Review: Northern Ballet in Cleopatra at Sadler's Wells

Performance: 17 - 21 May 2011
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Friday 20 May 2011

Northern Ballet 'Cleopatra' Martha Leebolt & Tobias Batley. Photo: Jason Tozer.

Reviewed: 18 May 2011

Thanks to Shakespeare and Elizabeth Taylor, the story of Cleopatra and her asp is well-known but I still found myself having to read and re-read the programme notes at the interval and post-performance to understand the cluttered complexity of the scenario for Northern Ballet’s new production. Sitting in the auditorium at the interval, I could hear others around me reading the first act synopsis aloud to companions and so I wasn’t alone in my confusion. Ballet has to speak clearly without words and I fear this scenario by David Nixon and Patricia Doyle fails the test of simple articulation, even for a story where the basics are already largely in popular understanding.

This is very much a one-woman show, in which respect it is a towering performance by Martha Leebolt as the Queen of the Nile: she is virtually ever-present and commands the stage with a fluidity of movement and passionate expressiveness that fully projected to my seat at the back of the stalls. I wish I could say the same for the other lead performers but I regret that none of them conveyed any element of the story across to my distant seat: apart from costume, set and deaths, I might as well have still been watching the plotless work of Hans van Manen for Dutch National Ballet that was shown in the same auditorium a few days ago.

The work signals its busy intent from the beginning with a brief but energetic opening pas de deux, which includes a powerful présage directly overhead, for Leebolt’s Cleopatra and Kenneth Tindall as Wadjet (which despite sounding like a cut-price airline is the name of the God who is protector of the Pharaohs). From then until the end, the ballet is as busy as a Cairo flea market and a lot less safe, since several characters meets a gruesome end (from being drowned in the bath to Caesar’s “Et Tu, Brute” moment on the Ides of March). Although far from being tragic, some of these fatalities had more than a touch of Carry on Cleo about them: when Ptolemy is drowned in a see-through bath the handmaidens seem to be helping him keep fit with a series of stomach crunches; and the ensemble dance of the corps de ballet just prior to Mark Antony’s death with it’s hip-swinging, bum-wiggling motif seemed incongruously like it was made for backing dancers at a pop concert. It also seemed ridiculous that having been physically destroyed by Octavian in battle and too weak to kill himself, Tobias Batley’s Mark Antony then embarks on a danced solo that requires considerable energy!

That said, the best choreography in the ballet, where musicality and meaningful, lyrical movement suddenly came to life, was in the few minutes from the point of Mark Antony’s death until the end, particularly in the dance of death between Cleopatra and Wadjet, thus bringing the ballet full circle to its conclusion, which even I could understand without the programme notes. The other pas de deux of note was a lusty and powerful love-making duet for Cleopatra and Mark Antony, which left little to the imagination.

I think that this is a ballet that merits more than one viewing and probably one that will improve once the mind can bring order to its cluttered content. The bespoke score by Claude-Michel Schönberg is never obviously Egyptian, which is a merit, but concentrates instead on providing a descriptive musical journey of love, lust and violence that interprets Cleopatra’s tumultuous life. I wish I could say the same for the costumes, which had a varied impact: at one point, Cleopatra seemed to be wearing something akin to a swimsuit that might have been worn in the ’30s on the beach at Monte Carlo (but I was a long way from the stage!). The set design worked well.

David Nixon and Northern Ballet deserve great praise for continuing to add to the company’s growing repertoire of full-length ballets, especially, as with this one, when they come with their own original score. It is a laudable achievement and while Cleopatra didn’t work for me on every level, Leebolt’s seductive performance was more than enough to make it all worthwhile.

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