Challenges, comedy and ballet magic – Behind-the-scenes with Cinderella choreographer Iain MacDonald

| October 4, 2013 | 0 Comments
Iain MacDonald coaches Shannon Gloiver during final dress rehearsals for Cinderella.

Every little detail counts – artistic director, Iain MacDonald, coaches Shannon Glover during final dress rehearsals for Cinderella. Photo courtesy Joburg Ballet.

What does it take to create a brand new ballet? Robynn Burls visited Joburg Ballet to meet the real fairy godmother godfather working behind the scenes in the company’s recent season of Cinderella. This is what she discovered about the man behind the magic…

I extended my hand out as I walked up to meet Iain MacDonald, Joburg Ballet’s artistic director, but before I knew it the handshake became a hug. This, I came to learn, is Iain’s way, and it was quickly apparent why he’s so well liked by everyone who knows him.

Cinderella's magical carriage and comical horses

Cinderella’s magical carriage and charming/comical horses arrive to cart her off to the Prince’s ball. Photo by Susanne Holbaek.

We were sitting down for a coffee and a talk following another successful performance of Cinderella, but any plans I might have had of some form of structured interview were tossed aside two minutes into what immediately became a lively, animated chat, delving into Iain’s latest creation.

He’s naturally warm and easy-going, but clearly equally intense with his enthusiasm for his craft. And the more we talked, the more I could identify his inspired signature all over this brand new ballet – from the little comic moments (like the bobbing of the horses heads as they pulled Cinderella’s carriage) to the laugh-out-loud antics of the ugly sisters, to the very grand and extended final wedding pas de deux.

Balancing act – mixing grand moves with traditional expectations

Iain admits that he created the kind of ballet he would’ve loved to dance himself. Being particularly fond of the pas de deux scenes, but not the stop-start solo variations in-between, he opted to drop the traditional approach and go for one big, impressive final pas de deux instead.

“I wanted it to be a wow thing,” says Iain. “I mean, the whole ballet was based around the final pas de deux. You’ll notice there are no big variations, where he goes, she goes, and I did that intentionally, because I think we’re so used to that.”

And ‘wow’ it was. The final pas de deux was certainly complicated, challenging and dazzling. It was also quite possibly game-changing, especially for the poor Prince who required tremendous strength and a deep stash of stamina to make it through this piece. And just when you thought they’d completed their final hoorah move, the couple went on to do another aerial trick and another (one-armed) lift.

Burnise Silvius and Jonathan Rodrigues in the final Cinderella wedding scene

Burnise Silvius and Jonathan Rodrigues created a magic all of their own in Cinderella’s big and dramatic final wedding pas de deux. Photo by Susanne Holbaek.

Iain knew his final pas de deux was tough, but he created it anyway confident that his opening night Prince Charming had the strength to pull it off. In fact, the handsome Jonathan Rodrigues couldn’t be a better fit for the role, leaving more than just Cinderella swooning over his suave, effortless strength and purrrfectly toned b…

Ahem, getting back to the story, Iain said, “For me, the prince is a tall, dark, good-looking guy and I wanted every woman in the audience to be oohing and aahing over him, which works, and the pas de deux is ridiculously hard and Jonathan’s a strong, strong partner”.

Uh-huh, no doubt about that. You can see Jonathan rehearsing with the lovely Burnise Silvius in this video montage from the SABC…

But it’s not only Iain’s final scene that was “ridiculously hard”, the corps were challenged right from the very start too. He had the flower sellers, bakers and dressmakers doing multiple pirouettes while still holding their baskets and breads. (You try doing a double pirouette en pointe while holding a big basket of stuff!) “They asked me if they could put it down” laughs Iain, “and I said no!”

And watch this short video clip (43 seconds) where Iain talks to Top Billing about Cinderella’s entrance and the big pas de deux…

Last minute changes and unexpected surprises

Apart from creating challenges for the dancers, Iain had a few challenges tossed his way too when at the last moment – at 6pm on the final dress rehearsal night – they still had to change sets and rework certain key entrances and exits. But that’s show-business for you.

Iain admits he also had a few flat-lining days during the choreography process, circling in a creative drought not sure how to proceed. And then there were the freak-out moments too.

In particular, he laughs at the cosmic joke that was played on him a few weeks before opening night, running out of time to still teach and finish the ballet. At the height of this stress, with no time to spare (or so he thought), in glided the ever-so-cool-and-calm Colombian choreographer, Álvaro Restrepo, who then wooed almost the entire Cinderella cast into a collaborative Colombian-South African piece for Celebration 5. While Iain helplessly watched the time tick away, itching to get things moving along as swiftly as possible, Álvaro had all the dancers sitting in a large circle… meditating… for three days!

Iain laughingly concedes though that it was probably exactly what everyone needed to calm the frenetic pace and frazzled nerves.

Finding the funny side

In fact, Iain seems quick to spot the humour in most things, which is probably why laughter and giggles bubbled up so naturally from the audience throughout his Cinderella production. Humour was not an afterthought, but rather a very central consideration for Iain.

After commenting on some piece of comic choreography, Iain said to me, “I hope you got the humour throughout the whole ballet. I wanted mom, dad and kids to come to the ballet and for the father not to think, oh my gosh, I’m so bored I can actually cry. I wanted there to be humour for them as well.”

Much of the comedy was also a collaborative process, where Iain allowed the dancers to experiment. “We laughed till the tears were running in the rehearsals,” he said. However, Iain has a strategy even in humour and explained that “it’s a fine line being so funny but not actually telling the story.”

Cinderella's icy stepmother and nasty (but very funny) stepsisters.

Cinderella’s stepsisters brought a serious dose of comedy to the show, while the stepmother made for an impressively intimidating character. Played here from left, Carlos Santos, Kitty Phetla, Luis de Castro with Burnise Silvius as Cinderella.

In the end, after months of thinking, dreaming and dancing, through inspiration and frustration, and despite time-munching meditating circles and last minute hiccups, Iain and his Joburg Ballet colleagues created a beautifully balanced ballet, as well as a jolly good show.

Coming attractions

“So what’s next?” I asked Iain, to which the answer became another hour-long talk, revealing the mind of an inspired creator, where every song and movie holds the potential for a brand new ballet idea or a creatively updated classic.

But while (always) dreaming up fantastic ideas for future ballets, he’s also preparing for next year’s seasons of the light-hearted Coppélia and then the highly challenging classic, La Bayadere. But also look out for a few fun twists to The Nutcracker coming up in the meantime too.

Wrapping up our talk, with only five minutes to spare before his next appointment, I asked about the long and all-consuming hours he puts into his work. “But for me,” Iain says, “it’s what I love doing, I’m passionate about it. I come to work every day being inspired.”

Here are a few more photos for you to enjoy (click on an image to open the gallery):

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Category: Performance

About the Author ()

Hi, I'm Robynn, and I'm a student of the potential of the body, the marvels of the mind, and the beauty of it all combined in ballet. As the editor, BodyMindBallet is where I get to learn, to share and to enjoy this wide world of dance - and with every day I gain an ever richer respect for the athleticism of dance and the skill of performance artistry.

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