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NBT Is 40 Years Old in 2009


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This year, 2009, Northern Ballet Theatre celebrates 40 years. The Company was conceived, as Northern Dance Theatre, by Canadian Laverne Meyer and was originally based in Manchester. The first performances were given at the end of November 1969. Robert de Warren succeeded Meyer as artistic director in 1976, renaming the company Northern Ballet Theatre.. The first performance I ever saw was de Warren’s production of Othello at the end of 1985. Christopher Gable was appointed the third AD after creating the role of Lowry in Gillian Lynne’s television ballet A Simple Man. This work used the dancers of NBT and was subsequently performed live by them, with Gable continuing to perform Lowry. After funding issues the Company moved to Halifax and is now based in Leeds. Gable’s untimely death in 1998 led to an unsettled period and new artistic director Stefano Giannetti stayed only a year with the company. Another Canadian, David Nixon, was appointed in 2001 and is still incumbent. His directorship has brought a new era of success and stability and the company has gone from strength to strength. A new home is currently being built to house both NBT and Phoenix Dance Company and should be ready for occupation next year.

So how do you plan a celebratory year and what do you include in it? I would imagine that it would be very expensive to mount any of the works performed in the first 20 years of the Company’s existence so this year’s programme has consisted of seminal works from the Gable and Nixon years plus a couple of new (to the company) goodies on a mixed programme.

The year opened in the company’s home town, Leeds, with a mixed programme consisting of La Bayadere (Kingdom of the Shades), Angels in the Architecture and A Simple Man. I reported on that programme in a separate thread earlier in the year:


The following week saw a revival of David Nixon’s Swan Lake. It could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be described as conventional but I love it. It is set in New England in the last summer before the First World War and concentrates on a love triangle between Antony, Simon and Odilia. Antony has a fear of water and obsession with swans since his brother drowned when they were young children. The first scene shows a beach party with the young me arriving on bicycles and playing football before getting ready for a swim. His parents and some young ladies arrive with a picnic. This scene is really great fun. All the guests depart except for Simon and Odilia and it is then that we realise how angst ridden Antony is. Both Odilia and Simon try to get close to him and he rejects them both. As they go, swans start to appear out of the reeds and he is captivated by them.

At the start of act 2, Antony’s mother and Simon are trying to persuade him to get ready for a party. Eventually he agrees. The party scene is very lively and there is a superb Neapolitan for two male dancers - very fast and stylish and with elements of humour. Antony is drawn to Simon and is on the verge of a public indiscretion when he realises the enormity of what is happening. He hastily proposes to Odilia, who is thrilled to accept.

At the start of Act 3, Antony and Odilia are unhappy in their marriage. Simon is there, trying to be a friend to both. Eventually it becomes too much for Antony and he runs away to the lake and his final tragic destiny. The final scenes in the lake, where he drowns surrounded by the swans are visually stunning and very moving.

For the second half of the Spring tour we have been treated to Massimo Morricone/Christopher Gable’s production of Romeo and Juliet and David Nixon’s Wuthering Heights.

Romeo and Juliet was made in 1991 and is a landmark and signature ballet of the Company, still enjoying huge popularity.. The action is distilled into 3 enthralling acts and it is heart-stopping to watch. Using the familiar Prokofiev score, it follows the standard scenario. It was the Company’s first major collaboration with set and costume designer Lez Brotherston. The action takes place in sultry Verona during the party/festival season giving a claustrophobic feel to the crowd scenes and allowing for a very dramatic end to act 2. The set comprises broken Roman walls and pillars that can be moved to create various settings. The wall at the back carries the (broken) words “Amor vincit omnia”. Morricone has created some beautiful and sensual choreography for the star-crossed lovers and the crowd scenes are exciting to watch. This production gives much more of a character to Paris than many and the tragedy becomes just as much his as the Capulets and Montagues. The fathers reconcile in the tomb just as the curtain drops.

