Posts Tagged ‘Northern Ballet’

Mini-review – Beauty and the Beast – Northern Ballet at Leeds Grand

December 29, 2011

In these days of fewer dance companies and more reliance on the “tried and true” in choreography (I counted four Nutcrackers in London this December, all of them remounts), it’s a cause for celebration when a new ballet is choreographed. So when I saw some photos for Northern Ballet’s production of Beauty and the Beast, I saw dangled before me a great opportunity to see a completely new ballet (a story I’d never even seen danced before) as well as a wonderful excuse to travel to the lovely city of Leeds. Tickets were bought (not for opening night, alas, but a convenient Sunday matinee), and off I went to figure out what story supported the rather intriguing costuming.

The show starts with some fantastic scene setting, as our almost Dorian Grey-like Beast-to-be (Kenneth Tindall as Prince Orian) preens and enjoys the fun of being shallow, pretty, and popular. This scene was great storytelling, effectively communicating the idea of his incredible ego and selfishness – in essence, the monster he is inside – is laid out perfectly clearly to us. It seems fitting for an evil fairy (I think called La Fee Magnifique – Victoria Sibson) to turn his outside into a creature that matches his inside – the Beast (Ashley Dixon, most astoundingly muscular in a rather X-Men style).

The story then switches to that of Beauty (Martha Leebolt) and her family, her luckless, feckless father (Darren Goldsmith) and her shallow, selfish sisters (Georgina May and Pippa Moore). While the sisters are obsessed with clothing and dances, Beauty (in a Matilda-esque turn) is a great reader – noticed by her sisters’ suitors but disinterested in the milieu. Of course, this means that when financial disaster falls (comically done with a cleverly designed moving van and some handsome debt collectors), she’s much better able to handle sudden poverty. The scenes of Beauty’s family in the woods post-financial crisis are great, with a wonderful rusting camper van adding a very modern touch to the set while giving Beauty plenty of opportunity to show her practicality and selflessness.

I could go on with describing the story – there’s a rose, Beauty goes to the Beast’s castle in her father’s stead, happy endings all around – and the nicely done sets (such as the rose bower where Beauty sleeps – sadly the costumes seemed generally flimsy and not worth discussing) – but in summary, I was hoping for much better choreography and I just didn’t get it. There is a lovely sequence with Beauty dancing with her dream prince – the Beast in his handsome incarnation – with the envious and sad ugly Beast watching on – that had the kind of emotional complexity expressed through movement that I can really get swept up in. But so much of it was just … well, it seemed to be moving us along from plot point to plot point, getting the tale told, and not giving us a chance to revel in the joy of ballet. I often tell people that the whole point of story ballets is providing us with a plot that allows us to string a lot of wonderful dancing together, but in this case, the story really took over. I did enjoy myself, but I felt like somewhere there will be another choreographer that tells this story in a way that speaks to me more deeply as a lover of dance.

(This review is for a performance that took lace on Sunday, December 18th, 2011, where it continues through December 31st. The show runs for about 2 1/2 hours with two intervals; I consider it to be very suitable for families due to the sustained drama keeping energy levels high. There is a review of it in the Telegraph should you care to read it. It will be touring extensively: Edinburgh, Festival Theatre; Sheffield, Lyceum theatre; Hull New Theatre; Milton Keynes Theatre; Cardiff, New Theatre; Canterbury, Marlowe Theatre.)

Review – Cleopatra – Northern Ballet at Leeds Grand Theatre

March 5, 2011

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.

Review – Nutcracker – Northern Ballet, Grand Theatre Leeds 2010

December 7, 2010

Every Christmas I have three theatrical traditions I celebrate: seeing “A Christmas Carol,” watching Clive Rowe in the Hackney Panto, and going to a new version of the Nutcracker. I’ve seen City Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Mark Morris, and Matthew Bourne’s version, among others; I am a real Nutcracker fan. I love the music; I love the endless possibilities of the suite; I struggle gamely through Act One hoping that whatever version I see will finally manage to make some sense of the music.This year Nutcrackers are thin on the ground in London, so I was obliged to do a bit of travelling in order to see Northern Ballet’s version. Still, Leeds isn’t that far away, East Cost does nice early purchase deals, so off I went for a balletic field trip to the north … in the middle of some of the most extreme weather England has seen in early December in decades. Brrr!

