Northern Ballet: 'Beauty and the Beast'
by David Mead
April 21, 2012 -- Milton Keynes Theatre, Milton Keynes, UK
In the programme, David Nixon comments how he wanted to find a way of telling the “Beauty and the Beast” story that was new and magical, but that did not lose either its charm or deeper message. The good news is that he has succeeded magnificently, creating a visual feast and telling the story with great clarity, while still finding time to give it a bit of a modern twist.
The contemporary references are there right from the off, as Nixon makes several allusions to the modern day obsession with appearance and material goods. He shows us Prince Orian and his friends so busy preening in front of each other that they at first do not see, then have no time for, a huddled and cloaked woman. A backdrop of shifting mirrors and the strains of Saint-Saëns’ “Danse Macabre” portend things to come. And come they soon do, as the woman turns out to be none other Le Fée Magnifique, who casts a spell on him, changing him into the Beast. Elsewhere, Chantelle and Isabelle, Beauty’s sisters, stagger in from a hard day at the mall, weighed down with shopping bags. For them, life is all about the last fashion. For their father, it’s all about the latest credit card bill.
Thereon in, the story follows its familiar line. Nixon splits the roles of Prince and Beast between two dancers. Kenneth Tindall was a handsome Orian, but of far more interest was his alter ego, the Beast, danced here by Ashley Dixon. By restricting his beastly looks to a “Phantom of the Opera” style mask and goth-like black leather costume, Nixon (who designed the costumes himself) makes it plain that underneath everything there is still a man, and one who retains much dignity. The Beast’s split personality and inner battle comes through strongly in the choreography too, his dance and mood swinging constantly between animalistic and human, clumsy and elegant, and violent and tender. You cannot help but feel for him.
Martha Leebolt gave a fine performance as the most appropriately named Beauty. Her delicacy and softness contrasted neatly with her two sisters and later with the Beast. Despite her initial shock at seeing the Beast, she never loses her humanity or her integrity. Of course, slowly but surely she falls in love with him, the moment depicted in the dance highlight of the show, all three leads coming together for a romantic pas de trois in Beauty’s bower in the Beast’s castle. You can’t help but share in the Beast’s feelings of joy when, as he realises Beauty now loves him, he lets rip with a series of light and precise brisés.
Nixon also gives us an array of excellent other characters. The spookiest without doubt was Hironao Takahashi as Alfred, the quiet Beast’s manservant, full of stiff formality, and dressed in equally stiff black tails. Hannah Bateman as La Fée Luminiare, essentially the good fairy, looked just like a Spirit of Ecstacy from the front of a Rolls Royce come to life as she flitted round the stage in a flowing silver dress. Her opposite number, Lori Gilchrist as Le Fée Magnifique never came across as a particularly bad fairy, just someone who wanted to teach Orian a lesson. I could have done without the unfunny jauntiness of the goblins and sprites in the Beast’s castle, though. They were more ‘four stooges’ than anything else.
The whole ballet is helped along enormously by Duncan Hayler’s sets. The arrival of the hard-nosed, black-dressed, sunglass-wearing debt collectors at the family home was enjoyable enough as it was, but the arrival of Hayler’s huge removal truck is pure genius. His charabanc, in which the family later make their home was equally an absolute delight, and brought back memories of the train in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. And then there is the finale, danced in front of a swathe of stage filling silver Art Deco organ pipes.
The music, a mix of Saint Saëns, Bizet, Debussy, Poulenc and Glazunov, works remarkably well. Poulenc’s “Concerto for organ, strings and timpani” is especially effective in introducing the Beast and highlighting his more animal tendencies. The finale of Saint Saëns “Organ Symphony” gives matters a particularly uplifting ending, alongside a well choreographed, very classical, ensemble dance.
These are challenging times for ballet companies, so top marks to David Nixon for coming up with another winner. And he shows no signs of stopping. Next on his agenda is a new “Ondine” to the familiar Hans Werner Henze score, to be premiered in Leeds in September, to be followed by “The Great Gatsby” in early 2013.
The Northern Ballet Orchestra was conducted by John Pryce-Jones.
The Spring tour of “Beauty and the Beast” is now finished, but the ballet can be seen in the autumn in Norwich, Bradford, Woking, Canterbury, Aylesbury and Bath. See http://northernballet.com/index.php?q=beauty-and-the-beast for dates.
“Ondine” can be seen at the West Yorkshire Playhouse (http://www.wyp.org.uk/what's-on/2012/ondine/), Leeds from September 8-15.