This past weekend, I was a roving reporter. I have to admit that I hadn’t thought of travelling to see my favourite ballet company, until a friend, whom also knows and shares my love of the Northern Ballet and Edinburgh, said to me that they were touring Edinburgh and that I should go along and combine bother passions. So, that’s why I was in Edinburgh, on a very wet (what’s new) March evening, waiting for my weekend to kick off with the Northern Ballet’s Beauty and the Beast production. It is also fittingly appropriate as the City of Edinburgh pretty much matches the fairy-tale, with its’ stunning architecture and views across the Forth and the weather can be the Beast and the Gothic architecture surrounding us lends itself as a perfect backdrop. However, I am not writing a travelogue but a review of this ballet of loss and redemption in love.
The ballet started with a narcissistic Toby Batley as the handsome Prince, more in love with his own reflection in the mirror than taking any care or notice of those around him and his ego was bolstered by an entourage of beautiful bodies in striking costumes and finery, fawning ladies and gentlemen. This love-in is interrupted by a pair of seemingly old crones, looking for some care and help from their Prince, only to be harshly dismissed so the Prince could get back to admiring his own reflection. Alas, one of the poor old crones was actually a fairy with her own vanity and turned her rejection into an evil spell on the Prince which not only turned him into a Beast, writhing around on the ground and eating face-down into the plate, provided by his servant who remained by his side. His preening entourage aren’t spared either as they are turned into goblins. The more righteous half of the fairy sisters’, gives the Beast the chance for redemption through true love and finally seeing beauty in another person. She symbolises this with a beautiful rose and touching it to the Beast’s heart, to try and unleash his humanity. The rose is always a potent symbol of love and it is used well in this production as a vital part of the set as well as a symbol of the Beast’s love for Beauty.
The Prince also loses his kingdom and lives with banishment in the forest surrounded by oafish goblins but with his ever-faithful servant who hopes for his redemption. It is in this banishment that the hope of his redemption can be found. On the other side of the story, Beauty. She and her family are living a life of wealth that Beauty’s sisters are determined to spend their way through as witnessed by the amount of bags and mile-long receipts are produced. These bags actually provide a really nice moment of humour, with branding on the bags such as ‘Ballay Bag’ and ‘Yayger’. This ballet is definitely on the more light-hearted end of the spectrum so there were a few laughs in it. The Father realises that he has shown a faulty level of indulgence towards the grasping sisters and it is not long before the walls of their house turn into an articulated lorry, complete with another comic touch, with the end displaying the ‘Long Vehicle’ sign and HM Banks on the side. The very walls were crumbling before their ears and their world was being turned upside down, the black-clad bailiffs, lifted the sisters who were fighting for their possessions and were carted off for a time, bodily, into the back of the truck, only to emerge in their underwear, stripped of all their finery, they comically try to hide their semi-nakedness and also face banishment and shame in the woods. Again, the good fairy is their guardian angel and provides an abandoned tour bus and some old clothes. Another nice touch to the story is that Beauty is in the corner reading a book and is more concerned for her father and her book, than anything else and the bailiffs don’t see her clothes as worthy of anything and they leave her pretty much alone or if taking the humane stand-point, don’t want to inflict on her, the ignominy of being left standing in her underwear.
The good fortune came courtesy again of the good fairy who went about the production in a fabulous silver dress that created an ethereal presence and told a story of its’ own. This costume was reminiscent of light flowing from the good fairy and accentuated the purity and the goodness of her actions, in contrast to the lizard-like, cob-webby black and green of her evil other half. The black and green matched everything that was bad, the forest, the dank lair of the Beast and the Beast’s costume as well. With Beauty and her family thrown into these dark surroundings of the forest, they were left to scavenge for food where her father encounters the Beast for the first time. The Beast gives into his animal instincts and is on the brink of killing the father when the look of despair for his daughters and especially for Beauty, whom he has picked the rose for, that the Beast spares his life, however, he threatens that the Father should sacrifice one of his daughters to marrying the Beast, in return for his life. The Father seems to be quite a weak character but not without love which is his redeeming feature and he did not go to his daughters without the anguish writ large over his face. When they are asleep, Beauty took the key to the Beast’s lair, to sacrifice herself, this is the point when Beauty and the Beast meet for the first time. Of course, Beauty is scared and repulsed by the Beast and he is pretty inhumane and stalking round her like prey and eats with his face down in his food, like a Beast he has turned into.
