THE NORTHERN POWERHOUSE: Northern Ballet, Romeo and Juliet, Grand Opera House, Belfast, 28th September 2016

The MacMillan Romeo and Juliet is pretty much the definitive version and doesn’t lack for anything.  However, like the recent Scottish Ballet version of Swan Lake, I believe there is room in the world for at least two and the Northern Ballet’s one of them.  Over the years, I have witnessed many profound interpretations of classical literature from Northern Ballet and this is one to add to the cannon, although, in recent years, along with being named Europe’s top company, they have spread their wings and turned to top European talent, Le Ballet de Monte Carlo’s chief.  From my brief experiences of Jean-Christophe Maillot, World Ballet Day appearances and watching his highly entertaining version of The Nutcracker, he appears to be a choreographer of heart and soul with a deft touch for comedy and so it was with his Romeo and Juliet.  A sparse, mainly white set but lit theatrically and with cleverly moveable parts that added to the drama rather than detracted.  The ballet had a central thread with the character of Friar Laurence who was witness to key events of the piece.  Romeo is a dreamer, not interested in casual flirtation like his friends, Mercutio and Benvolio who are wide boys, great to be around if you are on their friend but insufferable if you are a Capulet.

I was privileged to see two performances, the first night cast with one of the greatest interpretive ballerinas of her time, Martha Leebolt and up and coming leading man, Guiliano Contadini.  It was difficult not to view this as possibly one of the last opportunities to see Leebolt on stage in Belfast, Mercutio was played on both occasions by Kevin Poeung who has been growing as a dramatic dancer for a few years and plays is an excitingly technically clean dancer plays Mercutio to perfection.  Mercutio is the ring-leader of this little gang, and is reckless in the pursuit of pleasure but is not reckless when it comes to fine ballet technique with high, split-leap jumps that are rapier sharp and personality to fill this theatrical role, it was an eye-catching performance.  The other key role is that of Tybalt.  Javier specialises in dark, moody characters with his Cuban-trained strong, technical dancing, he is a great interpreter.  For a lot of the ballet, Tybalt is rather restrained and the main influence for this is a sophisticated and haughty but glamorous, Lady Capulet.

Lady Capulet is danced by a very elegant, Lucia Solari with a cat-like movement and fluidity as she glides through the production barely disturbing the air but attracting attention through through the nobility of her presence.  She wants her daughter to follow her and marry a man of noble birth and tries to instil some of this elegance into her daughter and thrusts the hapless Paris forward who doesn’t make any ripples himself but his presence is little felt.  Juliet who we see for the first time, toying and playing with her Nurse is more like Lise from La Fille, wayward and full of joy and life. The interplay between Juliet and her Nurse is the heart relationship that she doesn’t get from her mother.  The sequence introducing Juliet and her Nurse is very playful and paints the picture of a very young girl who matures extremely quickly as she experiences all momentous life events in a matter of days.  In the dancing form of Martha Leebolt, we see the full blossoming of Juliet as she goes from childish games to first love to dramatic end.

Led by Mercutio, Romeo and Benvolio crash the Capulet ball to have a bit of fun and score some points off the hated enemy by invading their hallowed territory.  This is the moment the world’s most famous romance is born as the star-crossed lovers meet as Juliet, dressed as a vision in gold, catches his eye.  There is a lovely little sequence, where they take a break from the brightly lit ballroom and innocently explore their burgeoning love by touch and feel, an underused sensation in ballet but created a deep bond between our leads.  Unusually for the Northern Ballet, this was a much more grounded production, a lot of the exploration of this exciting and new love was done by touch and feel, like an external extension of the soul.  It was very beautiful and must have seen many hours in the studio for the dancers to perfect movements that are not naturally in the ballet repertoire.  The movements added to the tenderness of the the meeting and as the score builds, painting luscious pictures for the choreography to build upon until the audience are also carried along on this romantic rush.

