by Lauren Butler
February 26, 2011 -- Grand Theatre, Leeds, UKNorthern Ballet’s 'Cleopatra', with choreography by David Nixon and an original score by Claude-Michel Schoenberg, is exceedingly charming. Thankfully, the wit and vigor of the dancing save the production from collapsing under the weight of its own sweetness.
Based in Leeds, Northern Ballet specializes in narrative ballets. Dangerous Liaisons, Wuthering Heights, and Dracula have garnered popular excitement during Nixon’s ten-year tenure as Artistic Director. On 'Cleopatra’s' opening night, 26 February 2011 at the Grand Theatre, flaming torches on the sidewalk portended an evening of old-fashioned drama.
Nixon and co-director Patricia Doyle excel in filling the stage with choreography that is fresh and challenging, yet carries enough exposition for audience members who’ve come expecting a cracking story. The ballet opens with Cleopatra crouching in an oblique rectangle of light, with shadowy pillars looming behind her. This is the moment of her death, when she summons the snake-god Wadjet to do her in. Martha Leebolt is a dramatic figure, with tawny coloring, broad shoulders, and fleet, sure legs. Although Kenneth Tindall, as Wadjet, is a captivating presence, his Aqua-Man costume is risible, and his choreography is stuffed full of “look-I’m-a-snake” arm-wiggling.
The ballet’s libretto is relayed through a series of flashbacks, with Wadjet accompanying Cleopatra through the crucial episodes of her life. After the introductory pas de deux, the stage floods with blue-white light, showing the clean lines of Christopher Giles’ art deco-inspired design. Schoenberg’s moody clarinet solo gives way to a court dance full of shimmering strings and chimes. Six women emerge, dressed in floating blue skirts, their hair done in beaded braids that rattle in time with the music. Cleopatra and her brother Ptolemy (Giuliano Contadini) appear at the throne. The court of Alexandria is full of sea breezes and sunshine, and the set, costumes, and music invoke a Berkeley musical of the 1930s.
Potentates wearing vast gold domes on their heads perform a marriage ceremony, after which Ptolemy and Cleopatra are left lying side by side on a dais. The music fades to suggestive glissandos as the courtiers discreetly depart. In moonlight, Ptolemy and Cleopatra spar and parry like peevish children. Yet when Ptolemy makes the first sexual overture, their rivalry takes a darker turn, their fighting turns visceral.
Ptolemy takes the throne, but not for long: brass and tympani herald the arrival of gold-and-glass tub. Wadjet whispers in Cleopatra’s ear as handmaidens pour real water onto Ptolemy’s reclining body. When Cleopatra murders her brother/husband by holding his head under water, an amber light shines from stage left, projecting the scene in enormous, juddering shadows.
Ptolemy’s clean corpse remains in the background as the Roman centurions arrive. The choreography showcases the excellent male dancers of this company; heroic leaps recall Spartak and Corsair. As Caesar, Javier Torres gives the most memorable performance of the evening. He is powerfully built but moves lightly as a cat, and he manages to convey a persona at once dignified and fatally tenderhearted.
The music here becomes a frank homage to Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky. When two centurions (and Wadjet) unroll a carpet to reveal a scantily-clad Cleopatra, a lengthy harp solo begins the lovers’ first dance. Caesar extends a hesitant hand to Cleopatra, and just as he starts to pull it away she grasps it and rises to look into his face. The choreography cleverly subverts the language of the classical pas de deux: going into first arabesque, she takes hold of his shoulders and forces him round in a promenade.
Leebolt and Torres are such technically confident dancers, and have such chemistry together as actors, their ensuing scene might have a rewarding glimpse into a relationship of mutual self-interest, gratitude, and lust. But sadly Nixon decides to reduce Cleopatra to just a girl in love. While the choreography is engaging, with breathtaking lifts, Cleopatra and Caesar are required to pause every few bars and make moon-faces at each other. A pretty violin solo is redolent of Scheherazade.
