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Home » Reviews

Northern Ballet’s Cleopatra

Submitted by on March 4, 2011 – 12:01 am2 Comments


By guest blogger Rose George

I didn’t get ballet. I started off as best I could, with a traditional performance of Swan Lake at the Royal Opera House, but I stayed cold to the tutus, and remember thinking only. “Nice legs. And nice building.” I still maintain that a 10,000 word piece on rivalry between two ballet shoe companies is one of the best things ever to be published by the New Yorker. But still, ballet. I didn’t get it.

When I moved back to Leeds a couple of years ago, Northern Ballet beckoned. I saw Swan Lake again, then the Nutcracker, then a special performance to celebrate the opening of Northern Ballet’s new building. And throughout I still thought: it’s astonishingly athletic, and how long would it take me to get a body sculpted like that (8 hours a day for 20 years), but that was it. I wasn’t moved to see beyond the physical. I found it codified. In my more pretentious moments I might say ballet was a typical example of, as Nabokov said “the masonic bond of triteness.” There were rituals in ballet that had to be understood. You had to know the significance of a pas de deux (which translates into English, let us remember, as the more prosaic “two-step). You had to understand the language of the lifts. If you didn’t understand those, you didn’t get ballet. I didn’t, and I didn’t much care either.

Until last night. Last night I met Cleopatra.

I had been invited for the Cleopatra gala dinner. I like dressing up well enough, but as usual was looking forward more to the opulence of the Grand followed by good food in the stunning Howard Assembly Room. The ballet was the incidental bit between the aperitifs and the dinner.

And Cleopatra was a new production, which alarmed me. I pictured atonal modern music and tutus. I couldn’t think of less appealing artistic spectacle. And then the music started and Cleopatra came on and et tu Brute, I was hooked.

The music is by Claude Schonberg, better known as composer of Les Miserables, Miss Saigon and other such small-scale productions. He writes these things called “melodies” which I am fond of. The choreographer is Northern Ballet’s artistic director David Nixon, a man noted for his ability to talk with consummate ease at length while standing with his feet splayed ballet-like, at 45 degree angles each way, while showing no discomfort whatsoever. (Try it: it makes the hardest contortionist yoga positions seem like a simple bend.)

And there came Cleopatra, in the sinewy, muscled, stunning corporeal shape of Martha Leebolt, premier dancer and recent winner of an Outstanding Female Performance Dance Circle Critics award. Her first scene was with the unfortunately – but apparently historically correct – named Wadjet, god of the Egyptian gods. Wearing a green bodysuit and mohican, he can waggle his hand snake-like like no other. I am flippant, but the opening set the tone: here was a ballet that made sense. You didn’t have to read the programme, because you could read the story in their movements. I had never seen such efficient lyricism before. Of course there were codes, musical and physical, that were not particularly subtle. The Egyptians got dreamy flute motifs; the Romans had drums. The Egyptians were floaty; the Romans were martial, fascist and sinister. As for those women in the hoods: They scared me. Did you hear that? They scared me. I was provoked into feeling real emotion by a bunch of people dancing on stage. And more extraordinary still: I wanted it to continue. I wanted to see more dancing and more story. I wanted to know how it ended. I wanted to see Cleopatra walk en pointe with her hand flexed over her head, short-hand for Egyptian-ness, but successfully, winningly so. I knew ballet dancers provided physical beauty to gaze at in wonder. I didn’t know they could dance me into finding ballet gripping. I didn’t know it could be moving. I didn’t see that it could speak a language. Now I do. And if that doesn’t persuade you to see it, at least go for Marc Antony’s naked butt.

Photo credit: Bill Cooper

Cleopatra – the must-see ballet for 2011
Find out more at:

World Premiere
Sat 26 Feb – Sat 5 March
Leeds Grand Theatre

Thu 10 – Sat 12 March
Edinburgh Festival Theatre

Wed 16 – Sat 19 March
Hull New Theatre

Tue 22 – Sat 26 March
Sheffield Lyceum Theatre

Tue 5 – Sat 9 April
Cardiff New Theatre

Tue 3 – Sat 7 May
Milton Keynes Theatre

Wed 11 – Sat 14 May
Belfast Grand Opera House

Tue 17 – Sat 21 May
London Sadler’s Wells

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  • I went to see this production last Friday. I was a complete ballet virgin and being a yorkshire man who spends half my working life talking with builders it was going to be a tough ask for them to get me to love it. Similarily I went for the free food & drink! I love the Grande too so I figured if I got bored I could just look up at the ceiling for an hour or 2!!

    Luckily we had the story and some subtleties explained to us beforehand from David Nixon (standing normally!) otherwise I would have been lost. It didn’t wow me but I could appreciate the skill in what they were doing also the music & lighting was excellent.

    I won’t be rushing back to the ballet, certainly if it is of a more traditional style but if I get offered another free ticket to it I’ll go and not expect the worse!!

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