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Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet Company; Dancer's life on the road -- hard work, trials, but it's 'great fun'

By Margaret E. Willis / February 3, 1983



London

The swans went sunbathing in Singapore and turned rosy. That night, in the ballet ''Swan Lake,'' their beautiful golden tans were out of place under snowy tutus and they had to coat themselves in theatrical ''wet white'' powder.

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That seemed to solve the problem in the wings offstage. But within minutes of dancing on the sultry stage itself, the powder began to glisten and to streak. The swans looked as though they were moulting.

The swans were members of the Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet Company of England, touring sister company of the Royal Ballet Company itself.

Whereas the Royal Ballet is permanently housed at the Royal Opera House and makes only the occasional tour, the Sadler's Wells Company usually spends only two 2-week seasons in London. The rest of the year is customarily spent touring England (14 weeks on the road in the autumn, 16 weeks in spring, one month off, and the rest rehearsing).

Last autumn, however, after a full seven years of negotiations, the company set out on its longest-ever tour - 11 weeks - to the other side of the world, dancing in New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, and Thailand.

A word about names, which can be confusing: The original Sadler's Wells Ballet was formed by Ninette de Valois in 1931 and was based in the Sadler's Wells Theater in Islington, North London. During World War II, when London theaters were closing, the company spent most of its time on tour. After the war , it became the resident ballet company at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden.

Mme. de Valois formed a second company - the Sadler's Wells Theater Ballet - as a touring nursery for new young dancers and choreographers.

In 1956 Sadler's Wells Theater Ballet became known as the Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet and continued to tour.

What is it like to be constantly on the move? To have to find ''digs'' and rehearsal halls in strange cities?

''It's great fun,'' says Susan Lucas, a petite soloist in the company. ''In England we stay in a variety of boardinghouses. . . . We always appreciate 'digs' where we can use the kitchen and cook what we like. It's much better than eating out every night.''

Dancers have to find their own lodgings from a list usually compiled from replies to advertisements in local newspapers. They are ''sometimes awful.'' If so, ''we find excuses very quickly and look elsewhere, but on the whole, they are fine.''

They would need to be for dancers who have very long, strenuous days. Everyone has to be ready for class at 10:30 a.m. With an hour for lunch the company rehearses until 5:30 p.m. It breaks until it is time to return to the theater for the evening performance.

After the curtain falls, makeup taken off, and costumes hung, there is time for the main meal of the day, before collapsing to bed.

But Susan loves the life. She started dancing at the age of 3 1/2 in Weybridge, Surrey, and stayed with her Cecchetti-trained teacher, Gillian Dawson , until she was 16.

She was admitted into the upper school of the Royal Ballet School as a full-time student and was one of two from the class to be accepted into the Sadler's Wells on graduation.

An overseas tour such as the recent one is the frosting on the cake for the company. . . . But it isn't necessarily glamorous.

The streaking Singapore swans, for instance, had other problems to surmount. As they posed with hands crossed during Odette and Siegfried's pas de deux, they watched perspiration trickle to the stage and leave white puddles at their feet - and they were repeatedly dive-bombed by mosquitoes.

''You can't imagine how hard it was for them not to swat them,'' said Margaret Lucas, Susan's mother, one of a number of relatives who took the opportunity to travel with the company.

Earlier in the tour, they had been guests of the Maori Queen, Dame Te Ata-i-rangikaahu, at a feast in New Zealand. After some members tried rubbing noses in traditional Maori greeting, the company faced a banquet with such delicacies as stewed muttonbird and a very strong, rancid porridge made from fermented corn.

''There were all the elders of the tribe thoroughly enjoying every mouthful, '' says Susan, ''and there were we trying to look polite and grateful but not really able to face the food.''

The tour was financed by the British Council (about 80 percent of whose budget comes from the British Foreign Office and which promotes British culture abroad), by Barclays Bank International, and by other local groups in the countries visited.

As well as ''Swan Lake,'' ballets included ''Paquita,'' ''The Prodigal Son,'' Sir Frederick Ashton's ''The Two Pigeons,'' and three Kenneth MacMillan ballets: ''Concerto,'' ''The Invitation,'' and ''Elite Syncopations.'' Principal dancers included Sherilyn Kennedy, Desmond Kelly, Galina Samsova, Margaret Barbieri, and David Ashmole.

Back finally in London, after 11 weeks of travel and very little free time, Susan had not even unpacked her bag before she was called to replace an injured member of a small company group at a festival in Italy. Back on the plane she climbed.

There was no time for a festive holiday break for the Sadler's Wells dancers at the end of last year. A special three-week season opened at the Sadler's Wells Theater three days after Christmas. For Susan this meant extra rehearsing for her London debut as Swanilda in Delibes's ''Coppelia.''

''I was told I could only sniff my Christmas dinner - but I had another one at the end of the week,'' she says.

At her matinee performance, the audience included many bright-eyed little girls who watched Susan intently. Dressed charmingly in a blue-bodiced dress with a colored garland of ribbons in her hair, she danced neatly and lightly across the bright stage, making it all look so easy and effortless.