Once in Rome, Wadjet visits Cleopatra, who lies alone having torturous dreams. Wadjet watches smugly as Caesar dismisses Cleopatra’s warnings and proceeds to the Senate. While we all know what will happen, his murder is an edge-of-your seat scene. The dancers are terrific here: Caesar stiffening only slightly when his hale greetings go unanswered, the senators slowly surrounding him before pouncing. Flames are projected on the backdrop while Cleopatra makes her escape with little Caesarion (Daniel Lewandowski).
In the third act, Cleopatra is a changed woman, smiling furiously on her throne. Tobias Batley plays Mark Antony as a frat boy, swaggering in at the head of his troops. Cleopatra sets about seducing him, descending from her throne in a Vegas-inspired red-and-silver ensemble. In an instant, flowers are projected on the backdrop, and silk petals cascade from the ceiling.
The ensuing orgy scenes are truly creepy. The ensemble appear half-naked with gold expressionless masks and wild hair, writhing inconsolably in the drifting petals. Cleopatra pushes Mark Antony into the snake-pit of limbs but backs away herself.
When Octavia (Hannah Bateman) arrives to remonstrate with her drunk husband, Mark Antony can only stumble about. The two women dance a pas de trois with him, leavening the melodrama with humor as they primly fight for his attention. Octavia abandons her husband and ascends to a platform, where Octavian (a mercurial Hironao Takahashi) and senators are standing with their thumbs raised. Once she joins them, she too raises her thumb, then turns it slowly, scornfully down. They follow suit, and in due course Mark Antony is presented with a sword. (It did give me pause that a prop sword is used here, whilst Caesar was “stabbed” with empty fists.)
I found this last pas de deux the most satisfying in a dramatic and choreographic sense. Batley has a fine sense of physical theater. He movingly conveys the agony of indecision: his grip on the sword is iron-fast, but his abdomen ripples away from his own aim. Still half-drunk, he bids good-bye to Cleopatra again and again, but fails to kill himself. She in turn, full of pity and contrition, touches his face and enacts moments of their previous scenes. Finally, at his insistence, she flings her entire body upon the sword to help him die. A light flashes on Leebold at this moment; she looks like an animal pouncing.
Wadjet appears again, now reluctant to kill Cleopatra. She must entice him by sliding along the floor and winding her legs around his waist. When the fatal shivering strike occurs, three dancers appear on high, wearing bronze masks of Anubis, Ra, and Apis. They stretch their arms in welcome, Ra spreading his great black wings. For this production, nothing will do but an old-fashioned apotheosis, complete with a fulsome, forgiving swell of music and blinding light before the curtain descends.
In the programme notes for Cleopatra, Nixon promises a new take on the life of the iconic pharohess. “So much of what you read about Cleopatra is revealed via her relationship with Julius Ceasar or Mark Antony,” Nixon writes, citing Plutarch, Shakespeare, and Schiff. He promises instead a perspective into “the woman herself.” An ambitious claim, and a wholly inaccurate one: the ballet’s narrative offers only a retelling of Plutarch’s and Cassius Dio’s histories, and indeed the three acts center around her relationship with her brother Ptolemy, Ceasar, and Mark Antony respectively.
The genius of Nixon’s choreography is his ability to use classical elements in startling ways while at the same time maintaining narrative drive. The most successful moments are the fleeting abstractions, when the language of dance is used to convey conflicting emotions or power negotiations between characters. But too often, Nixon and Doyle opt for melodrama instead, bookended with generous doses of saccharine. Nonetheless, the overall and lasting impression was one of exhilaration.
During the performance, Shoenberg’s music was so purposefully reminiscent of great theatrical composers that I began to wonder at what point an homage became a tiresome derivation. However, a day after the performance, I find I can’t stop humming the catchiest bits out loud, especially Caesar’s love theme and the jingle-jangle orgy dance.
This company is so full of promise and vigor, under the direction of such inveterate storytellers, despite my caviling I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.
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