Thursday, 19 March 2015

Wuthering Heights

Top Withens, the inspiration for Wuthering Heights
Photo Wikipedia

Northern Ballet, Wuthering Heights, The Lyceum, Sheffield, 18 March 2015

On Saturday Northern Ballet acknowledged its northernness by performing Jonathan Watkins's A Northern Trilogy (see Sapphire 15 March 2015). It did so again last night at the Lyceum in Sheffield with David Nixon's Wuthering HeightsI've seen quite a lot of Northern Ballet lately: two performances of Romeo and Juliet on 7 and 12 March 2015 (see Northern Ballet's Romeo and Juliet - different but in a good way 8 March 2015 and Leebolt's Juliet 13 March 2015), the Sapphire gala on 14 March 2015 and a rehearsal and performance of Wuthering Heights yesterday.  I enjoyed all those performances but the one that I appreciated most was last night's Wuthering Heights.

That is probably because I attended the rehearsal and a discussion in The Crucible bar afterwards. I have only read Emily Brontë's novel once and that was decades ago. While I acknowledge its greatness this sort of work is not my favourite literary genre.  I read the book purely out of homage to its author and deference to its reputation and not because I wanted to. I found it very hard going and was glad to reach the end.  I much prefer her sister's work, particularly Shirley and Villette not to mention the work of other contemporary authors.  Because Wuthering Heights was not my favourite novel I was not tempted to see the ballet on the previous times it had been performed. I have to confess that I put off buying a ticket until after I had seen the rehearsal and it was entirely on the strength of the rehearsal that I decided to stay for the evening. Had I come to last night's performance without seeing the rehearsal and attending the discussion I would have been unprepared and might not have understood the choreography and enjoyed the evening as much as I did.

The ballet's synopsis is not quite as I remember the novel and not as I had expected it to be.  I had feared that it would start with Cathy's tapping at Lockwood's window and that it turn out to be somewhat other worldly and creepy like Giselle.  I was pleasantly surprised to find it was nothing like that. There was a momentary projection of Cathy's image in the first scene but that was no more spooky than the flickering image of Odile in Act III of Swan Lake. No. The ballet is a lot more subtle than that. It is very much about relationships - between Cathy and Heathcliff and Edgar; Cathy and Heathcliff and Hindley; Heathcliff and Cathy; and Isabella and Heathcliff and Hindley. It is also set in two timelines - the childhood of Cathy, Heathcliff and Hindley and their adulthood - with plenty of flashbacks. As a result Nixon has created a young Cathy and an adult Cathy and a young Heathcliff and an adult Heathcliff.  There are scenes when the young Cathy danced with adult Cathy and the young Heathcliff with the older Heathcliff. The ballet ends with the adult Heathcliff kneeling in the falling snow beneath a single spotlight with the young Heathcliff and Cathy playing around him. It was very arresting.

There are, of course, other major roles for Hindley, Edgar Linton, his sister Isabella and Ellen Dean.

In the rehearsal young Heathcliff was danced by Kevin Poeung, adult Heathcliff by Isaac Lee-Baker, young Cathy by Rachael Gillespie, adult Cathy by Dreda Blow, Hindley by Mlindi Kulashe, Edgar by Nicola Gervasi, Isabella by Jessica Morgan and Ellen by Victoria Sibson.  From where I was sitting in the middle of row R of the stalls it appeared that we got Jeremy Curnier as young Heathcliff, Tobias Batley as adult Heathcliff, Rachael Gillespie again as young Cathy, Martha Leebolt as adult Cathy, Hironao Takehashi as Edgar and Hannah Bateman as Isabella in the evening performance and that was confirmed in the cast list.  But the cast list said that Jeremy Curnier was also Hindley which can't be right and that "Samantha Moore" was dancing Ellen. I have never heard of a Samantha Moore but I do know Pippa.  Clad in a mop cap and 19th century garb I could not recognize her positively but the role required a strong character dancer which Moore proved herself to be par excellence when she danced the nurse in Romeo and Juliet a few days earlier. I can't think who else it might have been*.

Yesterday I enjoyed watching Gillespie twice.  I have raved about her many times already and probably embarrassed her to distraction for which I apologize profusely but she is one of three graces of British ballet who delight me in a very special way (see Not too sure about Fairies but I certainly believe in Rachael Gillespie 21 Dec 2014). The others are Ruth Brill of the Birmingham Royal Ballet and Sarah Kundi of English National Ballet. I don't know what it is about those artists. None of them is yet a principal though I am sure that is only a matter of time but when one of them dances I float.  Sibley had that effect on me 40 years ago though surprisingly not so much Fonteyn. Among male dancers Xander Parish delights me in a very similar way as does Damien Johnson of Ballet Black.

Yesterday evening I saw three of my other favourites, Batley, Leebolt and Bateman and they all danced magnificently. So, too, did Takahashi who in my humble opinion expressed considerable nobility as Edgar. In the discussion in The Crucible Janet McNulty who must know the ballet very well described him as "a wimp" and that was the consensus but that was not how Takehashi's danced him. It was difficult to get into the ballet in the rehearsal because there were occasional stops and starts and corrections but I am sure I shall be delighted by Lee-Baker and Blow when I see them. Sibson was an impressive Ellen in the rehearsal as was Moore or whoever danced Ellen in the evening.

The evening performance moved a lady in the centre of the front row who looked very like Janet McNulty to rise to her feet and she was joined by her companion. "Good old Janet", I thought. "The dancers deserve it" and I stood up too. I don't know who else did but I am sure there would have been some more.

So yesterday's pleasure was quite serendipitous. In case you are wondering why I decided to stay in Sheffield when I had many other commitments it was a combination of attractions. First, there was Claude-Michel Schönberg's score for which Nixon created spectacular lifts and jumps. Some of those lifts were quite innovative and I guess very uncomfortable for the ballerinas. Both Cathy and Isabella were grabbed by the throats and bundled like laundry in pas de deux with Heathcliff. Returning to the score I found it enchanting from the opening oboes. Next there was the choreography that I have already described. Blow and Lee-Baker had been magnificent and I was eager to see what Batley and Leebolt would make of it. Then there were Ali Allen's sets and David Grill's lighting. I have lived in the Pennines for 30 years among the royds, below enormous skies and know the sudden and sometimes dramatic changes of colour of heath and sky. Rarely have I seen such faithful re-creation of nature on the stage.

I did not think I would like this ballet but I did and I am now quite hooked on it. I am not sure I can get to see it while it is still in Sheffield but I will certainly follow it on tour.

Finally, I would like to commend Joanne Clayton of the Friends of Northern Ballet for arranging the discussion after the show. As I was at the box office I missed the introductions of the speakers. One was a gentleman and the other a lady. They certainly know the novel well and also the choreography. They alerted me to details that I had missed in the rehearsal. I looked out for those details and understood their significance in the evening. We need more events like that in the North. There are plenty in London organized by the London Ballet Circle, Danceworks, the London Jewish Cultural Centre and others. I had contemplated organizing some myself but had been deterred by the fear that nobody would turn up as we have a different culture in the North and a much smaller audience for ballet. Joanne Clayton's success has made me think again.

*Someone who knows a lot more about Northern Ballet than me has just sent me a DM to confirm that Samantha Moore is Pippa Moore and that there is some history.

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