A Sexless Cleopatra – How Can That Happen?

Northern Ballet’s Cleopatra – Music by Claude-Michel Schönberg and choreography by David Nixon : Dancers of the Northern Ballet and Northern Ballet Sinfonia. Conductor: John Pryce-Jones. Sadler’s Wells, London, 17.5.2011. (JPr)

Wadjet (Kenneth Tindall) and Cleopatra (Martha Leebolt)
© Northern Ballet/ Bill Cooper

I found it odd that Northern Ballet who were rebranded recently from Northern Ballet Theatre should almost immediately then go on the road with something that was more theatre than ballet. Arts funding being what it is, I suppose there is the need to provide as much spectacle as money allows, as well as emphasising the importance of dance to enrich our lives and through achieving this strive for full houses. Because of the flame burners and red carpet event outside Sadler’s Wells – and pretty young things in togas inside the theatre – it was a little difficult to assess who actually is the target audience for this ballet. I think a new (younger?) audience is being sought – and that is to Northern Ballet’s credit. However the audience at ballet usually contains a vast proportion of pre-teen dancers hoping later in their lives to be up on stage and emulating their idols. Yet Northern Ballet give a warning on their website that because this Cleopatra contains adult themes it is unsuitable for younger audiences. That indeed would be true had any of the sex or violence been explicit – it was all so very tame as though it were a dance version of Carry On Cleo!

The ambition of the project is to be admired and the story of Cleopatra should give a choreographer plenty to work with; she was a female Pharaoh for a start. There is also the clash of two warring nations, Rome and Egypt, Cleopatra’s rise to power, her important affairs with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony; and how Antony could not choose between his wife Octavia in Rome and Cleopatra in Egypt: not forgetting Cleopatra killing herself with that asp. There is plenty here, though David Nixon just gives us the ‘clip notes’. In four sections we get a race through the historical events: Cleopatra marries and then kills her brother Ptolemy (here in a perspex bath);,seduces Julius Caesar after being unrolled from a carpet and later gives birth to their son; she engages in acrobatic sex with Mark Antony who then deserts her; and finally he kills himself after which she kills herself.

Actually the ballet moves with impressive speed through all of this, but it is often too quick to allow the ballet to allow any dramatic development for the characters. Nixon even shows us Caesar having an epileptic fit for some reason he knows best and it adds little to the story. There is some good distinction made between the more muscular, blokeish Romans and the more touchy-feely, sensual Egyptians. Best of all is his melding the snake that bites Cleopatra with Wadjet – the protector god of the Pharaohs; it shadows Cleopatra throughout her life slithering and sliding in and out it of it to coax her towards her tragic fate. Wadjet is costumed in a striped leotard and has a blue Mohican hair cut and strangely the best and most impassioned duet in the ballet is between the two of them as he takes her life

Christopher Giles’s sets and some back projections (from Nina Dunn) bring us a suitable hint of Ancient Egypt, but the lighting by Tim Mitchell is often indifferent. One of TV’s current guilty pleasures is a show called Spartacus: Blood and Sand on Sky and the costumes came straight from that particularly with scarlet or white and gold tunics for the Romans. For the Egyptians there was a variety of pleated dresses for the handmaidens and bikinis for the temple dancers. To writhe about with Mark Antony, Cleopatra wears a fetching swimsuit and dies in a two-piece red white and blue concoction. Men often dance topless and there is one gratuitous moment when Antony’s bare buttocks are seen.

Nixon credits premier dancer Martha Leebolt as being his muse for this work and she is rarely off stage; when she was it was simply to change her costume. Her athleticism is to be admired but there is little lyrical grace in evidence to suggest Cleopatra’s legendary allure: perhaps it fitted her character’s reputation that her legs were splayed open for most of the ballet. Most of the group choreography was rather hectic with a lot of jumping about (rather than leaping) accompanied by a bit of body popping and handclaps; very occasionally some angular joints and languid moves suggested the world of Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes.

Mostly the men were a bunch of wimps, I was longing for them to camp this all up a bit but even that seemed beyond them. Certainly Giuliano Contadini’s Ptolemy should have been more outrageous and why are Javier Torres and even Tobias Batley’s Mark Antony so bland. None of these have any sexual magnetism and what there is comes from Kenneth Tindall’s reptilian – and rather Freudianly phallic – Wadjet who peculiarly uses a hand to deliver the coup de grâce.

Only the last scenes with Mark Antony’s decline and assisted suicide followed by the finale for Leebolt and Tindall – which is bathed in celestial light and witnessed by three Egyptian deities – are truly worthy of Cleopatra’s story. It is as though Nixon had choreographed these first and then wasn’t sure what he was going to do for the first hour.

I’ve left what was probably the worst part of the evening till last and that was the music of Claude-Michel Schönberg – rightly famous for the wonderful musicals Miss Saigon and Les Misérables. Played by a tiny ensemble and without lyrics (of course) there seemed to be a lack of any real inspiration and the score cannot have taken long to write. There was a certain sense of the lapping of Nile waters to the twinkly music but that was it. Every so often a soaring climax was inserted as punctuation, but generally any one scene could have been danced to the music of another. The tambourine was so intrusive – and the sound of its metal jingles so wearisome – that in reverie I began to imagine Morris Dancers performing to the music.

Jim Pritchard

For details about future Northern Ballet performances go to www.northernballet.com.