Friday, 22 May 2015

Nixon's Masterpiece

Northern Ballet, Madame Butterfly with Perpetuum Mobile, CAST Doncaster, 21 May 2015

Yesterday Northern Ballet began a nationwide tour of venues that it has not visited before or not visited for some time. In the programme David Nixon, the company's artistic director, wrote:
"I am excited that you are joining us for a new tour, an initiative inspired to make quality dance available to more people an to expand the creativity and diversity of Northern Ballet's programming,"
The tour opened at CAST in Doncaster, a £22 million municipal theatre that opened in 2013 (Ian Youngs £22m Cast theatre opens in Doncaster 6 Sept 2013 BBC website). It will go on to Blackpool, Liverpool Playhouse, Wolverhampton, Leicester, Richmond, Bromley, Stoke, Aylesbury and Hull.

The choice of Doncaster as the starting point for the tour is interesting. Planning for the tour must have begun well before the general election. It may or may not be relevant that the town is represented in Parliament by Mesdames Rosie Winterton and Caroline Flint and by Mr Ed Miliband. Had the election gone the way that the opinion polls and many Labour Party strategists predicted Northern Ballet would have been performing in the town of the Prime Minister and two Cabinet Ministers. Some very influential people would have been in the audience. Some kind of event appears to have taken place yesterday because I met Lauren Godfrey, the company's communications manager, in the foyer clutching a bunch of programmes that were not for sale and I spotted Mark Skipper, the company's chief executive, near her.

Spending £20 million on a theatre at a time of austerity when local authorities have been cutting back on all sorts of services might seem extravagant to some. I have to say that my heart sank when I first saw the theatre from the street leading from the Civic Quarter car park. It looked as though it belonged in a different era and perhaps even a different country. I don't like the architecture one little bit. Its style is monumental and bombastic. It would not have looked out of place in 1960s Harlow or indeed the German Democratic Republic. However, I do like the theatre. The seats in the main auditorium are comfortable with plenty of leg room. Everyone has a good view of the stage. Provision is made for late comers. I paid £16 for my ticket in row I of the stalls not counting my donation to the theatre and a 50p booking fee. I was served a soft drink in the interval without queuing at the price I would expect to pay in a pub or café by a very pleasant barman and found a choice of unoccupied tables. It is a few hundred yards from the car park where I paid £2 for an evening's parking. I could have come by train from more or less anywhere on the British mainland as the mainline railway station is nearby. I could even have arrived by air because Doncaster has an international airport.

The Council justifies its £20 million expenditure as part of a regeneration package for the town that has lost much of its heavy industry.  I am no fan of public funding for the arts but the performing arts are one of the things that make life worth living. If such expenditure retains the brightest and best of Doncaster's inhabitants and perhaps even attracts wealth creators from elsewhere to the town I am all for it. Certainly there were signs that that might be happening for the theatre was packed. Even allowing for the possibility that some of the seats were occupied by those attending a shindig that was impressive. It was an appreciative crowd that knew when and where to clap. They clearly liked the show for several rose to their feet at the curtain call.

The company deserved a standing ovation because I don't think I have ever seen it dance better and I have seen some pretty good shows in the past (for example, see Realizing Another Dream 15 Sept 2013, Angelic - Northern Ballet's Mixed Bill 9 June 2013 and Sapphire 15 March 2015). The evening began with Christopher Hampson's Perpetuum Mobile which would have been enough for me had there been nothing else to see. I am a great admirer of Hampson's work and can't see enough of it. That ballet had delighted me when I saw it as part of the Mixed Programme on the 9 May 2015 and it was, if anything, even better this time round. I loved the leaps and elegant turns but most of all I enjoyed Martha Leebolt and Tobias Batley's pas de deux. However, the main offering of the evening was David Nixon's Madame Butterfly. I had not seen it before and it took my breath away. I have seen a fair selection of Nixon's work and in my humble opinion Madame Butterfly is his masterpiece.

The ballet follows the story of Puccini's opera fairly closely. Like the opera it addresses some big issues like racism, clash of cultures, the oppression of women etc. When you think about it, Madame Butterfly has quite a lot in common with Giselle though unlike that ballet there is no happy ending in Madame Butterfly even beyond the grave. It is a powerful, brutal story in which no punches are pulled. The final scene of Cio-Cio alone on stage, desolate, plunging the sword into her body is one of the most affecting I have ever seen in the theatre not just in ballet but in any of the performing arts. 

Cio-Cio San was performed by Pippa Moore, a beautiful dancer whom I already admired greatly. Yesterday she soared even higher in my esteem and affection. How she delighted us with her ecstatic jumps as she anticipated the return of her husband. How she mimicked his salutes and handshakes much to the amusement of Suzuki danced by Luisa Rocco. How she punished Goro (Matthew Koon) with nicks from her fan for his temerity in presenting another suitor. How we suffered with her at her final betrayal when she was forced to confront Kate Pinkerton (Lucia Solari) after the cowardly Lieutenant had disappeared unable to face her.

Pinkerton was danced by Kelley McKinlay, a guest artist from Canada. He performed that role well. Dashing and swaggering in the opening scenes as he wooed Cio-Cio but faltering and weak in the last as he left it to his wife to snatch their son from her. Kevin Poeung and Isaac Lee-Baker were Pinkerton's brother officers, lads on the town in a foreign port having the time of their lives. Ashley Dixon danced Sharpless, the consul with a conscience. Hironeo Takahashi danced the menacing Shinto priest Bonze and the hapless suitor Yamadori.

John Logstaff's orchestration  of Puccini's music was very successful. All the well known and well loved tunes were there. The score was opened and closed with what I assume to be traditional Japanese music. The voice that accompanied Cio-Cio's preparation for her ritual suicide was haunting and chilling but also strangely beautiful. The set designs - particularly the massive orb and the icons - were impressive as was Alistair West's lighting.

Other Reviews

Vera Liber   Madame Butterfly with Perpetuum Mobile British Theatre Guide


  1. I've just got back home from seeing it. Amazing, wonderful, powerful, stunning. A full house, kabuki, and the best death scene I've seen on stage.

  2. I couldn't agree with you more,