Milton Keynes Theatre, Milton Keynes, UK; May 5, 2011
Cleopatra’s story is a complex tale riven with intrigue, jealousy, power and sex, not to mention the occasional murder and suicide. All ingredients, you would think, for a juicy dramatic ballet. Yet it is a subject that has attracted choreographers rarely. The few that have tried have generally found critical success hard to come by. Many in London, for example, will recall the visually appealing but choreographically rather less than satisfactory production by Ben Stevenson for Houston Ballet of a few years ago. So, in some ways, making a new ballet about the lady’s life was a brave move by Northern Ballet Artistic Director David Nixon.
Visually, Nixon’s “Cleopatra” is an absolute winner. Former company dancer Christopher Giles shows himself to be a designer of note. His box-like set with its stone pillars and sandy coloured walls is a triumph. There is lots of clever, yet never intrusive, use of projection. In the opening scenes hieroglyphics appear on the walls to set proceedings firmly in Cleopatra’s palace. Later, seamless changes transport us effortlessly to the forum in Rome and Cleopatra’s barge on the Nile, yet more projections adding colour and detail as necessary. Special mention here too for Tim Mitchell, who gets the dusty white light of Egypt just right.
Unfortunately the choreography never really scales the same heights. Nixon starts with Cleopatra’s death and tells the story in flashback, beginning with her wedding to Ptolemy and their fight for dominance that ends with his murder. Everything, it seems is controlled by the serpent goddess Wadjet, actually danced in the ballet by a man, a shadowy figure who, like Rothbart in “Swan Lake” or Drosselmeyer in some darker versions of “The Nutcracker”, hovers over proceedings and, in this case, guides Cleopatra towards her tragic and inevitable end.
Nixon once again shows himself to be an excellent storyteller, touching all the necessary historical bases as he moves the story on apace. Yet although he keeps Cleopatra very much at the centre of events, he gives us very little sense of the lady herself. Julie Charlet is an attractive lead. Add to that her skimpy two-piece Act I costume, or the slightly less effective one-piece swimsuit-style outfit of Act II, and it’s no surprise that the men fall for her. Yet, while it was plain she knew just how to use her womanly ways and sexiness to get who and what she wanted, there was little sense of her what drove her. The whole ballet seems to take place in an emotional vacuum. Any sort of sexual fervour is largely absent, with any sense of ruthlessness or humanity equally underplayed.
Perhaps there is just too much story to tell, and therefore not enough time to flesh characters out, but many of the other protagonists were equally colourless. Hironao Takahashi’s Caesar was especially lacking in depth. Ashley Dixon was somewhat more effective as Mark Antony. His internal conflict when ordered to commit suicide was one of the few powerful theatrical moments in the ballet. But throughout we never really get to understand just how or why everyone felt about each other the way they do. Only towards the end, when Cleopatra has one last pas de deux with each of her lovers as they reappear in her memory, does any sort of emotion really start to emerge.
Northern Ballet’s dancing has come on by leaps and bounds under Nixon, so it’s odd that he never really gives them the chance to show what they can do. There is little richness in the movement, for the leads, and especially for the corps. A particular problem with the choreography for Cleopatra in particular is the way Nixon is drawn to trying to translate the stylised Egyptian friezes into ballet. The opening scenes in particular are peppered liberally with so-called Egyptian hand and arm movements, all stiff and robotic, and pauses in which she stands flat to the audience, left foot advanced, chin jutted out, arms in the familiar raised, right-angled position. It is unconvincing, utterly unrealistic, and only adds to the two-dimensional feel of the character.
The Northern Ballet Orchestra under the baton of Michael Gaynor played well, but Claude-Michel Schonberg’s score was also something of a let down given his track record. It is richly orchestrated. It is pleasant to listen to, and it does match the dance and help push the story along, but it sounds rather more like it belongs in some light entertainment television drama than in what should be powerful ballet. It lacks intensity in both the love and battle scenes. There is not a single memorable tune.
Despite the not inconsiderable reservations, I predict that “Cleopatra” will be popular with audiences. Those at Milton Keynes certainly lapped it up. But ultimately it’s a ballet that never really catches light, and in which presentation and style triumph over substance. This review will appear subsequently in the magazine.“Cleopatra” continues on tour to Belfast (May 11-14), London Sadler's Wells (May 17-22), Nottingham (September 27-October 1), Woking (October 4-8) and Norwich (October 11-15). Click here Cleopatra tour datesfor links to the relevant box offices