Here’s my report from the front line of this production!
I’ve been a fan of ballet and dance since a Road to Damascus moment watching Boston Ballet in late 2010 and for almost the same length of time I’ve been privileged to be a member of the Hallé Choir. When an email came on 22nd June from Jo, our choir administrator, asking us if we’d like to be involved in a project with Carlos Acosta at the Lowry it therefore felt like I’d won the lottery! This would be our first performance in front of a paying audience since we sang Beethoven 9 in Nottingham at the end of February 2020, and I obviously immediately said yes. The invitation obviously came circled with a huge caveat around the risk of further lockdown, so hopes were not totally raised until we were told on 30th June that yes, the project was on.
We were told to learn Morten Lauridsen’s sublime modern choral classic O Magnum Lauridsen from memory in preparation. For some reason asking a choir to learn music from memory strikes fear into the hardiest of choristers – we seem to like the security of the dots in front of us a little too much. So it was with a little trepidation that we assembled last Sunday at our rehearsal venue, Hallé St Peter’s, all armed with negative lateral flow test results, for our first (socially distanced) indoor rehearsal since December of last year. Our choral director, Matt Hamilton, is acting as choral director for all of the On Before performances, so had been in Norwich the week before to help get the choir there up to performance standard. He therefore had prior knowledge of what would be required of us and turned out it wasn’t just singing! Anyway, we had a good rehearsal and went home with all the notes (hopefully) lodged in the memory banks.
It wasn’t until Tuesday evening, and our technical rehearsal at the Lowry, that our full role in the production became apparent. Producer Stephen and his adept Stage Managers Tom and Emma took us through the various movements that we would have to make during the show, walking backwards and forwards a la Wayne McGregor’s Infra but also creating squares, circles and whirlpools, and at one point looking ominous behind a scrim! Pretty soon the concepts of stage right, stage left, upstage, wings, bays and cue lights became second nature. Carlos and Laura Rodriguez came to the stage to meet us, and Carlos took us through his vision for the piece, how it was intended as a memorial for his late mother and how he wanted us to imagine ourselves as embodying death – no pressure then!
Suitably inspired (Carlos is inspiration personified) we continued our rehearsals and hoped that all our movements would enter our brains via osmosis in the way that they do with proper dancers. However, when we arrived on Wednesday afternoon for the dress rehearsal there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth as we tried desperately to remember what we had been taught the previous evening. After a few runs through though we felt a bit more confident, and the dress rehearsal ran without too many hitches. It was obvious as soon as we saw Carlos and Laura dancing in earnest that this was going to be a memorable performance. Carlos was obviously a known quantity, but I was blown away by what a beautiful dancer Laura is. I’d seen her at Carlos’s Classical Farewell a few years earlier but that was from a distance – seen from the wings she was quite stunning.
Come the Wednesday evening performance and we attacked our movements with gusto. We were split into groups for most of the movements and occasionally some groups gained and lost members along the way as people forgot where they were supposed to be, but no-one seemed to notice! We were constantly worried about bumping into each other on the darkened stage or even, heaven forbid, bumping into Carlos or Laura, but thankfully there were no disasters. Our main concern was with the climactic moment of the piece, our singing of O Magnum Mysterium. Logistically it was nightmare. We were split into three groups, one behind the upstage scrim and one in each wing. Neither group could hear each other and we were in contact with conductor Matt only via monitors. Also we had to get our opening notes from out of the ether so certain choir members were delegated to go round with a tuning fork passing the notes on. We sang the first half of the piece in those positions but then we had to turn round and slowly walk on stage, whilst still singing, and gradually move to the front. For those of us in the wings this meant a brief conductorless hiatus before we were able to pick up Matt on the TV monitors at the front of the circle. For the last few bars, by which time we were in the musical groove, we turned round and followed Laura upstage and crowded round her as the curtain fell. It went well, but we knew we could do better on the second night. This was after all our first time properly singing together in close proximity for 18 months.
And we did do better the second night. We were moving around the stage like seasoned pros (though I do remember standing on somebody’s toes at one point) and our singing went to another level. I was able to properly watch the dancing on the second night, and On Before really is a wonderful piece. And watching performers like Carlos and Laura from the wings is a revelatory experience – it feels like you’re eavesdropping on something deeply personal. My personal favourite moments were probably the calm strength of Carlos’s slow-motion solo, choreographed by Russell Maliphant, that closed the first half, Kim Brandstrup’s Footnote to Ashton, beautifully danced by Laura within a square of lit candles, and the duet Nostroros, specially created for Carlos and Laura for this revival by Acosta Danza dancer and choreographer Raul Reinoso. I’m sure the final duet between Carlos and Laura was also stunning, but we were too busy singing and moving to properly watch! This was the section originally choreographed by Carlos with Zenaida Yanowsky, and even though she was not there dancing it was obvious from the rehearsal pictures in the programme that she was very much involved with putting the revival together.
The last night ended with rapturous applause from the audience and a further inspirational speech from Carlos after the curtain fell. He told us how he’s never sure whether if a show like this is going to be his last but that he never feels more alive than after such a show. So after loud mutual congratulations it was off into the muggy Salford night armed with a signed programme and some memories that will last a long time. I know a lot of choir members have been converted to dance over the last few days.