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Northern Ballet Theatre

'The Three Musketeers'

by Kate Snedeker

March 7, 2007 -- Edinburgh Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Scotland

"The Three Musketeers" has all the elements of a rousing story-ballet: a classic good versus evil story, love affairs and dramatic fight scenes. Yet David Nixon's new production for the Northern Ballet Theatre is an oddly bland creation that never congeals into a coherent whole. Full of glittering costumes, detailed sets and showy swordfights set to Sir Malcolm Arnold's brassy music, this "The Three Musketeers" has lots of substance, but little soul.

Northern Ballet Theatre is known for its unique brand of ballet theatre, delivered in the form of elaborate full-length story ballets. In the past, David Nixon has presented a fresh approach to classics such as "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "Peter Pan", but in "The Three Musketeers" he seems to have shoehorned a ballet into a story instead of letting the story emerge from the ballet. 

The core of the problem is the misbegotten attempt to squeeze too much story in between the steps – over the course of barely two hours of dancing, we are whisked through 18 separate scenes. To add to the confusion, many of the transitions take place in very dim light, dancers swathed in capes, rendering it near impossible to keep track of who and what and where. Even with prior knowledge of the story and the help of the detailed synopsis, midway through Act 1 the characters and storyline were a blur in my mind.

Nixon's choreography also does little favour to his dancers or the progression of the story. In trying to recreate every historical detail from long hair to leather boots to blousy pantaloons and billowing dresses, he stifles his dancers by hiding their bodies and limiting the balletic possibilities. And with some of the younger corps dancers still in their teens, the fake moustaches, especially, look downright silly. The all too rare dancing is most successful in the scenes with the washerwomen, cheeky, yet strong of soul in the foot stomping, hip jabbing group pieces. As their feisty leader Madame Bonancieux (and the mother of Constance), Victoria Sibson gave a performance to remember. Her dancing radiated confidence and her characterization was delightfully ribald. 

This production revolves around two main couples – King Louis XIII and Queen Anne of France, and the young musketeer-to-be D'Artagnan and his sweetheart, Constance – for whom the main pas deuxs are choreographed. As D'Artagnan, Patrick Howell was one of the high points of the ballet. He radiated a certain winsomeness and naivety, but showed complete maturity in his balletic skills and partnering of his Constance, Keiko Amemori. Amemori seemed to bring more pathos to the pas de deuxs whilst Howell was more attentive to executing the elaborate lifts in Nixon's somewhat awkward choreography. There-in lay the problem – the pas de deuxs seemed more focused on a few striking images and complicated lifts than on creating and portraying emotion. Whilst the younger couple managed to imbue some feeling into their dance, the pas de deux for the otherwise effective Christopher Hinton-Lewis and Chiaki Nagao as the Duke of Buckingham and Queen Anne seemed all about getting the steps done with no room for any emotion.

The three musketeers themselves were a jolly bunch, with David Paul Kierce bringing a delightful touch to his lush Porthos. Yet again, the lack of inspiring choreography let this energetic trio down. One of their main triumphant scenes – in which they celebrate after freeing the imprisoned D'Artagnan – is confined by Charles Cusick Smith's set to a small portion of the stage. Perhaps more frustratingly, despite the coaching of a top-notch fight director Renny Krupinski, the sword fights feel constrained and tame. Clearly, safety limits what can be done with swords in a ballet, but one has to look no further than Macmillan's "Romeo and Juliet" to see a sword fight that makes your heart skip a beat. Here the duels are limp wristed, helped little by music that provides neither an emotional or rhythmic underpinning for the duels. Arnold's score is by no means unemotional – it floats along with lots of highs and lows – but being a patchwork of sections from other compositions – Arnold had died before the ballet was created – there are no real crescendos or over-riding themes.

Richelieu's spy and the real enemy of the Musketeers was Desiré Samaai's outstanding Lady de Winter. With the departure of a number of promising young dancers during the last couple of years – especially amongst the leading men – the company is not at a high point in terms of technical talent, and Samaai is clearly in a class of her own. Both technically and dramatically, she exudes confidence. Hers was the only mime that sang out all the way to the top rows; hers was the only dancing that was sure enough to let the story sing out from every step.

The three main dancing tableaus are all set in the court of King Louis XIII, cleverly realized in a set of paneled wooden walls that are almost claustrophobic – perhaps purposely so – in the endless repeating pattern. Based on actual court dances, each of the tableaus is danced by couples in full court costume. The result are dances that may reflect the patterns and upper body nuances of the 17th century French Court – where ballet had its roots – but are somewhat unsatisfying for the 21st century audience. The second tableau with the row of women with the giant fans pleated between the arms was intriguing and clever, but with their legs completely obliterated, the dance depended totally on the gimmick of the fans, with which only so much could be done. Mark Biocca as the King parades nicely in drag, his mincing little steps and delicate hands amusing, but intriguingly refined. Yet while Biocca brought a refreshing quirkiness and detail to his role, both he and Nagao seemed all too often to fade into the tableaus. A King and Queen should stand out, but despite their oft-glittering costumes, for reasons that I can't quite fathom, the royal couple lacked enough presence to set them out from the crowd.  

Darren Goldsmith's Cardinal Richelieu also lacked power, in large part due to poor costuming. Certainly not lacking in the appropriate sneer, regality, and authoritative sweep of the hand, the tall, very lean Goldsmith suffered from being outfitted in a red robe of very light, satiny material with a long train. The femininity and flimsiness of the robe befitted not a Cardinal of Richelieu's bearing, giving the character a rather weak appearance.

The ballet ends with a final tableau in the court as the King throws a party to show off the diamond necklace, which he has gifted to his queen. But the queen has given it to the Duke of Buckingham, who has mistakenly given it to the scheming Lady de Winter who in turn has intercepted the note from the Queen requesting the secret return of the necklace. But amidst the dancing courtiers, D'Artagnan and Constance outwit the evil schemers, with the necklace miraculously appearing around the Queen's neck, a befuddled Lady deWinter left with an empty box and Cardinal Richelieu with his dreams of power in tatters. In this final tableau, the women are in full gowns with masks. The men are in odd three-quarter length pants, with bright colored strips of material – an imitation of bird's wings perhaps – streaming from their arms. It's all awash with color and motion, but too much perhaps? With all the material flowing around, the steps themselves become overwhelmed, blurred. The corps itself was well rehearsed, but lacked a certain preciseness overall, and I think to pull off the very stylized court dances a corps must be very crisp.

All ends well with Richelieu defeated and D'Artagnan receiving his musketeer cape and sword. Of course the story of the musketeers does not end here, and so the ballet is forced into a tidy, but somewhat un-triumphant ending. A shame, for it's a story with so many possibilities, but Nixon leads the charge astray with an overly busy narrative and un-inspiring choreography that sabotage all but the finest of his dancers in their attempts to create meaningful and memorable characters. "The Three Musketeers" is fine eye candy, but lacks that crucial spark.

John Pryce-Jones conducted the Northern Ballet Orchestra.

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