Thursday 16 February 2017

Casanova Unmasked

Venice, Birthplace of Giacomo Casanova
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Northern Ballet, Casanova Unmasked Stanley and Audrey Burton Theatre, Leeds, 15 Feb 2017, 18:00 - 19:30

In my capacity as a Friend of Northern Ballet, I attended Casanova Unmasked last night. It was a preview of the work by the choreographer, Kenneth Tindall, and two of his collaborators, Ian Kelly his dramaturge and David Nixon his ballet master.  They were assisted by Giuliano Contadini, Dreda Blow, Hannah Bateman, Gavin McCaig and other dancers of the company.

The proceedings were streamed live over the internet and have been recorded at Northern Ballet - Casanova Unmasked on the company's YouTube channel. Unfortunately, the sound quality is not perfect. The sound is very faint throughout the video and appears to have been lost altogether at several points. However, the video is still worth watching. This article is intended to help those who were not in the theatre to appreciate that film. I have also written a brief introduction to the subject matter of Tindall's ballet and provided links to some of his source materials in Casanova, 24 May 2016.

The company's artistic director, David Nixon, made a short speech in which he introduced Kenneth Tindall. He spoke of his early recognition of Tindall's choreographic talent and how he had fostered it. Tindall had been a principal of the company and knew it well. It was, therefore, fitting that Northern Ballet should commission Tindall's first full-length ballet.

Tindall, in turn, introduced Ian Kelly. Tindall explained that Kelly had written the definitive biography of Casanova. He had approached Kelly for a licence but Kelly showed such interest in the project that Tindall invited Kelly to collaborate with him instead. In a fascinating presentation delivered without notes, Kelly brought to life the historical Casanova. Casanova is remembered nowadays as a libertine but he was so much more. He was a polymath with interests ranging from mathematics to gastronomy. He is remembered for his sexual exploits because he described them in minute detail (together with a lot of other things) in his autobiography which he wrote for therapy rather than publication. Kelly told us that Casanova's relationship with women was not as exploitative as might be thought. Intriguingly, Kelly said that Casanova had helped the women he knew "along their way". That gave me the impression that in some respects Casanova was a proto-feminist.

Among Casanova's relationships that Kelly discussed was the one with Bellino,  She is described on Northern Ballet's website as a "woman masquerading as a man in order to work as a castrato (castrated male) singer." Casanova and Bellino were represented on stage by Giuliano Costadini and Dreda Blow. In an exceptionally clever piece of choreography that I might never have interpreted without Tindall's commentary, the dancers recreated the couple's meeting, the tentative relaxing of their masks and the creation of trust between them. The development of trust was demonstrated by some rather scary looking tombés (I use that term in the loosest possible sense because I do not know how else to describe her fall) by Blow into the arms of Costadini. In the questions and answers that followed, Blow was asked how she felt when she performed that step. She replied that it was not easy at first but she had worked with Costadini before and gradually perfected it.

After the Q and A in which Bateman and McCaig joined Contadini and Blow. we were shown another extract from the ballet. This was by members of the corps representing Casanova's fellow seminarians when he was studying for the priesthood. There followed a fencing exercise which somehow transformed itself into a music lesson, the foils becoming violin bows. Altogether very ingenious and very attractive choreography.

There was another Q & A, this time with Tindall, Kelly and Nixon.  I asked Tindall about the mechanics of his collaboration with the composer Kerry Muzzey who was following the event in the United States. I asked him whether he worked as Petipa had with his composers specifying the phrases he needed for particular steps. Tindall replied that the collaboration went both ways. Having written music for film, Muzzey could envisage the interpretation of his work which Tindall had found useful.

After the presentations, Nixon invited the audience to drinks.  In some ways, this was the most valuable part of the evening because it afforded an opportunity to meet the collaborators and dancers informally and explore the work in greater depth. I had a particularly rewarding conversation with Ian Kelly about his methodology as history is forensic but theatre is expressive. Kelly well understood the difference having read history as a first degree.  I expect his work to be scholarly as well as entertaining.

The drinks were served in the atrium of Northern Ballet and Phoenix Dance Theatre's studios at Quarry Hill. Those who have entered the building will remember a landing where costumes are occasionally exhibited. Last night costumes from Casanova were arranged along that landing. Nixon reminded us that these come at a cost and that there is an appeal for wigs and costumes to which I invite all my readers to contribute.

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