Northern Ballet celebrates fifty years

Grand Theatre, Leeds
January 4, 2020

David Mead

It was indeed a grand evening at the Grand; a hugely enjoyable gala that struck just the right note. Most affably compared by artistic director David Nixon, it traced the remarkable success of Northern Ballet in a celebration of its 50th anniversary, including excerpts from works not seen in a very long time.

The gala was bookended by two vibrant ensemble sections from Nixon’s The Great Gatsby and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There may have been no murder but in many ways the opening music, Richard Rodney Bennett’s theme from Sidney Lumet’s 1974 film Murder on the Orient Express was entirely appropriate as the evening took the audience on an exciting journey through the company’s 50 years, with many former dancers putting in appearances along with dancers from all the UK’s major ballet companies, plus Phoenix Dance Theatre, Joffrey Ballet and Central School of Ballet. That opening sequence, the Charleston from the ballet, was also a perfect illustration of what a vibrant company Northern Ballet has become under Nixon’s leadership. It set the party mood perfectly.

Matteo Zecca and Ellise de Andrade in Christopher Gable's CinderellaPhoto Riku Ito
Matteo Zecca and Ellise de Andrade in Christopher Gable’s Cinderella
Photo Riku Ito

The evening was designed to remind everyone of special moments and people. Going right back to the beginning, Nixon reminded us how Northern and Scottish Ballets, under Laverne Meyer and Peter Darrell respectively, both grew out of the ashes of the former Western Ballet. That link was embodied in a moving and poetic performance by Scottish Ballet’s Marge Hendrick of an excerpt from Darrell’s 1978 work, Five Rückert Songs that showed her at inner peace with herself.

As befits Northern Ballet’s heritage, this was not an evening for sparking princes and princesses doing showy pas de deux. Rather, it comprised a series of more sensitive, dare one say more realistic, duets from the narrative works for which Northern Ballet is best known. Most were on a theme of love, albeit in different guises. Quite a number also involved scantily dressed dancers or taking clothes off, as Nixon pointed out with a smile.

Abigail Prudames and Federico Bonelli in Massimo Maricone's Romeo and JulietPhoto Riku Ito
Abigail Prudames and Federico Bonelli
in Massimo Maricone’s Romeo and Juliet
Photo Riku Ito

There may have been no tutus but there was a prince. If anyone set the artistic vision for Northern Ballet, it was Christopher Gable, artistic director from 1987 until his untimely death in 1998. Gable frequently collaborated with composer Philip Feeney and designer Lez Brotherston; a “choreographic dream team” as Michael Pink called them. One of the threesome’s best ballets was Cinderella, Gable telling the story with just the right touch of darkness and without the usual humour. Ellise de Andrade and Matteo Zecca of the Central School of Ballet were delightful in the Fireside Duet, a delicate, tender dance in which the Prince, having recognised Cinderella, wins her love.

Mlindi Kulashi (Dracula) and Sean Bates (Jonathan Harker) in Dracula by Christopher Gable and Michael PinkPhoto Riku Ito
Mlindi Kulashi (Dracula) and Sean Bates (Jonathan Harker) in Dracula
by Christopher Gable and Michael Pink
Photo Riku Ito

An excerpt from Gillian Lynne’s A Simple Man paired English National Ballet artistic director Tamara Rojo (looking a little odd in blonde wig) with that incomparable former Northern Ballet character actor-dancer, Jeremy Kerridge, who survived four of Northern Ballet’s five artistic directors. There seem to be fewer and fewer really top-notch character artists around these days. Kerridge showed why he was one of the best as he picked up perfectly on Lowry’s gaucheness, awkwardness and the unsettling relationship the painter had with his controlling mother.

The Belle and Young Scrooge Duet from Massimo Moricone’s A Christmas Carol (Antoinette Brooks-Daw and Jonathan Hanks) and the Balcony Scene from the same choreographer’s Romeo and Juliet (Abigail Prudames and The Royal Ballet’s Federico Bonelli), two of Northern Ballet’s signature works, brought us to the high point of the first half: Gable and Pink’s Dracula. Mlindi Kulashe was quite imperious as he lithely and lightly bounded around the stage as the enraged Dracula terrorising the petrified Jonathan Harker, danced by Sean Bates. Given that the vampire had headed the BBC television schedules for the previous three nights, some might have thought another dose was too much. Not when it’s this good.