Ingeniously, central to the staging, there is a white-painted ramp that lifts up to form Juliet’s balcony and the radiant Martha Leebolt, makes her appearance, to nearly the height of the proscenium arch, which gives a frisson of excitement, along with her usual mesmerising performance where you fully believe that she is in the first flush of youthful love, to form the balcony. In the matinee performance, Juliet was played by Miki Akuto who is also a fine dancer with great technique and her Romeo was Matthew Koon.  Matinees are where dancers with not so much experience get a chance to hone their performances and with their two most famous dancers, partly moving on, it is a great opportunity to view these dancers at an early stage of their career.  Romeo dances and leaps through the air to hang off the balcony, propelled magnificently by feats of love.  Juliet reappears and takes control after her reticence borne out of years of family strife to take control beckoning Romeo to lift her down and join the luscious music of this famous begin a pas-de-deux that had me transfixed from start to finish.  Again as the MacMillan balcony pas-de-deux is so iconic and in so many ways with the interpretation and storytelling is very reminiscent of the sort of work that the Northern Ballet would be most comfortable in with the lifts that they accomplish so well.  This is a more grounded and understated pas-de-deux as if their souls are being passed from one to the other through touch and gesture.  I was deeply moved and watched with rapt attention as the two dancers ended the first act with the audience thirsting for more.

The second half is where most of the action takes place and in innovation to the usual staging of ballet, inaction!  Maillot uses the dancers as if they are on pause and their stillness is so convincing, the only one moving is Friar Laurence who moves around and between the still figures, surveying the scene and prophesying what is to happen.  The fight to the death between Mercutio and Tybalt and Romeo and Tybalt is done in slow-motion which was really effective but also I am sure very difficult for the dancers to master.  They are used to being in control but to slow moves down and still make them look real and balletic, it must have taken incredible work in the studio.  However, I think the work lost some impact in the exclusion of any kind of weaponry and Romeo, passive throughout most of the work, is difficult to then see where the spark for murder came from, especially as Tybalt’s death is not as reactionary as picking up a blade and plunging it in, in the heat of the moment or even a heavy club!  This is done in a quirky and ingenious way as well.  I felt it lacked some key elements that are there for a good purpose and why Shakespeare’s works have transcended time, the ability to demonstrate the desperation of their love and the consequence for its discovery and why Friar Laurence sees so much hope in it.

Romeo flees to his new love, Juliet, whose cousin he has just killed and the two argue only to be reconciled in love as she leads him to the bed for their unconventional wedding night only to be awoken by her Nurse, surprised to see Romeo in bed.  Juliet’s nurse is always one of those loved characters who gives our heroine her lightness and spirit and not her mother, Lady Capulet who gives her daughter no visible love and just wants to see her making a good marriage.  This makes it easier for Juliet to defy her mother and seeks her heart which is more a mirror of the warmth of relationship that she has with her nurse.

The final scenes are pretty much done in contemporary ballet style, there are not pointe shoes or big costumes in sight.  Friar Laurence does his creeping through the scene as a marker of impending doom as the character feel implicated and powerless to stop.  Martha Leebolt was able to clearly demonstrate the anguish that Juliet goes through in such a short space of time, from youthful girl through to newly-wed, to grief to prospect of forced marriage to contemplating her own mortality and then really witnessing death first-hand.  The character of Juliet is the driving force for the partnership throughout and in many ways, with the puppyish Romeo, entranced by her is the architect of both their downfalls.  It is easier to take vengeance of a beloved friend whilst under the hot-blooded provocation of a sword fight but the death scenes are somewhat more cold-blooded and therefore don’t always fit with the arc of the story.  Sometimes, although clever and innovative, we know that Shakespeare is still relevant today with strife in the world but the ending of this, although danced excellently and told to such a high degree, there is a slight anti-climax that does not fit the soaring Prokofiev score.  However, this is still a fine work of ballet theatre, delivered to a thrilling standard of technique and drama and minor niggles aside that do not take away from the overall power and innovation of the work.

