Northern Ballet dancers in The Kingdom of Back. Photo Emma Kauldhar

Northern Ballet, The Kingdom of Back, Mamela…, The Shape of Sound, Linbury Theatre

What a delight it was to see Northern Ballet, a company that has built its reputation on presenting narrative ballets with superlative skills, performing three London premieres at the Linbury Theatre. The first thing to note is that the dancers are looking better than ever, with ensemble work immaculately uniform and solo performances that were both memorable and outstandingly well executed.

Javier Torres with Northern Ballet dancers in The Kingdom of Back. Photo Emma Kauldhar
Antoinette Brooks-Daw with Northern Ballet dancers in The Kindom of Back. Photo Emma Kauldhar

Morgann Runacre-Temple’s The Kingdom of Back opened the programme. Her piece was inspired by reading Mozart’s Women by Jane Glover, choosing to focus on Nannerl, Wolfgang’s older sister, and her relationship with her brother and father. Inventive, funny, quirky, with clear steps and structure – those words hardly do it justice. The fact that Runacre-Temple had the vision to bring this concept to the stage in an entirely unique way and make it work, is remarkable. It appears she is not afraid to take bold risks which makes for very fresh unconventionality. Choosing not to use Mozart’s music but Frank Moon’s along with pieces as diverse as JS Bach by The Swingle Sisters and David Bowie’s Life on Mars gives one a flavour of the unexpected. Part of the success was in the performances themselves: Mlindi Kulashe as Wolfgang, Javier Torres, a formidable presence as Leopold, and Antoinette Brooks-Daw as the main protagonist, Nannerl. Brooks-Daw is an exquisite dancer with a profoundly fragile stage presence yet her appearance belies tremendous strength. Her performance was captivating and Runacre-Temple is fast making a name for herself.

Minju Kang and Matthew Topliss in Mamela… Photo Emma Kauldhar
Minju Kang and Matthew Topliss in Mamela… Photo Emma Kauldhar

After a brief pause, Kulashe’s Mamela… followed. This was his first major choreography for the company though you wouldn’t have guessed it. The title means ‘listen’ in Xhosa, his native language, and he invites the audience to make what they will of the feelings of conflict between the head and the heart, frustration, escapism and imprisonment. It’s abstract but not abstruse. One can grasp the mood from the dynamics of the movement. Set to a score by Jack Edmonds the cast includes two women and six men. The vocabulary is interesting – quite contemporary in the shapes of the bodies yet impossible to execute without a fiercely strong classical technique. The men show real power as they hover in the air with phenomenal precision. There is a moment when Sean Bates pirouettes with arms outstretched, as if in slow motion – his control throughout his solo, very impressive, with a palpable sense of desperation yet somehow the movements never seemed hurried.

The Shape of Sound Photo Emma Kauldhar
Matthew Koon and Riku Ito with Northern Ballet dancers in The Shape of Sound. Photo Emma Kauldhar

The final ballet, by Kenneth Tindall, The Shape of Sound, sent me home feeling elated. This was aesthetically pleasing in every way. Tindall is now Northern Ballet’s Artistic Director of Digital as well as Choreographer in Residence. One can fully appreciate why David Nixon, the company’s Artistic Director, would have appointed him thus. From curtain up, the lighting design by Alistair West and Tindall himself, played a pivotal role in the ballet’s success. It’s not often one can say that with abstract ballets these days, but the contrasts in light and shade, tricks with disappearing and reappearing limbs, sudden rays of colour, were almost as good as the choreography and dancing, which made this feel like a veritable work of art. With a large ensemble, to Max Richter’s recomposition of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons (did it really need recomposing?), the cast migrated in groups from one end of the stage to the other, like swarms of lissome creatures. Duets and sextets ensued, all seamlessly morphing into different groups. The shapes, the lifts and patterns, beautifully structured choreography that spoke the music and echoed the mood without ever losing momentum, created an intoxicating atmosphere. Some of it was thrilling – as the men soared through the air at speed.  With very attractive costumes and sets by Kimie Nakano and a cast that absolutely nailed it, this was supreme entertainment.

 Deborah Weiss