Northern Ballet dancers in "Ma Vie"

Northern Ballets new triple bill

Photos © Emma Kauldahar

As Northern Ballet presented a new triple bill at the Royal Opera House, the recently appointed artistic director, Federico Bonelli, must have felt a little strange, a bit of déjà vu, back at his old home. He brought with him an eclectic mix of diverse choreography for a programme titled Made in Leeds. Whilst none of the three choreographers is British, all are now established in London-based companies.

First up was Mthuthuzeli November’s Wailers. Born in Cape Town, not for the first time, he draws on his South African roots claiming that it is a piece that strives to give thanks to life even with all its struggles. Earlier this year, his Sunset in Cape Town for Ballet Central, saw him capturing the vibrancy of festivities, bringing with it a very grounded, earthy yet exuberant feel to his vocabulary. However, in this, there is a weightier melancholy to its theme, with a single, parched wall representing a lack of resources, poverty and a sense of loss. The central characters are Grand Mother (Aerys Merrill) and Mother (Sarah Chun) who at the start appear to be comforting each other. The impetus is one of survival which ultimately gives way to hope. November has also composed the music and co-created the set (with Steve Wilkins). The poetry (Siphokazi Jonas) that accompanies some of the dance as a voice over is affecting, the clicking tongue of the language providing its own lilting rhythms. Yann Seabra’s costume designs evoke township life with bright colours for the leading character and a uniformity for the others. Although the women (in addition to the leads, there are four ladies and six men) wear pointe shoes, the choreographic language has a ritualistic, folk-like basis. It’s powerful and thought provoking and especially good was Merrill’s final solo. Chun gives a sincere and meaningful account of Mother.

Minju Kang and Jonathan Hanks in Nostalgia
Minju Kang in “Ma Vie”

Stina Quagebeur’s Nostalgia, to music by Jeremy Birchall is a series of snapshots depicted in graceful, musical duets that sees the main couple (Minju Kang and Jonathan Hanks) reminiscing about their relationship. There is an intensity and connection between them that feels real and honest. A second couple, Rachel Gillespie and Gavin McCaig, present as a younger, newer relationship – both dancers are in the full flush of enthusiastic, fresh love. The different dynamics between the couples are palpable. Quagebeur’s lyrical choreography fits snugly within the framework of Birchall’s phrasing. Designs by Louie Whitemore, simple jumpsuits, give freedom of movement without losing any line. Hanks and Kang are particularly moving and memorable. There is also a curious dilemma with Kang’s recent move to English National Ballet (she was allowed to return as a guest to Northern Ballet for this programme).  She was a principal soloist with Northern Ballet of some note, with full-length principal roles under her belt and indeed a number of principal roles created especially for her. It raises questions about the north, south divide in that she has been relegated to the rank of artist (corps de ballet) in ENB after nearly 8 years of professional, principal work.

Aerys Merrill and Sarah Chun in “Wailers”
Sarah Chun in “Wailers”

Dickson Mbi’s Ma Vie Live started life as a short dance film drawing inspiration from the life of Giacomo Casanova. It’s an explosion of energy somehow melding classical ballet with hip-hop and contemporary. The narrative is ambiguous, Casanova appears to come in many forms of the same character though Matthew Topliss starts off as the main candidate. Kang is the mysterious woman in a crinoline. She has an almost phantom air about her. The pace is fast and furious with Roger Goula’s score pounding as quickly as the dancers movements build to a very loud and vocal crescendo. Towards the end, the men take on a tribal, menacing stance with frenetic dancing that gives a strong nod to a ballet version of the Maori haka. The dancing is terrific, with a particular mention to guest dancer Jonadette Carpio, who absolutely swallowed up the stage from her first entry. This may not be to everyone’s taste but you’ve got to hand it to Northern Ballet, they do not shy away from fresh challenges and it certainly provokes a strong reaction from the audience. A mention too about Alastair West, who does much of the company’s lighting design.  In this case, he was responsible for all three pieces and made a superb job of it.

Deborah Weiss