Cinderella: new work by Northern Ballet

I’ve seen Northern Ballet perform before. I’ve liked Northern Ballet before. I genuinely wanted this production to be a success. But somewhere in the space between pseudo-panto and epic, heart-wrenching, ‘how-do-they-do-that-with-their-bodies?!’ ballet, David Nixon’s pumpkin drove right into the abyss.

The Russian backdrop makes sense and lends the production – I’m hesitant to call it a ‘work’ – a certain vibrancy. It’s responsible for the most dynamic male dance deserving that title – after all, who doesn’t love a bit of cossack dancing? And let’s not forget the circus tricks and Blackpool-promenade magic – they’re always crowd-pleasers. As for Duncan Hayler’s set design, it’s clear to see that the costume department took the bulk of the £250,000 budget. It’s a shame, really, because certain moments were really rather pretty and I got the distinct feeling that what we saw on stage didn’t quite match up to what he probably envisioned. The ice-skating scene especially was reminiscent of Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker. With its frosty glow working in perfect harmony with the dancers gliding convincingly across the ‘ice’, I could envisage a winter wonderland in the middle of Manchester. It was one of the few heart-warming moments. For the most part, the set was a lot less self-indulgent than the choreography and a lot more flatpack-fairytale than I’d have liked – more rags than riches.

I only wish my own enthusiasm for this production matched that of the dancers on stage. Perhaps their over-zealous applause after every solo was over-compensating for their lack of oomph in the rest of the show? Of course, the dancers move beautifully and are technically exceptional, but their lack of unity and je ne sais quoi distracted from the overall impact of the choreography.

There were elements of Nixon’s work that showed real ingenuity – the kind of flair and creativity you’d expect from a choreographer of his calibre. A pair of fur coats leap into action as carriage-leading huskies and the stepsisters’ excited allegro injects a burst of energy into the opening act. Tobias Batley gave good Royal as Prince Mikhail, but it was in interacting with his friends when his real boyish charm shone through. And my, doesn’t he have a nice bum? I envied good ol’ Cinders in her duet with the Prince. Not because of his bum – lovely though it is – but because in that one dance the two shared such chemistry that I genuinely believed they were falling madly in love.

If the rest of the show had that level of emotion driving it, I wouldn’t have been left thinking that Nixon’s choreography had suffered a serious disservice. That said, I was impressed with Nixon’s refusal to shy away from the tricky transitions so many choreographers avoid; Cinderella blossomed from child to teen with all the grace and ease of dropping a pan – literally – and her transformation into the belle of the ball gleaned an audible gasp of awe from the audience. Unfortunately I almost missed it in the dull haze of the first 50 minutes. It took me until the end of act one to truly engage with the show.

There are a lot of things which are right about Cinderella, they’re just overshadowed by the things which are wrong. Perhaps I wouldn’t be so bitterly disappointed if I’d been expecting to see a beginners-guide-to-ballet, but for a company and choreographer so renowned in the realms of high quality British ballet, I couldn’t help but feel that Nixon’s fairy-tale just fell one jeté short. Is this a magical adaptation of Cinderella? Yes, but only for about five minutes.

Mark Bruce sinks his teeth into Dracula

Ask anyone for the first name of the choreographer and it’s pot luck whether they say “Christopher” or “Mark”. For the latter, dance runs in his blood but his father’s legacy has never cast a shadow over his work.

“I never really thought about having that above me – who my father is – because I was so obsessed with what I was doing.” He laughs understandingly at my fan-girl moment over his childhood spent touring with the Rambert dance company and reflects that “the whole heart of that culture – that fantastic time in the 70s at Rambert – is inside me”. So surely a career in dance was inevitable? Turns out, that was not the case. “I wanted to be a comic strip artist.” Right. Not quite the answer I was expecting.

And so, as I sit in a cold and echo-y classroom with Mark Bruce on the other end of the phone, I’m struck time and again by the fact that this man is not what you expect. He’s so much more than a choreographer, which is perhaps what makes his work so special. “Because I did lots of other things before dance – movies, music, visual arts – I’ve actually got something to choreograph about.” Asked about what inspires and motivates him, Bruce concludes that he “would never ever be able to choreograph the equivalent of what Jimi Hendrix could do on a guitar. That sets a benchmark for me”.

