fri 25/07/2014

Cleopatra, Northern Ballet, Sadler's Wells | Dance reviews, news & interviews

Cleopatra, Northern Ballet, Sadler's Wells

A romping, stomping, pleasure of a show, and a design dazzler

Northern Ballet's 'Cleopatra': 'The real stars of the show are the design team'All photos: Bill Cooper

David Nixon has been artistic director of Northern Ballet for a decade, and it’s probably safe to say he is the king of the story ballet: Wuthering Heights, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Madame Butterfly, Dracula – if it’s got a story, he is, seemingly, willing to tell it. As Christopher Wheeldon’s recent Alice in Wonderland for the Royal Ballet showed, this is not as easy as might first appear. Nixon shoots straight from the hip: he is interested in narrative, he loves answering the question, “What happened then?”

In Cleopatra, of course, it’s more a question of what didn’t happen to her: in childhood married to her brother, as was the custom, his death left her vulnerable to warring factions. As the Romans invaded, she threw in her lot with, and entranced, Julius Caesar, who protected her throne for her; on his death, she moved on to his lieutenant, Mark Antony; when their forces were routed by Octavian, Antony and then Cleopatra killed themselves, rather than submitting to the degradation of being prisoners in a Roman triumph.

The astonishing thing is, Nixon pretty well manages to tell that story. Of course, it has been told endlessly, from Shakespeare, to Shaw, to Joseph Mankiewicz. And it has been played endlessly, too, culminating in our cultural memories, perhaps, most enduringly in Elizabeth Taylor’s astonishingly kitsch 1963 film. Certainly this has made an impression on Nixon and his team, who do far more than nod in the film’s direction; Shakespeare, too, contributes his references. (Shaw they seem to have skipped.)

Leebolt__Torres_Cleo_Bill_CooperNixon is blessed with a strong, stalwart Cleopatra in Martha Leebolt (pictured left, with Javier Torres as Julius Caesar). As she moves through the melodrama that is her life, she links first with the admirable Javier Torres, then with the louche Tobias Batley (pictured below, with Leebolt) as Antony succumbing to the seductive lures of ancient Egypt, even while he keeps his jetés nice and crisp.

But the real stars of the show are the design team: Christopher Giles (design), Tim Mitchell (lighting) and Nina Dunn (projection design). Together they have produced a wonderfully flexible touring set (main picture, above), which produces all the drama and variation needed for the alternating Roman and Egyptian scenes. We begin in a temple, honey-gold, as Cleopatra prays to the snake god Wadjet (a somewhat stiffly un-snake-like Giuliano Contadini); we then move to a white-washed minimal set, which is enchantingly covered with brightly coloured Egyptianate decorations via projections; the Roman scenes, when Cleopatra has a foreboding vision of doom, shockingly have pillars and walls running with blood. And the final transfiguration, after death, when Cleopatra joins the Egyptian gods in posthumous elevation, is a brilliantly clean white light, with gold and silver shadowings: a really fine design moment that ends the entire ballet on a moment of transcendence.

Leebolt__Batley_Cleopatra__Photo_Bill_CooperIf there is criticism to be made, it is that the characterisations are not strong – there is virtually no difference in dance vocabulary between Cleopatra and Antony’s wife Octavia, so their struggle to win him seems pallid, and in dance terms a matter of little moment as to who wins. Equally, the replacement of Julius Caesar with Antony in Cleopatra’s bed seems to matter little: the story is in effect a recapitulation because the men have nothing to distinguish one from the other. And the entire war of the Romans versus the Egyptians has vanished: Cleopatra's tragedy has become personal, and you wouldn't know from her duet with Antony at the end that between them they have lost an empire. This removes the overwhelming arc of tragedy that is there in all the really great retellings of the story - Nixon's story is instead one about a woman who got carried away, not one who destroyed a world. Which makes it, finally, a good show, not great art.

But the corps perform with ardour their romping, stomping war scenes in particular – the chaos unleashed after the Ides of March, and the Roman invasion that brings Antony back to Egypt - and they are backed well at these points by Claude-Michel Schönberg’s music, which in the more lyrical moments does become filmicly clichéd. As an overall show, however, Cleopatra is a pleasure to watch, moving with pace, style and a great deal of panache.

David Nixon is the king of the story ballet: if it's got narrative, he'll tell it

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