Ballet | Cleopatra – enjoyable, but not quite feminist enough

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Image: Bill Cooper

Northern Ballet have revived their 2011 production of Cleopatra for what their Artistic Director, David Nixon, calls ‘a fresh look’. Cleopatra sees the second collaboration by David Nixon and composer Claud-Michel Schonberg (Les Miserables), and follows the eponymous queen from youth to death. Nixon clearly tried to steer clear of too much Shakespeare but the result is still very action-heavy; Cleopatra’s relationships with her brother, Julius Caesar, Marc Antony and the god Wadjet, protector of the Pharaohs, are all covered.

Cleopatra’s interactions with Wadjet frame and structure the narrative, as he guides and watches over her and seduces her towards power and their duets are some of the most interesting. Wadjet is a snake god and, despite his rather naff morph-suit like costume, Kenneth Tindall manages to move in an enchanting way, literally slithering around Martha Leebolt’s Cleopatra whilst still keeping the choreography dynamic.

Both Nixon’s choreography and Schonberg’s score made use of obvious stylistic differentiation in tone and structure when it came to signalling the shifts between Rome and Egypt. Each clearly looked to the usual dichotomy of epicurean Egypt and stoic Rome when creating. Nixon succeeds more naturally here, with the hieroglyphic language of movement for the Egyptian corps that makes use of angular, rigid limbs, easily flowing into the more angry and frenzied chaos of Rome.

Recurring motifs for each setting ensured both a visual unity and a clarity, distinguishing allegiances and providing a visual metaphor for the conflict. The Egyptian corps seemed, at times, rather basic, lacking the energy or the complexity of the Roman scenes. Similarly Javier Torres’ Caesar seemed far less engaging than Tobias Batley’s swaggering Mark Antony. This is perhaps due to a recurring problem in the ballet of plot being prioritized over choreography. So much time was spent being clever with the stage and props, making sure that the audience was clear about every element of the action, that it rarely felt like we got down to any actual, extended, dancing, except for in the pair work. Batley suffered from this too, as Caesar’s role seemed to be as more of a vehicle for plot than as a Principal.

Despite Leebolt’s outstanding turn as Cleopatra, her mix of strength and grace was truly wonderful, this ballet still felt slightly out of step. For a new piece of choreography, supposedly dreamed up as a celebration of Cleopatra’s strength and emotional complexity, it felt decidedly old-fashioned. Cleopatra relies heavily on the men she supposedly manipulates and her will to power is shown to be due to Wadjet’s influence – here played as explicitly male despite being female in mythology. Qualms aside, though, it was certainly an enjoyable evening, with most of the audience murmuring awed approval at the end of both acts. It seems doubtful that Cleopatra will ascend to the heights of its forefathers though.

Joanna Thompson

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