Sunday, 17 March 2019

A Great Send-off for a Great Lady

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Northern Ballet Victoria, Leeds Grand Theatre, 16 March 2019, 19:30

Victoria may have been the title rôle but the star of last night's show was Pippa Moore who danced Princess Beatrice. That is not because the ballet is really about someone other than the character in the title like Coppelia or Don Quixote.  Queen Victoria has a very substantial role in Cathy Marston's ballet and it was danced beautifully by Abigail Priudames whom I admire greatly. But last night was the night the company and its audience said goodbye to Moore who is, for the time being, Northern Ballet's last remaining female premier dancer and one who enjoys great respect and affection.

At the end of the performance, Moore was presented with an enormous bouquet of flowers. Something that does not happen very often outside London (see Flowers for Dreda 9 June 2018). David Nixon came on stage and gave the best speech that I have ever heard him make (I have heard more than a few from him over the years) and handed Moore a picture of herself as Beatrice. I am a hard-bitten patent lawyer and I have seen some great moments in the theatre but I could feel the tears welling up inside me. Several members of the audience including yours truly rose to out feet.  Just as well that the curtain fell when it did because I am not sure for how much longer I could have contained my emotions.

The show in which Moore and Prudames danced was Cathy Marston's Victoria, a co-production between Northern Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada. The score was by Philip Feeney and the sets and costumes were designed by Steffen Aarfing.  There was some stunning choreography in the ballet of which the duets between the queen and John Brown, danced by Mlindi Kulashe, and the queen and Prince Albert (Joseph Taylor) were perhaps the most striking. I was particularly struck by the invocation of the saltire as the queen splayed her arms in open fifth and legs second in defence of Brown.  There were other touches that I loved like the relevés to convey excitement when Victoria met Albert for the first time.

However, regular readers of my blog will by now have sensed a "but" coming.  I cannot deny it is there but I don't want to exaggerate it.  Victoria was still a work of considerable merit.  I am a great fan of Cathy Marston even though I have not seen much of her work on stage. Most of her works that I have seen have been on YouTube.  When I saw Jane Eyre in Richmond in 2016 I described it as "the best new ballet from the company in 20 years." I think I was even more impressed with The Suit when I saw it for the first time (see Excellence - Ballet Black's Double Bill 17 March 2018). Though I admired it very much, Victoria did not have the same effect on me as Jane Eyre or The Suit.

I have asked myself "why?" as there was a lot of good in this ballet.  I think the weakness lies in the libretto.  This was a very complex story but I don't think that was the main problem.  It is never easy to create a ballet around a recent historical figure as Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Anastasia shows.  The only choreographer to have pulled it off in my humble opinion is Ted Brandsen with his Mata Hari  (see Brandsen's Masterpiece 14 Feb 2016). I think he succeeded because he kept the story simple with hardly any flashbacks, unlike Anastasia and Victoria.  Had I not read the synopsis I would not have had a clue as to what was going on and I think that would have lost me.

My only other criticism (and it is a minor one) is of the costumes for the corps.  They were clad in a stripey top and what appeared to be a red skirt for dancers of both genders.  From row P of the stalls, they looked like a crocodile of schoolgirls on an outing.  When I read the programme properly on the train to London later this morning I shall probably discover the significance of that apparel.  All I can say that it was less than obvious yesterday.

But this was still a magnificent evening. I would not have missed it for the world.  It is still a fine ballet and Cathy Marston is still one of my favourite choreographers.  I saw Anastasia when it was first staged in 1971 and have never had a desire to see it again. Unlike Anastasia, I am going to give this ballet a second view.   I am sure it will go down well at Sadler's Wells. It has already had a good press.  I have very heterodox tastes having no time whatsoever for The Favourite despite its many awards and nominations.  So see Victoria for yourself. Don't let my niggles at the plot and costume designs put you off

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