The question on my lips was, after a career spanning over 20 years, why stage Dracula now? “I read Dracula when I was about nine or ten and have always loved re-reading it, always come back to it. I thought about doing a version of Dracula – in some form or other – even before I thought about dance.” So what made now the time to give it a go? “Part of the reason I put off making it for so long was because you need a lot of ingredients to get it right and there’s no simple answer to how you do that.”

It’s clear to see that this production has been through a rigorous editing process – you don’t get a show sharper than Dracula’s teeth overnight. Whatever ingredients Bruce was holding out for were worth the wait.

This weekend, as Manchester was lit up with Diwali celebrations, I was exposed to the artistry that lurks in the shadows as I found myself at the Contact theatre in Manchester amid a crowd of creative-types and creatures of the night (this is part of the Manchester Gothic Festival, after all). I can’t help but feel a little smug that I’ve managed to bag myself the best seat in the house at a show for which tickets are so coveted you’d kill for them. *cue inward evil laugh*

I wait with baited breath as the chap next to me spies Braham Murray’s name in the programme and whispers something along the lines of “kiss of death”. As the lights go down and chills run down my back, I wonder if they’ve actually lowered the temperature in the room.

It’s clear from the first note that this isn’t the commercialised, cult-inducing image of vampires we’ve grown used to in modern films. Instead, this is a much more traditional vision of the illustrious Count and his cronies. The lighting is used simply and strikingly, the set is dark and eery, and the music is divine. Bruce confirms this: “I have a great respect for traditional methods of theatre.” And it’s a good job he does because it’s the simplicity of the production that stops Bruce’s biggest fear – “just making it stupid” – being realised. There are times, when the parallel staging errs dangerously close to over-complicated and the temporary lapses into jovial cheese-fest come close to school play territory, but the depth with which Bruce approaches this proves its salvation. As he very readily admits, “I have a very particular dramatic aesthetic.” Does he ever worry people won’t ‘get’ it? “If I ever feel like I’m getting too weird with my work or that people won’t understand it, I go back to David Lynch and watch his work and realise it doesn’t matter.” And it doesn’t.

This production is a dream – a beautiful nightmare if ever such a thing existed. It seems fitting then to label it a work of contrasts – a true gothic tale in its exploration of light and dark, innocence and evil, love and lust. From the first step, Jonathan Goddard as Dracula shines – and no, not in an Edward Cullen stepping into the light kind of way. It’s clear to see why Bruce chose him. “In the book, Dracula doesn’t really do anything – he disappears, he’s alluded to, he’s very still. But meeting Jonathan helped me realise, he’s a predator, a wolf, a bat, a nobleman – all these different things that have different types of movement.” It’s certainly true that with his wide, bloodshot eyes and lithe figure, Bruce’s Dracula is every inch the man for the job. As actors are taught to know their motive for every line, Goddard’s performance could be paused at any moment and perfectly portray his sultry story.

What makes it so easy to be seduced by Dracula is that it encompasses so many facets of the Count’s (super)natural instincts. The fast-paced and folksy complement the surprising bursts of comic relief which in turn contrast the dark and provocative. I find myself thinking that the Vampire Brides must have had a hoot in the studio practising their screams. All together now! The stunned silence at the end of each act before any single audience member managed to retrieve themselves from their trance-like state to applaud speaks volumes. Bruce wanted the audience to be “taken on a journey, even if they can’t define its resolution”, and that’s exactly what he’s achieved.

Its biggest pitfall? Too short a tour.

Young Theatre Reviewer 2017: Romeo & Juliet

I recently won Northern Soul and HOME‘s young theatre reviewer competition, and got the chance to review HOME’s production of Romeo & Juliet – enjoy!

Phwoar! Before we start this review, can I just take a moment to applaud the casting crew over at HOME for bringing us the sensational piece of eye-candy that is Alex Felton? Thank you.

So, Romeo & Juliet is ‘immersive’ in every sense of the word. But HOME’s first original offering was never going to shy away from the spotlight. With the somewhat surprising choice of location of Victoria Baths, this production was bound to stand out. The script may have been reshaped and revived many a time over the years but make no mistake, this show is breaking the mould.

