Saturday, 10 September 2016

Northern Ballet's "Wuthering Heights" at the West Yorkshire Playhouse - about as good as it can get

Emily Btonte
Artist Bramwell Brinte
Source Wikipedia

Northern Ballet Wuthering Heights West Yorkshire Playhouse, 9 Sept 2016

It was only upon a last minute impulse that I decided to check West Yorkshire Playhouse's website to see whether they had any tickets left for the law few performances of Northern Ballet's Wuthering Heights. Saturday evening appeared to be sold out but there were still a few seats for yesterday evening and today's matinee. As I have not attended class or even worked out in the gym for over a week I wanted to leave this afternoon free for Lucy's class at KNT if I finish my tasks in time to make it to Manchester by 15:00 or a 90 minute session in the local gym at the very least.

The reason I had not bought a ticket before is that I had intended to give Wuthering Heights a miss this year. I had seen the ballet in Sheffield and Bradford last year where I had been somewhat less than overwhelmed (see Wuthering Heights 19 March 2015 and Northern Ballet's Wuthering Heights in Bradford 22 Nov 2015). The Brontës are not among my favourite novelists, All their books seem dark and miserable to me. Except perhaps for Shirley and Villette, they are very heavy going. I much prefer Jane Austen. Her works are set in rather more agreeable places with generally more pleasant characters than the maungy folk who tend to populate the heaths of the rapidly industrializing West Riding.  Also I had been awake since 05:00 British time in order to catch my flight home from Amsterdam. There I had seen the best of one of the world's best ballet companies at their opening night gala in their magnificent auditorium. As the best is said to be the enemy of the good, I feared that experience would spoil me for anything else for weeks to come as it had last year when I saw 1984 for the first time (see My First Impressions of 1984 12 Sept 2015).

It was Janet McNulty's excellent review, Northern Ballet's "Wuthering Heights" at the West Yorkshire Playhouse 9 Sept 2016, that changed my mind and I am glad that it did because I enjoyed last night's performance.  I think there are two reasons why I enjoyed it so much.

The first is that it too place in the best possible auditorium for a performance of this ballet. The Quarry Theatre with 750 seats arranged as an amphitheatre is designed for drama and Wuthering Heights is nothing if not dramatic. In some ways it is more play than ballet. The West Yorkshire Playhouse is only yards away from Northern Ballet's premises on St Cecilia Street and the crowd who attend its performances there are fanatically loyal. Judging by snippets of conversation that I overheard it seemed that many members of the audience were also in the Brontë Society. The result was a receptive audience that must have given the dancers a lift. Also, their enthusiasm was infectious

The second reason why I enjoyed last night's show so much was the cast.  The website had advertised Dreda Blow, Javier Torres. Ayami Miyata, Kevin Poeung, Nicola Gervasi and Rachael Gillespie. The cast that we got was Antoinette Brookes-Daw as Cathy and Ashley Dixon as Heathcliff with Jenny Hackwell and Matthew Topliss dancing their younger selves. Matthew Koon was Edgar Linton and Pippa Moore, his sister Isabella. It was the first time that I had been them in those roles and they seemed fresh and energetic. I was particularly impressed by Brookes-Daw who was the best Cathy that I have seen to date. Dixon, too, was a perfect partner for her. It was also good to see Moore, the company's only female premier dancer (principal), in a substantial role.

There are many intense moments in the ballet such as the wedding where Heathcliff, who has somehow made his fortune, shows up unexpectedly. Heathcliff and Cathy forget their surroundings which is cleverly reflected in the score with changes of theme and choreography with the entry and exit of the wedding guests. Another scene that depicts the mean side of Heathcliff is the humiliation of Isabella when she returns Heathclkiff's riding whip. There are bits of the ballet that don't work quite so well such as the nervous maid with her tinkling tea tray or the Christmas card scene at the end with Heathcliff and his younger self and Cathy playing in the snow. However that is a matter of taste. The guffaws around the auditorium showed that the tea tray scene was appreciated by many.

After the show Gavin McCaig and Kiara Flavin kindly stayed behind to answer questions from members of the audience.

I was  gratified to learn that I was not the only one to find Wuthering Heights heavy going. McGaig said that he opened the book and put it down after the first chapter. He picked it up and put it down again several times before he got to the end.  He persevered because he felt he owed it to his audiences to understand the stories and emotions the were experiencing in dance. By contrast Flavin had listed Wuthering Heights as one of her favourite heart-wrenchers on her web page.

I was surprised to learn that Northern Ballet no longer record most of their ballets in choreology. Flavin described Benesch notation as "archaic" and said they relied on videos. As a lawyer it prompted me to wonder whether their choreography was legally protected since s.3 (2) of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 provided:
"Copyright does not subsist in a literary, dramatic or musical work unless and until it is recorded, in writing or otherwise; and references in this Part to the time at which such a work is made are to the time at which it is so recorded."
It is of course arguable that the words "or otherwise" connote film but there is yet to be a decision on the point,  Personally, if I were a choreographer or company I would not want to risk it, Especially if I was supported by sponsorship money.

I was sorry to learn that 1984  had not been a sell out everywhere. McCaig said that it had done well in Leeds, London and Edinburgh but there were more than a few empty seats in other cities.

Each dancer was asked how he or she came to Northern Ballet. Flavin said she had heard of the company as a 15 year old ballet student in Canada and she liked the sound of them. McCaig expressed his pleasure at finding a job immediately after finishing ballet school. The competition was intense, he explained, with the 5 major ballet schools and other conservatories training lots of dancers every year. It is particularly hard to get a job in the UK so if a dancer is offered a job with any company in this country he or she grabs it with both hands.

McCaig chatted with me for a few minutes after the Q & A. I had featured him in Meet Gavin McCaig of Northern Ballet on 3 Sept 2016 and it is good to see him doing well. He is a splendid chap as well as a fine dancer and I wish him all the best.

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