The stand-out performance of the ballet is Benjamin Mitchell as the Beast. The power of the dancer in this performance is all in his mighty and powerful thighs that help him spring about and leap onto tables and climb the scenery. The movement is incredible and so believable. In the midst of his brutality, the performance with the twisting and writhing through the neck and head, is utterly heart-breaking and effecting. The look of the Beast is to the fore but the dancer perfectly brings out his human side, you see someone who was foolish but being harshly punished, like a victim of an illness where you’re true personality is locked-in beneath a worthless shell but it is this fall from grace that is his ultimate saviour. The good fairy and faithful servant have not deserted them either and play a vital role in waking the Beast to the possibility of true love, not love that is taken but is earned. In contrast, the Beast devours Beauty’s beauty and is torn between his humanity and his bestiality. Beauty is danced with lightness and purity by Pippa Moore, as is expected by the role. She completely draws the audience in with her goodness and lack of artifice. Pippa is a consummate actress as well as dancer. She provides the light to the Beast’s shade. At one point, the good fairy uses a dream-like state to show Beauty the Beast’s true self and Pippa and Toby dance a beautiful pas-de-deux. As Beauty awakes, for the first time, the potential for love of this beastly but clearly tortured creature.
Toby Batley has a very different physique from the dancer playing the Beast which provides a good counter-point for the Beast’s solidly powerful and overtly strong body which remains low to the ground, whereas Toby is tall and imperious and long of limb. The Prince melts towards Beauty and experiences, for the first time, that he could become protector and provider for someone else and be released from his physical and mental imprisonment. There are some complex lifts, as I have come to expect from the Northern Ballet, where the men are always men and the women, women. The most impressive was the Beast lifting Beauty over his head in a kind of sideways, Buddha-like pose and then turning it into a one-handed lifted. This perfectly demonstrated the power of the Beast and the tenderness at the very heart of the drama. This tenderness was also writ large on the face of Beauty as she fell in love with the Beast but repulsion took over and just as it looks like they will finally get together, she runs off. Fortunately she is not gone for long and only denied our happy ending for a brief moment as Beauty’s goodness to see the true nature of the Beast and after Beauty’s abandonment and then eventual return, they fall properly in love and everyone is restored. It was nice for a ballet to end in triumph and not tragedy for a change. This particular ballet, as we all know, ends in the Prince being restored, in all ways, as the wicked spell is broken by true love. The icing on the wedding cake is how this ballet ends with a grand party and costumes to match.
I have to really praise David Nixon and his company of dancers. Like most regional companies, it is small and dancers inter-change role regularly and hierarchies not as clearly marked. New ballets are created regularly, taking the most dramatic of stories and turning them into ballet theatre. In the recent ballets I have seen with this particular company, the music has been very striking as well. I feel that music is such a vital element of making a ballet exciting and dramatic, whether it be original music from Les Miserables composer, Claude-Michel Schoenberg or a well-known mix of classical pieces from Saint-Saens and Debussy, the music was perfectly chosen and added to the theatre of the piece.
There is a lot of innovation and new works coming out of the regional companies of breath-taking quality and are to be lauded for that with limited resources and largely away from the glare of the media. Most audiences who see them will be local and regional audiences as they do not have the changing sea of tourists flowing through or iconic venues and with cuts in funding, this company is struggling. Not that you would ever know with the quality of their work. The company are also bringing through young choreographic talent from its’ midst, with Principal Dancer, Kenneth Tindall debuting his own work, so a successor to David Nixon may come from inside the company, however, that said, I do hope David Nixon does not go anywhere for a very long time. He is not originally from these shores but he has shown great loyalty to this company and that must be for a reason and his dancers have shown great loyalty to him. I feel that for what he achieves with this company, he should be hailed as a national treasure. The Northern Ballet have recently announced today that the new ballet they will be working is, ‘The Great Gatsby’. This is going to be a very topical ballet with the Baz Luhrmann film coming out soon which has already got fashion journalists talking that it will be the next fashion craze. I for one will be supporting the company’s, ‘Sponsor a Dancer’, scheme. My problem won’t be whether to sponsor but whom.