Do the monumental roles weigh heavily on the shoulders of leads Felton and Sara Vickers? Not at all. In fact, Vickers says that realising the vision of German director Walter Meierjohann was “liberating”. Her biggest challenge? “Learning to let go.” With such an extraordinary setting, it’s not just the cast but the audience who are thrown in at the deep end – excuse the pun. This production feels like someone grabbing you by the shoulders, removing the rose-tinted glasses of productions past and forcing you to see Romeo & Juliet through a fresh pair of eyes: HOME’s eyes. Letting go is not an option but a necessity.

Felton remembers the first few shows as an evolution, a time when neither he nor the spectators were sure of this bold new direction – a tentative testing of the waters, if you will. He laughs: “It took a while to realise ‘this is ok.’” And yet the result of that evolution is such certainty in the creative vision of HOME and the cast that you can’t help but be consumed by the action.

From the offset, the hustle and bustle of the audience creates an atmosphere of anticipation as those lucky enough to have purple promenade wristbands are directed to their positions. Young girls ponder whether their heads would have bobbed above the water in years gone by, while others try to suss out the show – was that a door that just slammed? Are those an actor’s shoes I see?

Despite being steeped in the history of the Baths, Ti Green’s set design has an air of modernity about it. The juxtaposition of the Punch & Judy-esque changing rooms with a reflective sliver stage created an almost inexplicable sense of, well, kitsch. The choreography may have suggested otherwise but there was no conflict when it came to the set – Green pulled off a seamless transition from 16th century Verona to post-Communist Eastern Europe.

Where the Capulets lend themselves well to an almost Mafia-like unit, Mercutio seems to have raided the wardrobe of Keith Lemon, with fantastically frivolous consequences. Little black Calvins lend Romeo an edge, and who could help but love the debauched disco that evolved from the masquerade ball? Full of charm and dynamics, even the lighting of a cigarette is transformed into music. Sat, feet dangling into the pool, there are moments when you feel so involved that one small step could land you at the mercy of Tybalt’s knife, or plunge you into the depths of confession with the friar. What HOME has created is a complex web of tragedy embraced by what Felton sees as the “happy accidents” of Meierjohann’s directorial genius. How he stumbled across the idea to mess with one of Shakespeare’s most memorable love scenes – the one which has inspired countless spoofs (and who could forget the Taylor Swift song?) – is unknown. Would Shakespeare have been insulted by a twerking Mercutio and Romeo breaking into a verse of Crazy In Love? Possibly. But does it work? Definitely.

Vickers puts in an exceptional performance as Juliet, but if she could go back in time and ask the Bard himself how he managed to capture the essence of a 13-year-old girl so brilliantly, she would. As she put it, “I was a 13-year-old girl, you weren’t. How did you get it so bang on?”

Similarly, Felton gives Romeo a forlorn hipster-vibe that somehow works against the intensity of the story. And together they capture something which even Vickers recognises “cannot be played or forced”. They capture the idea of a ‘big love.’ So if it can’t be played or forced, how do you go about creating that? An infectious giggle is shared. “I showed Alex this quote about soul mates that said ‘I feel like I’ve known you my whole life and how can it be that we’ve only just met but you feel so familiar to me?’ I think that’s what we tried to get across.”

However, it’s not just the star-crossed lovers who shine here. Rachel Atkins does a fabulous turn as the nurse; her character possesses that distinctly old European comfort that reminds me so much of my Grandmother, and Griffin Stevens provides some comic relief as Peter – a perfect example of the Shakespearean fool.

Don’t get me wrong, there are still a few things to be ironed out – the seated audience had to crane their necks to see from above and while the concept of three separate locations was exciting, it did mean moving sometimes in the middle of a scene. However, these things are trivial and pale in comparison to the feat that HOME has managed. The last scene left me lost for words – and, trust me, that doesn’t happen often. But, I suppose that’s a good thing; if I had the words to do it justice in gushing, it really would ruin the surprise. At the end of the day, this is a production my Dad would hate (purely because he so often falls asleep in the theatre and in this he most definitely could not), but, in theatre terms, that is one huge compliment.