giualiano-contadini-as-romeo-and-martha-leebolt-as-juliet-photo-andy-ross-1200x861I cannot wait until the Northern Ballet return to these shores.  They have so many talented dancers who are rapier-sharp in their technique, strong in their jumps, soaring in their story-telling and interpretation of literature.  This runs deep through the company, it is not easy to tell who are the lower-ranked dancers and this bodes so well for their adventurous future.  I know that dancers appreciate the warmth of the audiences in Belfast and hope they continue to grow for this excellent company, not just fans of ballet but fans of the theatre as theatre is delivered to such a high standard.  I do hope our Northern friends return soon.  I just wish I had the courage to stand to my feet as some audience members did, to salute one of the world’s greatest interpretive ballerinas with a to-die-for technique, Martha Leebolt, who we may never see again in Northern Ireland.  On this run, I did not manage to see Tobias Batley dancing, although I have many times in the past and their partnership has been a big strength of this company and wish them very well and much success in the future.  Although I suspect that this future may lie on further shores than the UK or Europe, possibly.  Thank-you so much for your commitment to ballet and dance and touring ballet to parts of the UK that other companies do not tour to.

Northern Ballet: Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby has such an aura and relevancy at the moment with the much-anticipated Hollywood film and designers and fashionistas holding the pages to include the latest 1920s-inspired flapper styles of dropped waists and short hemlines and men in three-piece suits, looking extremely dashing. The Northern Ballet manage to create full-length narrative works on a pretty much annual basis, with limited resources. Recently the company were filmed as they let the British public behind the scenes to show the dire financial straits with budget cuts tightening and the prospect of scaling back what was already a small company, even further, by paying off dancers. Thankfully, due to a ‘Sponsor a Dancer’ campaign (www.northernballet.com/sponsoradancer), the company have been able to not just save the talented dancers that they have but actually increase their number as well as being accompanied by the Northern Symphonia, who were in fine form.

Northern Ballet come from the theatrical spectrum of ballet, telling the story is as paramount as technique of the dancers. The stories they tell have great, wide, sweeping vistas, taking some of the great romantic characters to the stage. A year ago, the company announced they would be developing the Great Gatsby as their new work, which felt very timely, the ballet should have been coming out in the wake of the hype for the film but ended up, with difficulties for the film, coming to stage first. Many people have read The Great Gatsby, probably at school, a lot of us have a residual memory of the shadowy character of Gatsby, finding that his wealth and obscure fame are not enough for him as he pines after his lost love, Daisy, who is now married to a man, both have little affection for each other. Tom Buchanan treats his wife, more as a possession or trophy, whilst he parties with his mistress, who is in turn, married to someone else.

The production commences with the narrator of piece and the conduit by which the story is told and in his perspective, Nick Carraway. Nick appears quite naïve against the sophisticated, aloof, Gatsby, whom we first see looking back on his first love, Daisy, as he leaves her to go off to war. Daisy is young, youthful and flirtatious and Gatsby thinks he has won her heart as she accepts his white rose, symbol of purity and first love, only for it to forgotten in the dust as Daisy is flirtatiously whisked off by a group of soldiers. Gatsby’s reverie ends as his gaze rests on the light on in Daisy’s house, she now inhabits with her aggressive and brutish husband.

The opening scenes set the scene for the main characters and their personalities but little else. It is not until the first scene at the Petrol Station that I felt the production came alive. Introduced to the young garage owner, George Wilson and what I first thought was his mistress because of the flirtatiousness of her character. Myrtle, is dressed in a gorgeous but quite innocent, peach dress. She teases her young husband, played on this occasion by Sebastian Loe. I found both these dancers fascinating to watch, Myrtle, the flirty feminine tease, driving the men in her life wild and yes, there are men, as she drives her husband wild to leave him and join her lover, Tom Buchanan, Daisy’s husband.

The next scene is so imaginative in a ballet as George, left alone, dressed in dirty overalls and unsophisticated ways, dances with the props of his trade, a large tyre. This is the first glimpse of some really innovative and dynamic choreography and complex prop work as the strong dancer flies daringly through the tyre and over the top of it, turning the mundane, almost childlike sequence but with real, adult frustration and loneliness. The seething tension of this sequence demonstrates that this character may not have the sophistication or panache of the others but may be pivotal to the story.

