Exhilarating, frightening and hilarious: Made in Leeds – Three short ballets reviewed
Good, better, better was the satisfying trajectory of Northern Ballet’s formidable program of three short original works, which moves south to Linbury Studio at the Royal Opera House in early November. The company has a new director in the amiable Federico Bonelli, former director of the Royal Ballet, and he has several problems to solve, including the shortage of dancers with rich character among senior staff. But this triple bill should lift everyone’s spirits, and the Leeds Playhouse audience was captivated.
The first was Wailers, Mthuthuzeli November’s elegiac return to the world of his childhood in a parched South African township. Stuffed on pointe, bells around the ankles, a mother and a grandmother benevolently preside over a brood of turbulent children. His sincerity borders on sentimentality, but the whole is not without charm.
Next comes that of Stina Qagebeur Nostalgia, a harder adventure into the knots of couples therapy. In the snapshots, we are shown an emotionally battered heterosexual couple mirrored by another similarly dressed couple representing either their younger selves or what could have been or what is no longer. Friends in green bring consolation and diversion, but there is no reconciliation; Abigail Prudames and Joseph Taylor, the current leaders of Northern Ballet, made the couple’s pain and uncertainties bitter and raw.
But the feeling of the evening is My life by hip-hop choreographer Dickson Mbi. It is a riff of Casanova’s idea, a figure presented more conventionally in another work from the current Northern Ballet repertoire. Here we see him thwarted in his lofty pursuit of ineffable beauty, unobtainable in a giant white robe, and drawn into a demonic ritual controlled by a grotesque priestly figure (the sexually ambiguous Jonadette Carpio). As Roger Goula’s maximalist music resonates like a belt-fed mortar, everyone on stage is drawn deeper into an orgiastic danse macabre. It’s exhilarating, scary and hilarious: the dancers had a great time and so did I.
At the London Coliseum, an ad hoc company made up of Ukrainian dancers now housed in The Hague, presented Alexei Ratmansky’s new production of Gisele. Ratmansky is a most thoughtful scholar of 19th-century classics, and he has made some compelling changes to a choreographic text that has become encrusted with additions and corruptions since the ballet’s premiere in 1841. Particularly helpful is his clarification of the exhibition of Giselle Albrecht’s seducer and his last reunion with his fiancée Bathilde. I only wish the sequence mimicked by Giselle’s mother as she explains the curse of the Wilis was delivered less mechanically.
The sets (and costumes) had been borrowed from the Birmingham Royal Ballet. Traditional in style bordering on the ropes, they didn’t fit the grand scene of the Colosseum and there was no escaping an air of tinkering and fixing. The dancing wasn’t all it could have been under happier circumstances either: the first act seemed utterly under-rehearsed, thanks to rather stiff, joyless body work and a routine retelling of the pas de deux “Peasant”. Things improved considerably in the second act, however, with Vladyslava Kovalenko conducting the ghostly Wilis with authority and an excellent rendition of Adam’s score by the English National Opera Orchestra under Viktor Oliynyk.
Interest inevitably fell on Alina Cojocaru, a Romanian who trained in Kyiv before arriving at the Royal Ballet School. Now in her early 40s, she’s lost something of the seductive naivety that shone through her portrayal a decade ago and in the second act I felt something of her former ethereal will was gone too. In its place comes more psychological nuance and a powerful sense of what it is to love, to be betrayed, and to forgive.
His Albrecht was Alexander Trusch, a Hamburg-based Ukrainian. He was the most impressive, presenting the character as a brash boy rather than a heartless limiter and dancing with beautifully crisp momentum and precision. He was surprisingly good at the Nureyev Gala at Drury Lane a few weeks ago too, so hopefully we get to see him soon.
It wasn’t the most polite Gisele I’ve never lived and suspect Cojocaru was a bit below his best. But framed by the British and Ukrainian national anthems, and with Ukrainian flags defiantly waved during the encores, it was certainly a particularly moving event.