Northern Ballet: Made in Leeds

Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House, London
November 3, 2022

Every autumn, Northern Ballet shifts briefly away from its usual diet of popular story ballets to present a triple bill of new works. Unusually, none of this year’s choreographers have any previous association with the company. Although Made in Leeds, as the show’s title says, and as impressively as the they were performed, the feeling was not so much a step back from the usual repertory as a giant leap.

All three works had things to admire even if two did not quite hit the mark. The opening Wailers by Ballet Black’s Mthuthuzeli November, who also created the music, looks a treat. Yann Seabra’s attractive black-trimmed, white robes and tunics combine African and Grecian influences, while November and Steve Wilkins’ wall upstage left that looks like a slab of cracked, dried mud sliced from the ground has an earthy beauty.

Conceived as a look at female resilience, the work was inspired by the hardships faced by November’s mother and a painting of black and white figures by his partner. It starts off strikingly with mother-figure Sarah Chun’s pointe shoes thrashing out percussion at machine-gun speed as she bourrées. She’s matched by Aerys Merill as a tribal matriarch who adds ankle bells into the sonic mix.

Aerys Merrill (standing) and Sarah Chun in Wailers by Mthuthuzeli November
Photo Emma Kauldhar

What follows has a pleasant flow. It’s full of November’s typically grounded and loose folk-influenced dance and swaying rhythms. There’s chanting and singing. But while attractive, it lacks direction and impact. And despite the presence of pointe shoes, actually little used after that opening, much in the way of classical influence is hard to discern. As a whole, it starts to feel increasingly like something seen and heard before. The ending is uplifting in a quiet sort of way, but by then I had long stopped caring.

Stina Quagebeur, associate choreographer with English National Ballet, makes no secret of the fact that she likes drama and expressing emotion in dance. In Nostalgia, the audience follows Minju Kang and Jonathan Hanks as they go back in time and meet their younger selves. Performed to music by Jeremy Birchall that captures their moods perfectly, we first meet them in the here and now, where all is clearly not well. But time cannot erase memories of better times and its not long before they come flooding back in the shape of Rachael Gillespie and Gavin McCaig.

Kang and Hanks at first mimic their past selves, wishing perhaps what still was, before the two couples interchange as past and present overlap, a small corps of two men and two women acting as a sort of supporting chorus. It is beautifully bittersweet piece of drama told solely through flowing choreography in which everything looks effortless and natural. It really does feel like you are watching very ordinary, very real people. Nostalgia is yet more evidence of Quagebeur’s talent. It’s no wonder she’s in demand at home and abroad.

Northern Ballet in Ma Vie Live by Dickson Mbi
Photo Emma Kauldhar

Dickson Mbi’s Ma Vie Live is an expansion of his short lockdown film created in collaboration with his own company, that explored Giacomo Casanova’s life and his difficult relationship with the Catholic church.

Mbi shows us a man trapped and manipulated by his own demons. The opening, which sees the ensemble dressed entirely in black and lit so that only hands are visible, is incredibly effective. A scene change then takes us to a Venetian setting, where ten elegantly dressed Northern Ballet dancers engage in courtly dance that starts sedately but gets increasingly feverish in what one presumes is an attempt to parallel it with orgasm.

It does all go on rather, however. The choreography is as repetitive as Roger Goula’s music. There is so much whooping and slapping of the thighs, I’ll swear I came close to screaming. The street-dance style ending in which everyone demonstrated something of themselves was also far from as exciting as it should have been and felt desperately out of place.

Northern’s dancers give their all, but the whole thing is saved only by a brilliant performance by powerful guest hip-hop artist Jonadette Carpio, who everything is built around and who steals the show completely.