Review – Cleopatra – Northern Ballet at Leeds Grand Theatre

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Story ballets, story ballets. I may be a fan of the night of mixed one acts but I do love story ballets, though I regret that the last 50 years do not seem to have produced anything on par with Giselle (sorry, MacMillan fans – and if you think I’m an outlier, be advised I don’t think he’s even being produced in the US). Sure, there’s been some good retreads of Nutcracker and Swan Lake, but genius seems thin on the boards. It can’t help that ballet companies seem notoriously disinterested in putting on anything their audiences won’t immediately know and love (fairy tale = good, empty houses = bad) and, well, the cost of producing a new ballet is no joke (much as it is for opera). Thus when I heard that Northern Ballet was producing a ballet telling of the life of Cleopatra … well! Its existence and the company’s dedication to putting the money and effort into it were alone worth celebrating, and, to me, it was enough of an event that I didn’t want to wait until it made it to Sadler’s Wells in May … I wanted to experience the excitement of a brand new baby on the dance stage, one that hopefully wouldn’t later be chosen for exposure on the mountains of ignominy. So off I went to the Leed’s Grand, knowing I couldn’t make opening night but willing to settle for opening week.

All things considered, this isn’t quite the risky undertaking it might have been. The topic is one the “arts” audience would seem to be drawn to (much as they take to Shakespeare as danced), and the music (can’t fault creation of an original score!) was, to my ears, very classical sounding and most digestible. I don’t mean to be disparaging, though; so much of modern classical music is atonal and unfriendly and not really offering much in support of a narrative. Claude-Michel Schönberg wrote this score for dance, and for this dance, creating music that with drums and shimmering tambourines built an exotic venue for a tale of power, sex, treachery, and revenge. David Nixon was going for a sort of Diaghilev magic, I think: tempting people to see people dancing by giving them good looking people in sexy clothes in exotic locales doing naughty things with the likely result that suddenly you’re gonna start packing the houses.

The dancing itself was much more engaging than Alice the night before and, while very much in “spinning a tale” mode, still remembered that job one was making a ballet. We had lots of fun numbers for temple dancers (male and female), soldiers and centurions; and duet after duet for Cleopatra and man/God of the hour. And of course there were buckets of solos for Cleopatra (Martha Leebolt); I think she was on stage for nearly the entire show. Angry, scared, seductive, predatory, defensive- she conveyed a million moods with her (I hate to say this but it’s true) flashing eyes, acting as well as dancing. I particularly enjoyed her pas de trois with Octavia (Hannah Bateman) and Mark Antony (Tobias Batley) – the movements of the women’s arms as each attempted both to hold him close and push each other away was mesmerizing. And all three dancers really went for creating character, one of the key elements that makes story ballets awesome. We’re not just watching people being lifted off the ground by one ankle (not that when Kenneth Tindall, as Wadjet, did that to Leebolt that it didn’t leave me slack-jawed) or miming orgies (hey, there was a lot to say about that scene, too), we’re watching people, with feelings and hopes and histories. That was really missing from Alice at the Royal Ballet and I very much enjoyed seeing it here. Through the entire ballet we had also had Wadjet at Cleopatra’s side, as protector and then assassin, which gave the feeling that her serpentine doom was tracking her at every step and added an extra layer of goosebumps I found most pleasant.

Sadly, the one thing that really distracted me from this show was the cheap projected sets, which stuck out like a sore thumb. The colors weren’t saturated enough, there was a horrible glare off of the shiny plastic-like backdrop, and when the dancers moved in front of it, they didn’t just cast shadows, they made the set disappear! I know this stuff is expensive and they needed to create a lot of settings but I found it distracting and a real clash with the care that had been taken dressing the dancers. The costumes were not lavish but did get to lush, with beautiful pleated dresses for the handmaidens and bikinis for the temple girls that reminded me of Roman mosaics I’d seen in Sicily and the coolest simple top and skirt for Cleopatra in most of her scenes … really, I could go on and on about how much I like the costuming, including the evocative red and white tunic/skirts for the Romans that didn’t pander to the “toga” look but created the feel while also being beautiful to dance in and of course the “Macedonian maiden” dresses for the more “seductive” temple dancers in the second act. Only Caesar and Cleopatra’s matching white outfits bothered me – somehow they both wound up looking like costume shop Storm Troopers, with Cleopatra’s clothing flavored by the Princess Leia chain mail bikini.

Overall, I found this a very enjoyable show, not in the least because by seeing it at the Leeds Grand I was able to sit very close to the stage compared to where I would have been had I seen it in London.

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One Response to “Review – Cleopatra – Northern Ballet at Leeds Grand Theatre”

  1. A year in blogging – Webcowgirl’s most popular posts of 2011 – and tips for improving your blog stats « Life in the Cheap Seats – Webcowgirl’s London theatre reviews Says:

    […] Review – Cleopatra – Northern Ballet at Leeds Grand Theatre703 […]

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