What do you trade to build a new life? Asks Miguel Altunaga’s newest creation for Birmingham Royal Ballet City of a Thousand Trades. Described as a love letter to Birmingham, it’s a celebration of the city’s richly diverse cultural and industrial heritage.
I spoke to Madeleine Kludje, Associate Director at Birmingham Rep and Dramaturg and Co-Director of this new ballet, about how the city inspired this show.
“City of a Thousand Trades looks at the thousands of people that have traded something to be here. Whether that’s for a better life, or just a different life to what they have,” says Madeleine. “When people move to a new city and they have so much hope – hope to build that life that they want. We explore those people’s dreams and aspirations in this show.”
Making its world premiere in the Curated By Carlos triple bill at Birmingham Rep this month, this ballet tells the story of how Birmingham became known as the City of a Thousand Trades at the height of the Industrial Revolution. Skilled workers migrated to the city from throughout the Commonwealth, creating a melting pot of cultures and the city we know today.
50 years ago, Oral Historian Helen Lloyd interviewed hundreds of different people around Birmingham. “It was about getting their experiences of what it means to be in Birmingham,” says Madeleine. “We looked at Lloyd’s interviews and interviewed people ourselves.” These stories then shaped this powerful new ballet.
“Miguel and I wanted to hone in on the storytelling,” explains Madeleine. “People who love going to the ballet will love this. But people who don’t go to the ballet at all, and have felt like there has alwaysbeen a barrier there, can use this as a way to get into it.
“They will get to see a ballet that speaks their language because it’s about connection. We hope people see themselves within the story.
“We got a real insight into people’s experience of Birmingham and we’ve used elements of those testimonies within the music of the show.”
Composed by Mathias Coppens, it isn’t music you’d usually expect from a ballet. To carry the narrative, Mathias has creatively intertwined the testimonies with spoken word from Birmingham Poet Laureate Casey Bailey and sounds within the city.
“Yes, we have strings because we have an orchestra playing,” Madeleine explains. “But we also have electric guitar which nods to Ozzy Osborne and the heavy metal influence on the city. Everything you’ll hear links to Birmingham in some way.
“We look at City of a Thousand Trades in the very literal sense because Birmingham was known for the silk trade and the metal industries. We have percussionists on stage that make sounds that represent the factory trade in Birmingham. This really creates the feeling of building a city.”
The dancers, just like Director of Birmingham Royal Ballet Carlos Acosta, have fed their stories into the piece too. They’ve lived these experiences moving to Birmingham to achieve their dreams.
“Carlos was talking to me about how important it is to do a ballet like this, to talk about what people have traded,” says Madeleine. “He really connects with it because when he first moved to the UK from Cuba, he couldn’t speak a word of English.
“I’ve learnt through working on this piece that we all go through the same feelings and emotions when moving to a new city. Because we want to do better, for ourselves and for our families.
“This piece is about Birmingham but it’s about all cities as well. Every city can connect in some way, as it portrays the good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful.
“We want people to connect emotionally with the stories in this ballet. To remember that feeling when they first came to the city and what they went through to build their life here. It’s not easy, it’s hard work and we all experience the highs and lows.
“People think it’s the bricks and mortar that make a city, but it’s the people. City of a Thousand Trades is a love letter to the people that make this city and the way we all connect, because together we will thrive.”