Northern Ballet’s Dream Production

Having recently finished Gillian Lynne’s atmospheric autobiography, A Dancer in Wartime, it seemed apt timing as last week I immersed myself in Northern Ballet’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream – set around a 1940s touring production of Romeo and Juliet. This ‘ballet within a ballet’ also seems a fitting plot device for a company so committed to touring frequently and as widely as possible.

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 Lynne writes in her autobiography about the shortage of male dancers during the Second World War and the diversity of talent that this generated – dancers that weren’t technically brilliant but were consummate performers and exuded stage presence. Diversity is an ethos that Northern Ballet seems to embrace. They aren’t a cookie-cutter company, and each dancer brings something unique to their performances. The diversity of the company, and the strength of their ensemble, makes Northern Ballet productions alive with a character often lacking from companies such as the Royal Ballet.

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 A Midsummer Night’s Dream really allows the dancers to act – Act 1 features minimal dancing, with a strong emphasis on scene setting and storytelling (and even some dialogue). As I’ve come to expect from Northern Ballet productions, the David Nixon choreography was inventive, eloquent and witty.  A rehearsal video showing the dancers improvising dialogue, establishing the emotions and intentions of their characters, perhaps explains why Northern Ballet’s choreography is so articulate and its dancers so expressive.

 Kenneth Tindall and Martha Leebolt gave excellent performances as Lysander and Hermia, but Tobias Batley and Pippa Moore really stole the show as comedy double act Demetrius and Helena. Nicola Gervasi also brought a delightful mischievous energy to the role of Puck.

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Unfortunately I was sat in front of the kind of elderly audience members who give a stream of consciousness commentary to their lives. Before the performance started I was treated to a range of overheard pearls of wisdom: they were very concerned about the future state of one dancer’s hips as he performed some particularly impressive stretches, and I learnt that one apparent upside of Alzheimer’s is the ability to watch old productions with a fresh perspective.

Once the performance had started it did get rather wearing. The set was indeed ingenious, but comment could probably have waited until the interval. They particularly enjoyed the Act 2 ‘dream’ sequence – finding the underwear, cross-dressing and casual bestiality hilarious. I have to agree that while the whole ballet was strong, Act 2 stood out as a sublime mini-ballet in its own right. And by the interval the ballet had obviously grabbed the imagination of one little girl as she skipped and pirouetted down the aisle.

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 The general atmosphere was of energetic enthusiasm, and it clearly wasn’t a staid balletomane audience – we had to be repeatedly prompted to applaud the conductor at the start of each Act (I still don’t get why the orchestra gets a special round of applause just for making it to the theatre) – but there was much whooping and cheering at the curtain call.

 This is one of the strengths of Northern Ballet – its ability to attract regular loyal audiences but also to diversify away from the traditional ballet audience. Northern Ballet’s Dream is touring into 2014 and I’d highly recommend it!

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Northern Ballet – The Great Gatsby and Mixed Programme

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A couple of weeks ago I saw Northern Ballet’s The Great Gatsby at Sadler’s Wells. It was a vibrant production, encapsulates the spirit of the jazz age, and the choreography allowed the company to demonstrate their versatility and acting ability. We were sat at the back of the large Sadler’s Wells auditorium, but the production carried to the back of the Second Circle – the simple sets allowed the dancers and choreography to really stand out.

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Northern Ballet always takes interesting and varied subjects for their full-length productions – their repertoire includes Hamlet, Cleopatra and Wuthering Heights. Yet they translate these complex stories into dances that are surprisingly easy to follow. David Nixon’s choreography, and the acting ability of the dancers, means that Northern Ballet excels at narrative-led ballets. While it’s impossible to translate the language of Fitzgerald from the page into an entirely visual medium, as a standalone production it is highly entertaining.

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The emotional capacity of the Northern Ballet dancers also translates into their forays into non-narrative works. The company’s recent Mixed Programme at their Stanley and Audrey Burton Theatre featured Mark Godden’s Angels in the Architecture, a beautifully simplistic piece inspired by the Shaker people, using brooms, chairs and skirts, and Hans van Manen’s powerful and dynamic Concertante.

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But the piece I was most looking forward to was Luminous Juncture, a new piece by Kenneth Tindall. Before seeing his debut piece Project #1 last year I didn’t have any preconceptions, and the piece left me stunned in my seat at the emotion and physicality of the performance. I haven’t seen anything as good since, and so I was slightly worried that Luminous Juncture wouldn’t live up to my (now very high!) expectations. But after an explosive start which certainly grabbed the audience’s attention, it had me as captivated as Project #1 had the year before, and more than once I had to sit back having found myself leaning forward to the edge of my seat.

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The combination of music, movement and light led to a sublime piece of dance that was thoroughly engaging. Often when choreography is overly demanding it can lead to movements which, though very impressive, can detract from the overall impression of the piece and leave it more like an acrobatic circus feat. Yet Luminous Juncture featured seemingly impossible balances and lifts, expertly performed by the dancers and woven seamlessly into the choreography, creating beautiful and striking phrases and images.