Sets are sparse but designed to provide context whilst not overwhelming the audience as the costumes and music provide the real backdrop to the piece. The Northern Ballet have worked with a number of contemporary composers who are giants of modern classical composition, such as Les Miserables’ Claude Michel Schoenberg. For ‘Gatsby’, the late, great, Sir Richard Rodney Bennett provided the score. The programme notes provide testimony to the composer’s legacy, “those many people who remember Richard with admiration and affection will surely rejoice that so many aspects of his widespread compositional talents will be on display all round the country in the score of Northern Ballet’s The Great Gatsby”. The score was dazzling as it went from soaring orchestral works to percussion-heavy jazz tracks where a solo snare drum accompanied the dancers. I definitely feel that a score contributes probably as much to the success of a ballet as the choreography does as it helps to engage the brain with what is happening on the stage and certainly opens your heart the way the score to accompany the pas-de-deux did.

I adored the party scenes, the jazz track that accompanies a Charleston-infused corps-de-ballet sequence. The party takes place in the love-nest of Tom and Myrtle, surrounded by fashionable neighbours, they dance and sing. Yes, as well as performing a ballet-come-Charleston, en pointe, the very talented dancers also break into song, ballet dancers do have a voice! This dance goes from the very upright to the low, bending of the knees as the feet swish back and forward and in pointe shoes and men in suits, throwing their partners into the air and executing the classic moves of the period as well as the balletic moves that they are used to. For this, the dancers received extra training in this style that they were not previously competent at but from videos made for this production, they loved the joyousness of the movements that allowed them to be a little less controlled and free. There was an especially eye-catching dancer whose usually tamed, blond curly hair, into a neat ballet bun, was allowed to wear her hair free which underlined this production’s eye-catching attention to detail, to get the atmosphere of the period just right.

Myrtle flirtatiously moves around the part-goers and takes full advantage of being the centre of attention, dancing with both men and women and making sure that her glass is full. Tom’s dark nature bursts violently into the scene, as he takes hold of Myrtle, hits her in the face and she falls to the ground. Nick, who has been Tom and Myrtle’s guest, looks on in horror but, as the party disperses, she forgives Tom and the two dancers join their bodies together. This scene is mainly why this ballet was recommended for age 12+, although as dancers are fully clothed, it is tastefully done and is not pivotal to the production, except for showing Tom’s worst nature which makes you yearn for Gatsby and Daisy to get together. This may also be why, for a matinee, usually packed with children, was rather sparsely attended. Although, the company have not neglected a younger audience as they recently produced ‘The Ugly Duckling’ for Cbeebies, a ballet specially made for children.

For those of us that have read the Great Gatsby or melted at Robert Redford’s portrayal of the ‘boy-made-good, with a past’, the memory that stands out are the lavish and hedonistic parties organised by the mysterious host, standing aloof. Gatsby organised these lavish parties to gain access to the powerful and beautiful of the time. I like to believe that his motives were romantic, to win back his lost love, Daisy came from the upper echelons of society. Although it was also to buy influence and those that may look into his past and where his great wealth came from. A pivotal scene towards the start of the ballet sees men in black overcoats and hats, pass large amounts of cash in dark alleyways, between them, hooking the young Jimmy Gatz, later to become Jay Gatsby, in his pursuit of becoming upwardly mobile. Of course, one person with influence that was not likely to be easily bought off or dissuaded was the brutish husband of the woman that you are hoping to win back with your money and influence and Tom seizes every opportunity to bring him down.

The party scenes are probably what I’ll remember most about this production. Like that most balletic of ballets, Swan Lake, where the corps is as important as the lead dancers, so with most of the productions of the Northern Ballet, there are stars, yes, but this is a real ensemble company. Also with a smaller company, quite often dancers from the lower ranks will get more opportunities to dance solo and lead roles than at larger companies. The party scenes showed the versatility and talent of these dancers as they moved from Charleston through a Waltz to the Tango, all within the boundaries of classical ballet. There was so much to see that my eyes were flitting about the stage and my mental processes were getting such a workout that I was mesmerised and completely drawn into so many emotions that are danced by this most theatrical of ballet companies. David Nixon’s choreography allows strong gender roles, men are men and women are women. There are strong dancers throughout the company.