Wuthering Heights was created by David Nixon in 2002. It tells the story of the Earnshaws and Lintons to the point of Cathy’s death. It is a really intelligent distillation of all the important action from the story. The ballet opens with “old” Heathcliff raging on the Moors and remembering his life with Cathy. As he remembers the action starts in the Heights with the arrival of Mr Earnshaw with the foundling Heathcliff. After a confrontation with Hindley, who is jealous because he feels he is being supplanted by Heathcliff we see young Cathy and Heathcliff becoming inseparable and spending most of their time exploring the moors. Nixon is very clever in portraying the innocent childhood love transforming into something more adult. As the children tire and lie down they roll off into either wing and the adult Cathy and Heathcliff roll on. It is a magical moment. Throughout the piece there are references back to the youngsters. There are some very dramatic duets for Heathcliff and Cathy and Heathcliff and Isabella . I would almost describe it as a chamber ballet as the only real sequences for the corps are a badminton party at the Lintons, where Edgar first encounters Cathy, and the wedding of Edgar and Cathy. We see the adult Hindley descending into alcoholism and constantly humiliating and degrading Heathcliff. The injured Cathy bcome enamoured of the wealth at the Lintons. Act 1 ends with her homecoming and dismay at how down-at-heel the Heights and her family seems. Heathcliff has been very excited about her return and feels that she has betrayed him. The act ends with him running off.

Act 2 starts with the wedding party and Heathcliff’s return. Isabella thinks she his seducing him as he plans his revenge. For me, one of the most exciting sections of the ballet happens when Cathy is sunk into despair in her apparently loveless marriage. She and Heathcliff have a confrontation that is enthralling to watch. As he leaves, she remembers her childhood and returns to the moors where she encounters Heathcliff. They have a powerfully emotional reconciliation but Isabella sees and separates them. Cathy dashes off but has become ill. Heathcliff appears again as she is dying. The final scene mirrors the first with the aged Heathcliff prowling the moors and dying there in the snow as the young Cathy and Heathcliff dance off into eternity.

Since his arrival in 2001 David Nixon has continued to raise the bar on the technical standard of the dancers and we have a company of splendid dancers. NBT has a very strong identity as a company telling story ballets with a real dramatic flair and, as you would expect, as well as being good dancers we have some exceptional actors too.

This year I have seen a number of truly memorable performances of all the works on display. I was particularly bowled over by one performance of R&J in Manchester led by Pippa Moore and Darren Goldsmith.

This weekend I have seen three outstanding performances of Wuthering Heights in Llandudno. On Thursday night, I did not see Kenneth Tindall dancing Heathcliff on stage - I was watching Heathcliff. His Cathy was Keiko Amemori and she was a delight as the wild child turned despairing adult. Together they were dynamite. (They performed the duet from Madame Butterfly at the Miami festival in 2008 so some readers may have had a chance to see them). The other leads this week were Georgina May and Tobias Batley. On the Saturday evening they gave an enthralling performance of wild abandon and received a well-deserved standing ovation. Of the Edgars, I particularly enjoyed newcomer Yoshi Arai who brought a real sense of weakness and vulnerability to the role. Ashley Dixon and John Hull were also excellent. Julie Charlet and Hannah Bateman were both wonderful in the role of Isabella. Christie Duncan was a delight in the role of young Cathy.

Wuthering Heights is a wonderfully dramatic piece of ballet theatre and I am pleased to report that it is back in the Autumn. A holiday in Bradford is a really enticing proposition!

As you will have realised we have got Wuthering Heights to look forward to in the Autumn as well as (sadly in Leeds only) David Nixon;s thought-provoking take on Dracula. Peter Pan and another signature work from the Gable era - Christmas Carol - end the year. The performance in Leeds on 5th December is an alumni performance and there is a celebratory gala on 12th December.

Northern Ballet Theatre is celebrating in style and is looking better than ever after 40 years.

NBT's website can be found at http://northernballettheatre.co.uk/

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