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Perhaps because he is still dancing, Tindall’s choreography brings out the best in his dancers, showcasing their abilities. Up close in the Stanley and Audrey Burton Theatre the dancers can really showcase their emotional range, and you can appreciate the full force of their strength, flexibility and athleticism.

Northern Ballet are consistently producing high-quality, inventive and entertaining work, in Leeds and on tour. Now I’m looking forward to seeing A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the summer.

Dancing With Titian

 I’m quite an Olympic-sceptic and, dare I say it, I was rather underwhelmed by both the Olympic torch relay and the Olympic rings that have been stuck on the side of Box Hill. Not being proficient in Ancient Greek, I’m also unable to fully appreciate Boris Johnson’s recital of a new Olympic poem. But Dancing With Titian, the Imagine documentary covering the multi-arts project that is part of the Cultural Olympiad, is rather more up my street. I’m likely to watch any documentary on ballet, but this also played to my interest in Titian and Venetian art, fuelled by studying early modern Venice at University.

The scale of the project was amazingly ambitious, featuring contemporary art and sculpture, new choreographic works by the Royal Ballet, and poetry. The documentary was equally ambitious, covering all of this in just 75 minutes. All of the subjects were fascinating; from Titian’s work itself to the multiple poets, painters and sculptors, dancers, choreographers and set producers involved in the project. There was probably enough material to make a sizeable documentary about each area of this project.

The amalgamation of mediums and the collaboration between contributors made for a fascinating comparison between the differing creative processes of those involved. I find ballet rehearsals and choreographic processes as interesting as the finished performance, and it was interesting to see the various approaches of the individual choreographers as well as the diversity of the finished pieces.

While not quite convinced by some of the art (although I did like Mark Wallinger’s concept of voyeuristic viewing of a real bathing Diana) each of the three dance pieces seemed beautifully choreographed; I would like to see the full works. Their success is a fitting tribute to Monica Mason at the end of her tenure as Director of the Royal Ballet. This unique collaboration between the National Gallery and the Royal Ballet has produced a body of thought-provoking work that will surely encourage people to re-examine the three Titian paintings on show as part of the exhibition as well as Ovid’s Metamorphoses itself.

Kenneth Tindall’s Project #1

Congratulations to Kenneth Tindall, who last month won the Bundesjungendballett Production Prize at the 26th Choreography Competition in Hanover for his debut piece Project #1. Northern Ballet’s Perpetual Motion was one of the best dance productions that I’ve ever seen. The programme of short dance pieces lived up to Northern Ballet’s track record of excellent productions and benefitted greatly from the intimate space of the Stanley & Audrey Burton Theatre, which gave the audience a different perspective on the pieces than a larger venue.

While Rhapsody in Blue (from David Nixon’s I Got Rhythm), Glass Canon (by Daniel de Andrade), and Perpetuum Mobile (by artistic director of Scottish Ballet, Christopher Hampson) were all brilliant, Tindall’s Project #1 was an amazingly effective piece of choreography. The piece was choreographed to make use of each of the dancer’s strengths, and this shines through in the excellence of the performances. Set to Dinah Washington and Max Richter’s stirring This Bitter Earth – On the Nature of Daylight and Possibility by Lykke Li, music and dance blended seamlessly, each complimenting the other, and the result was an utterly absorbing and moving piece. Tindall is definitely a choreographer to look out for in the future, and his talent is being rightfully recognised.

Northern Ballet’s Funding Success

As well as producing excellent ballets, Northern Ballet is a great example of how arts organisations can engage with audiences and develop their fundraising. The BBC2 documentary Arts Troubleshooter demonstrated the tough future that Northern Ballet (along with other arts organisations) faces, but also that it is rising to the challenge of funding cuts. The company had planned to reduce the number of dancers from 40 to 30 following a 15% Arts Council cut which left it with a £500,000 shortfall. However it has now announced that it has taken on two more dancers, meaning that the company now consists of 42 dancers, thanks to the Sponsor a Dancer campaign which has attracted both individual and corporate giving.

In May, Northern Ballet’s open day gave the public the opportunity to try dance, observe classes and performances, and attend interesting talks. While the event was under-publicised it was a fascinating insight into the company. Northern Ballet are consistently introducing new and interesting ways to engage with audiences. Over the summer Northern Ballet are opening their rehearsals for Ondine for public viewing, which will surely attract audiences to a ballet that is perhaps less commercial than some. As well as offering opportunities for people to learn about the company and attracting new audiences for its performances, by engaging the public it’s securing its position within the community. If people are interested in Northern Ballet and are familiar with its building and company they are far more likely to donate to ensure its survival.

The government has suggested that philanthropy should make up the deficit left by funding cuts. Northern Ballet’s funding success has demonstrated not only its tenacity in developing its fundraising programme but also the value that the public put on this company. Yet Mark Skipper, chief executive of Northern Ballet, points out that as more and more arts organisations compete for people’s money, relying on fundraising is a risky long-term strategy. Arts and Business, a body aiming to stimulate private investment, suggests that investment by business in the arts is at its lowest level in seven years. Northern Ballet strives to produce quality productions and tour them to provide access to as wide an audience as possible, even when this is not commercially viable. This can only benefit the nation, and philanthropy should complement government subsidy rather than replace it if this is to continue.