F Scott Fitzgerald portrayed the rich in his book as real party people and Gatsby’s parties as legendary. The second act opens to another of these parties where Gatsby engineers a secret meeting with Daisy as they gaze into the wall of mirrors that line the room. Mirrored there, the two characters see their past selves, the soldier going off to war and the young, immaturely dressed, girl in white and blue dress. The characters see echoes of what might have been as other dances mirror their movements, through the glass. The forlornness of lost love and this heart-rending pas-de-deux, gives the dancers the opportunity for us to really grieve for them and the lost years. My emotions were fully engaged and senses heightened as they are reunited and then move away as Daisy is thrust away to a second position, en pointe, which makes her look undecided between her new life and her past. From one set of lovers, Myrtle is pining for Daisy’s husband Tom whilst her youthfully naïve husband, is beginning to witness the cracks in his marriage barges into her reverie as he tries to win his wife back as he thrusts a suitcase at her and insists that they go away. He finds an expensive bracelet and his fears are realised that she is another man’s and he locks her up.

In the meantime, the other protagonists, Tom and Daisy, Gatsby, Nick and Jordan take their tense little party, to New York where the action takes a dramatic turn. Partners that are clearly meant for each other and are clearly attracted to each other, as Daisy and Gatsby get closer to each other. There are some death-defying but appropriate lifts, from the playful where she is tossed between Gatsby and Nick and the lifts as part of the pas-de-deux where the dancers express their love that would be in words, in the literature but in ballet, it is through open arms and romantic hands laid on top of each other and trust through lifts that show great strength and openness as the partners are fully engaged with each other. The two male leads even lift each other at one time, as Tom confronts Gatsby, basically questioning the root of his wealth. The various publicity shots, show Daisy, usually flying through the air,

My only criticism of the piece, would be, that the plot, at times, was over-convoluted or too many characters that it took me a while to know who they were. There are maybe too many characters with not enough time to define them. Also, the ending was very abrupt that it maybe didn’t provide the dramatic build-up or the emotional outlet that my engagement with the love story was yearning for. There had been so much to see throughout the performance, the frenetic party scenes that were immensely watchable to the intimate intertwining and spectacular lifts of the pas-de-deux/ tois and the obvious love and attraction that grows over the piece, is deadened, in a flash and the curtains come down quickly. There is no discovery of the true black-hearted villain of the piece but as the narrator, Nick, knows the truth, we can only hope past the final curtain of some justice. This has made me thirst for more and if it hadn’t been for a major family engagement, I would have went out to the Box Office to buy a ticket for the next performance.

The Northern Ballet’s Artistic Director, David Nixon, has been mesmerising audiences for years with great literary and historical figures, such as Wuthering Heights, Hamlet, Dracula and Cleopatra. The latest romantic hero, Gatsby, did not disappoint. Alongside David Nixon, is Co-Director, Patricia Doyle, who has collaborated on many of these works.  This work of literature and period of fashion is pretty much made for this company. The work is so theatrical and filmic, Hollywood will have a very hard act to follow, even the choreographically-aware Director, Baz Luhrmann will be challenged to come up with something quite so mesmerising and engaging. The dancers are just brilliant, their technique is effortless, I can only dream of being able to dance like that. With a challenge put in front of the new BBC Director General to return Arts to public broadcasting and with an arts TV channel such as BBC4 and with Sky Arts already offering ballet, I would like to see this company and companies such as the Scottish Ballet, feature more, especially as they are so theatrical and also would love to see on the big screen, although my hope is that Hollywood do not discover David Nixon and lure him away as he is such a major asset to ballet in this country, even though not a native of the UK, although one of his Premier Dancers, Kenneth Tindall, is commencing an exciting career in choreography. I will now wait with anticipation to see what the next work will be and when they will return.

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