In the early fifties with the National Ballet the buses were in a word “terrible”. They were small, they were uncomfortable. Seats that were hard and slippery. Sleeping was almost impossible, but sleeping on the bus was an absolute necessity. The journeys often began at 7:30am and sometimes ended with the dancers putting on their costumes and going directly to the stage. No food, no warm-up.
The people who booked the tours needed their heads examined. The journeys were too long.
Eventually buses that had airconditioning and heating were supplied, also seats that allowed for the much needed sleep. On the early trips it was quite common for dancers to sleep on the luggage racks above the seats, or on the floor of the bus.
To perform after a long bus journey with no sleep was quite a task, it is a wonder that there were not more injuries. Many a young dancer would begin one of those tours and end up having to be sent home. When they reached the stage of calling for “mummy” it was time to go home.
The long tours meant that two suit cases had to be carried, one for the hot part, one for the cold part of the tour. Planning for one of those tours was a task in itself.
The year which stands out as one of the longest and hardest, took place in 1958. I refer to the book by James Neufeld, “the Power To Rise”, where the tour schedule of the National Ballet is set out in grim detail.
1958 began with a season in Toronto at the Royal Alexandra Theatre with Swan Lake. On February 10 the American leg of the tour began in Ann Arbor MI. It went down the eastern seabord, across Texas to California, then up the western seabord to Walla Walla Washington, where the performance took place on April 21 and 22.
That was not the end of the tour. From Walla Walla we went to Victoria then on across the Canadian west to Winnipeg, then on to Fort William, Sault St. Marie and Sudbury. To put the icing on that cake we then, 11 days after Sudbury, performed in Mexico City–June 1 to June 21. Back to Canada, a tour through eastern Canada taking us as far as Halifax and Saint John NB finally ended the year with performances in Hamilton on December 6.
The distances are mind boggling but also the repertoire has to be taken in to consideration.
Full four acts of Swan Lake, two acts of Giselle plus shorter works from the repertoire.
A large part of that American tour was done by bus. As the song goes, “I’m Still Here”.
The climate and altitude changes were another matter. Freeze and fry, below sea level to 7500 feet in Mexico City.
Was there a big time off to rest after all that? NO!~ January 2 1959 we opened in Baltimore, and thus began another year, almost as rough as 1958.
Those were the days, my friend. I wonder if the present day National Ballet would be able to cope with a year like 1958?
The bus journeys kept coming up again in my Career. With Festival Ballet in Europe during the sixties it was quite common to travel throughout the British Isles by bus. On the continent the Italian tours were done by bus. A journey from Warsaw in Poland to Weisbaden in Germany, part by train then a 26 hour journey by bus stands out in the memory bank.
Tours with Ballet for All in Britain were done by bus. A special bus that contained the small group of dancers, two pianists, two actors, plus three stage hands and the wardrobe mistress. If that was not enough, the bus also contained the scenery, the costumes, extra lighting equipment, the flooring for the stage, a washing machine and a sewing machine. We were self-contained.