Geisha: A Compelling Start to Northern Ballet’s New Season

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Geisha (also known as geiko or geigi) means “arts person”. They arose in mid-eighteenth-century Japan, trained to entertain important men through dance, music and singing. The artistic nature of the geisha makes them a prime subject for a ballet, and Kenneth Tindall has done a brilliant job of exploring Japan’s cultural history through movement, music and costume.

The production follows the journey of Aiko, a trainee geisha who develops a sisterly bond with experienced geisha Okichi. The girl’s playful, sisterly chemistry is well communicated, and Aiko’s admiration for her trainer really comes through as she keeps a watchful eye on Aiko throughout their duets in Act I. Their duet which closes scene two is particularly memorable- a scene of purity and innocence, as intricate choreography is enhanced by the blue-toned costumes and lighting.

After the US Navy arrives (supposedly a nod to the Perry Expedition as the story is set in the 1850s) the geisha’s are assigned to the US Consul-General and his assistant as a goodwill gesture. This scene was wonderfully enacted. The officer’s dance was tightly performed, their military-style movements sharp like soldier toys, and full of bounce and vigour. While Okichi quickly becomes close with her US officer, Aiko is unable to endear the Consul-General she is assigned to. Frustrated and ashamed, she flees the geisha house and ends her life.

Act II opens into the darkness of the spirit world, and follows Aiko, now a ghostly character as she comes to terms with the fact she is dead. In this transition from the exquisiteness of the Geisha House in Act I, to the darkness and turmoil of the spirit world in Act II, Tindall has created a production of brilliantly juxtaposing moods. However, this transition was not awkward or jarring, and did not make the ballet one of two halves. Despite being transformed into a ghostly spirit, Aiko’s character remains familiar, and although Act II takes on a darker mood, it does not lose the beauty and brilliance of the first half. Light and lanterns became a major feature in this act, and the swirling choreography of the spirits of the dead was eerie and stirring.

credit: Wakefield Express

Alexandra Harwood’s composition provides a rhythmic melody for the performance. Japanese drumming and flute playing interlace the score, providing a driving, percussive soundtrack which carries the choreography and conveys the narrative well. In one instance, the movement and music really come together as three dancers enact a taiko drumming performance.

Christopher Oram’s costumes were fairly well-executed. The costumes of the dead were simple and consistent, which enhanced the beauty of the use of lanterns. The geisha girl’s dresses were opulent, however, the numerous slits in the skirts was problematic for me. From the outset, the movement of these skirts detracted from the intricacy of the geisha choreography and perhaps something with a cleaner line would have been better suited, to create a more uniform aesthetic across the stage.

Upon the entrance of the US navy half way through Act I, one could not help but watch the performance with a post-colonial tinge. The story does not set out to make a typical postcolonial political statement- after all, Okichi falls in love with the US officer she is assigned to, and the audience feels pain with her when he is killed. However, given the state of contemporary global affairs, the production subtly left me thinking about the implications of the Wests long-running history of domination.

credit: Northern Ballet Twitter

Northern Ballet are renowned for their unique storytelling. With their pieces focused around narratives as opposed to following the rigidity of classical productions, they always offer something entirely new. This refreshing approach makes their performances appealing to not only existing dance fans, but also (more importantly in an age of waning arts engagement) to non-ballet-goers who might typically be put off by the classic ‘girls in pink tutus’ expectation.

Geisha is far from this stereotype, and the audience are transported convincingly to 1850s Japan. By biggest pre-concern was that the ballet could be at risk of conveying an essentialised, caricaturist depiction of Japanese culture. Though, created with the help of historical consultant Lesley Downer, the production felt sensitive and well-informed, and entirely disproved by pretensions that it might ‘cartoonise’ its characters.

Geisha is on show at the Leeds Grand until 21 March, and touring nationwide until 16 May.