocked off while the containers are unloaded. Because Sadler’s Wells is a smaller theater than the War Memorial Opera House, the puzzle of finding a place for everything continues, both on- and offstage. “Our biggest challenge for this particular tour with so many different ballets is less how it looks onstage, and more where is it stored when we’re not performing it!” explains Dennis.

Upon arrival in London, dancers and staff are bused from airport to the hotel, and LeBlanc once again springs into action. “I have 114 people all trying to check into the hotel at the exact same time, and I need to make sure everyone’s happy,” she says with a laugh. “The dancers have a day off that next day to rest and get over jet lag, but the staff is at the theater the next morning, getting the dressing rooms set up, schedules posted, and making it our new home.” Just as the crew adjusts to a different set-up backstage, dancers, too, are given a few days to rehearse and make any adjustments necessary for a smaller stage.

A Sense of Accomplishment

Despite the rigorous schedule, Dennis and LeBlanc enjoy the bonding that occurs among staff and artists by sharing experiences in a different place. “We’re all in the same hotel with pretty much the same schedule, so that’s when I find I get to know people,” says Dennis. As much as they enjoy the tour, both look forward to arriving back home after a successful run. “One of my favorite moments is actually on that final bus ride from San Francisco airport back to the SF Ballet building,” says LeBlanc. “It’s such a great feeling to realize, ‘We did it!’”

Header image: SF Ballet in Pita’s Björk Ballet // © Erik Tomasson

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