The Leeds Grand was an absolutely gorgeous venue, just like being inside a jewelry box, with gilding and carved detail everywhere I looked (and a bar with stained glass windows, so pretty!). It was also more intimate that some of the ballet houses in London, more the size of Sadler’s Wells. Sadly the snow seemed to have chased a lot of people away (Black Watch had the same problem the night before), but the cast had all made it and we started pretty close to 7PM in spite of the weather.

To my great relief as the curtain opened, I saw that this production had an adult Clara (Isabella Gasparini) from the very start, so the pain of an entire act performed in great deal by child dancers was avoided. Whew! The first bit was done in front of a drop as if in the hallway of Edwards’ home outside the dining room, with Clara and her brother Frederic (Ashley Dixon, consistently good) bickering over toys while Grandpa (Tobias Batley) napped in a chair and the maids ran in and out of the back room setting up for the meal. Most of the dancing in this section was very light – it was mostly about establishing character.

At last we were allowed into the great room for a big party that featured a love interest (the previously unheared of “Clara’s sister, Louise,” played by Lori Gilchrist, and “Louise’s friend, James,” Martin Bell) and, of course, the arriver of Drosselmeyer (Michal Berkin). This was a very different Drosselmeier from what I was used to – young, tall, handsome, long blond hair, and a big purple, sparkly cape. He seemed like a cross between the Mad Hatter and Willie Wonka – both as played by Johnny Depp. He had none of the creepy evil that many Drosselmeyers have, instead seeming rather as if he was made of cotton candy and glitter.

This was, I think, true of the ballet as a whole. Clara seemed to smile too much and have no other emotions; the mouse king never seemed truly threatening; the entire element of Clara “becoming a woman” (crossing over from love of dolls to love of boys) seemed to completely vanish from the plotline. Ah well, it was hard to complain, though, with such a perfect set and costume design to highlight all of the meringue of a plot. Act one had dance variations of two sets of dolls, one the French dolls (much more attractive as harlequins, I think) and a Chinese doll (Giuiano Contandini) who disappointingly didn’t do much more than flop around on the stage. I actually enjoy the way this bit often feels like the spooky evil magician of Petrushka is actually playing with doomed spirits for the amusement of children, but these seemed not particularly tragic. Ah well.

The Christmas tree failed (for the first time ever!) to expand magically as Clara fell asleep, but when her nutcracker cast away his giant head we got Yoshihisa Arai, whose very few opportunities to dance unencumbered showed a strong sense of style which he generally quite politely contained in the bounds of his character. Eventually I caught myself just ignoring Clara and looking for him – was he going to give one of those great leaps again while I wasn’t paying attention?

The Suites were … well, choreographed … unexcitingly. The Spanish dance didn’t have any real flamenco in it but was at least not offensively off; the Arabian dance (a woman borne aloft by two bare-chested men) was mostly about stretching and balancing; the Chinese dance and the Russian dance had music blasting full of energy overwhelming the actual movement on stage. Clara kept jumping into the dances – a nice touch of personality – but what I really would have liked to see is the power of what I was hearing matched by what I was seeing. I loved the unified look of it all, with the blue and white Chinese porcelain decorating Clara and the Nutcracker Prince’s pavilion – but I think in order to be a really good Nutcracker, it’s going to need a lot more work with what’s happening on stage. In short, it was a pleasant enough evening, but not a Nutcracker I’ll be using as a reference point for future performances of this classic work. It’s very family friendly, though, so I would recommend people who have the opportunity to see it do so.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, December 2nd, 2010 at the Grand Theatre, Leeds. It continues there through December 12th.)

Northern Ballet’s Hamlet at Sadler’s Wells – ticket deal

April 16, 2008

I was just informed of a great deal – tickets for £15 to Northern Ballet’s Hamlet. Details are here. I’m going on Tuesday the 22nd and already have my tickets bought – unfortunately! I am really hoping to see a new Shakespeare play entering the ballet canon, especially after the disappointment of Wheeldon’s “Elsinor.” Which such interesting characters, surely there’s a good ballet in Hamlet somewhere. At any rate, it’s a great deal, so come pack the house.