Minju Kang and Lorenzo Trossello in Didy Veldman's CarmenPhoto Riku Ito
Minju Kang and Lorenzo Trossello in Didy Veldman’s Carmen
Photo Riku Ito

It was a close-run thing, though, for that was followed by Didy Veldman’s superbly innovative Bedroom Duet from Carmen, the one outstanding moment from Stefano Giannetti’s brief tenure as director. Veldman brought a new contemporary voice to the company. Indeed, she once told me that she regarded it as much more a theatre company than a classical ballet company at the time. The dance makes full use of the bed and its frame. In her red top, Minju Kang as Carmen was slinky and seductive as she and Lorenzo Trossello as Don José give in to their lust and make love, one particularly juicy moment coming when she slides so beguilingly down his back.

Completing a trio enticing dances, the first half closed with the Wedding Night Duet from Nixon’s Madame Butterfly, the first work of his own he staged for the company. More simmering than boiling over, Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Momoko Hirata and César Morales did it proud.

Momoko Hirata and Cesar Morales in David Nixon's Madame ButterflyPhoto Riku Ito
Momoko Hirata and Cesar Morales in David Nixon’s Madame Butterfly
Photo Riku Ito

In recent years, Nixon has invited younger choreographers to create on the company, the second half of the evening opening with the Masquerade from Kenneth Tindall’s Casanova, and later featuring Giuliano Contadini and the returning Dreda Blow in the Casanova and Bellino duet. Out of context, the latter left me a little cool and I couldn’t help feeling that an excerpt from one of Tindall’s non-narrative pieces may have not only been a better demonstration of his undoubted talents, but would also have shown another, developing side to Northern Ballet’s repertoire.

Altogether more appealing was the passionate Countryside Duet from Jonathan Watkins’ 1984, with more shedding of clothes, this time by Laura Morera of The Royal Ballet and Ryoichi Hirana.

Ryoichi Hirana and Laura Morera in 1984 by Jonathan Watkins. Photo Riku Ito
Ryoichi Hirana and Laura Morera in 1984 by Jonathan Watkins
Photo Riku Ito

The Twin Souls Duet from Daniel de Andrade’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas sat awkwardly, however. From his prefacing comments, the duet is clearly a Nixon favourite. I confess to never having read the book but I continue to find the ballet uncomfortable, particularly in light of its unfortunate, light-touch treatment that rather glosses over the horrors of the Holocaust.

Northern Ballet share their building in Leeds with Phoenix Dance Theatre, acknowledged by the inclusion of a duet from Sharon Watson’s Windrush: Movement of the People, danced by Vanessa Vince Pang and Aaron Chaplin.

Greig Matthews and Amanda Assucena in Cathy Marston's Jane EyrePhoto Riku Ito
Greig Matthews and Amanda Assucena in Cathy Marston’s Jane Eyre
Photo Riku Ito

Elsewhere, more Northern Ballet alumni returned for the celebrations in the shape of Martha Leebolt (clearly a Leeds audience favourite) and Tobias Batley, who joined Rachael Gillespie and Harris Beattie in a scene from Nixons’s Wuthering Heights. Cathy Marston’s Jane Eyre brought more Brontë, albeit Charlotte rather than Emily, as Amanda Assucena and Greig Matthews of the Joffrey Ballet, which has recently danced the work, came from Chicago to perform the emotional proposal duet.

Another scantily clad Nixon duet, this one from Cleopatra and featuring Prudames and Joseph Taylor, had the Egyptian Queen arousing Mark Anthony, before party mode was resumed as the evening rounded off with the Jive from the artistic director’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Joseph Taylor and Abigail Prudames in David Nixon's CleopatraPhoto Riku Ito
Joseph Taylor and Abigail Prudames in David Nixon’s Cleopatra
Photo Riku Ito

Along the journey, Nixon noted that Northern Ballet has produced 29 full-length ballets under his leadership, 19 of which were choreographed by him. The range of subject matter is as remarkable as the number. And that’s on top of the shorter works the company are now starting to perform; another welcome move. All good reason to pop a few champagne corks.

Happy birthday, Northern Ballet!

The curtain call at Northern Ballet's 50th anniversary galaPhoto Riku Ito
The curtain call at Northern Ballet’s 50th anniversary gala
Photo Riku Ito