On October 24 Houston Ballet became one of the first ballet companies to perform on the Dubai Opera stage, staging six performances of Artistic Director Stanton Welch’s Swan Lake. Touring a production of this scale is a landmark achievement that presented many unique challenges. Associate Production Manager Mary Elsey explains how exactly her team was able to a move a full production, and full ballet company, across the world for the historic tour.
What was your initial reaction when you learned the company would be touring to Dubai?
I was super excited and ready to face the challenge that comes with bringing a full production to another country. I’ve never been to Dubai though I’ve done a lot of traveling personally. Bringing theater to Dubai and performing for those audiences is a really special treat. It’s a very international city with an eclectic audience. We were very excited to bring a few Houstonians with us too—members of our Houston Ballet family and some of our prominent donors.
Logistically, what is required in bringing an entire production to a new country?
We do a lot of prep work. We had the ground plans for the venue and worked on fitting Swan Lake into Dubai Opera house for almost a year. We packed up four whole shipping containers and sent them on a boat to Dubai weeks before the performance. There was a very long process of double checking all of our lists and packing everything we needed to take. We brought everything from the costumes, wigs, and our own Marley floor, so if we forgot something it’s not like we could just throw it in our suitcase! We also took the entire set and some lights. We even had to take our office supplies too—things like printers and the signs we put up to tell the dancers where stage left is, or their dressing rooms.
Tell us a little bit about the Dubai Opera, where you’re performing.
It is right in the center of Dubai in front of the Burj Khalifa and surrounded by beautiful fountains, kind of like the Bellagio in Las Vegas. It’s a really vibrant part of town. The facility is brand new and state of the art. It has all of the latest forms of technology. For example, the rail system that allows scenery to fly in and out is fully automated. Instead of stage hands pulling ropes to move sets manually, they use a system run by a computer. We actually had to create new forms of paperwork to send over ahead of time so they could program those cues into the computer before we even get there.
Having just done Swan Lake at Jones Hall, what is it like trying to move the same production into a different venue? Does it all fit?
We actually got a lot of experience with that this last year, dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. And we just took Swan Lake to Minneapolis on a tour so we’re getting pretty good at configuring the scenery in different ways to make it fit. We have certain parameters dictated by the choreography about how much space they need. We start there and adjust the scenery to fit into the space. It’s interesting to see the same show at different venues. The whole ambiance of the theater and spacing of the scenery can change the perspective of the show. It’s like a living, breathing picture that we get to play with. It’s sort of fascinating.
Is this the farthest the company has ever traveled for a tour? Has that presented any interesting challenges?
Part of our mission is to bring exceptional ballet to the world stage, so Houston Ballet does a lot of touring, both domestic and internationally. This one definitely felt pretty far. We had to be very particular because Dubai customs has a whole set of strict regulations around certain chemicals they allow through their borders. So we had to go through all of our makeup and cleaning materials to make sure they’d clear customs. Then we put together a whole list and sent that with the shipping container so they could check the items.
Does the entire production department travel when the company is on tour?
We took most of the production department, our technical director, the lighting designer, two stage managers and myself. We also brought five local crew guys who helped lead the crew in Dubai.
Did you do any sightseeing?
We had one day off between when we landed and when we started load-in. A couple of us planned to go on a camel safari through a tour company. We got to ride ATVs and camels around the desert. Then there was dinner and belly dancing! We didn’t have much time to travel around so time was of the essence. We decided to embrace the ‘touristy’ attractions and just go for it!