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On Tuesday 1st June 2021 I was back in a live theatre to watch a ballet performance for the first time since October last year and over a year since the premiere of Geisha, which was the last "normal" ballet performance I saw. I felt really emotional filing into the theatre. The Lowry has really gone to town on social distancing. Fortunately it was a warm sunny evening as we queued up outside to be told the rules as we went into the barriered queuing area to have out temperatures taken, order a drink (if we wanted) and have our tickets scanned - all before we got into the enormous space of the foyer areas. I was chatting to a couple of friends when we were asked to move to our seats as the foyer areas were being kept clear. None of the inside bars and cafes were open. There were tannoy announcements asking us to stay in our seats during the interval unless collecting pre-ordered drinks or using the facilities. The seats in the auditorium were very well spaced out. I couldn't say if the performance was sold out but I couldn't see any empty seats that weren't cordoned off. And so to the performance... This is the third iteration of Dangerous Liaisons that David Nixon has put on for Northern Ballet. The first had a narrator on stage, the second had replaced the narrator with a small corps of Parisian sybarites and, for me, was close to perfection. This more concert style production, done for the Covid world, was parred to the bone and a real chamber production using only 11 dancers (2 of whom were only walk on parts as servants). For me it really worked. There is a tiny amount of narration to introduce the characters. The narration uses the voices of David Nixon as Valmont and Pippa Moore as the Marquise and, much to my surprise, it worked well. The main features of Christopher Hampton's play were all included and I found it very easy to follow without using the synopsis on Northern Ballet's website. Act 1 introduces and builds up the characters and tragedy from Gercourt leaving the Marquise and starting her overwhelming need for revenge. The action is mostly duets with some ensemble scenes allowing Valmont to try and persuade the devout Madame de Tourvel to give in to him; the Chevalier Danceney's hopeless courtship of Cécile, Valont's seduction of Cécile and finally his conquest of Tourvel who falls headlong in love with him. Act 2 covers the consequences with the Marquise dallying with Danceney, forcing Valmont to reject Tourvel and the fatal duel. There is some terrific choreography in the duets which can be playful (as with the wonderful scene where Valmont uses a courtesan as a writing desk) brutal (as in Valmont's rejection of Tourvel and his seduction of Cécile) and beautifully tender (Valmont's seduction of Tourvel). I found that I couldn't breathe from Valmont's "It is beyond my control" scene to the end of the piece and it wasn't because I was wearing a mask! There were 3 casts on show this week, all subtly different. I really couldn't choose between them. There was a small standing ovation after every performance and the audience was really enthusiastic. It is interesting that the audience sounded so loud when usually at The Lowry a full house sounds muted but it must have been really gratifying for the company given how long they have been waiting to get back on stage. Thank you Northern Ballet for a wonderful series of performances (I saw 5 out of the 6). It was so good to be back!! For anyone going to see this at Sadler's Wells in the coming week the show runs for 1hr 40 mins including the interval. The casts are already on the company website along with a digital programme, a separate synopsis and a page of the characters (which is useful if you are not familiar with the dancers as it can be used to identify the costumes and thus the characters).
The World Premiere of Northern Ballet's new Cinderella is in Leeds on 17th December 2013. Please use this thread for thoughts. The Company has issued interviews with: Northern Ballet’s Chief Executive Mark Skipper, and Artistic Director David Nixon OBE discuss the themes and challenges involved with the new production of Cinderella. Composer Philip Feeney on creating a new score for Cinderella, 20 years after first producing the original score for Northern Ballet. Duncan Hayler on dreaming up magical set designs and turning them into reality. Greentop Circus consultant Trudi Patient, and Magic consultant Richard Pinner reveal how audiences can expect more than dancing in this new production. Interview with David Nixon OBE and Mark Skipper Artistic Director and Chief Executive, Northern Ballet Why did you choose Cinderella as your latest new production? DN – We wanted another addition to our Christmas season ballets that would also be appropriate to perform year-round. MS – In terms of choice, it wasn’t specifically about Cinderella, but the need for a selection of friendly Christmas-type ballets in our repertoire which already includes ballets such as Peter Pan, Beauty & the Beast and The Nutcracker. Cinderella is one of the most popular pantomime titles so it’s the obvious choice, although Northern Ballet’s production will be nothing like the panto. What are the key elements of the story that will be brought forward? DN – My Cinderella is far from the pantomime interpretation. Amidst all the action, magic and fun lies the story of a real woman and man who must travel separate roads to ultimate happiness even though that journey is fraught with challenges. Cinderella is ultimately a joyous story but it isn’t without pain, grief and loneliness. What inspired you to set the story in Imperial Russia? DN - Patricia Doyle and I were looking for a different setting and toying around with a few ideas before one of us started to think of Russia, which really started to fit as the scenario developed. Historically Russia has had a lot of princes, meaning that we wouldn’t need a King’s son for the story and it was also a time of superstition and belief in magic which really lends itself to the scenario. We also wanted a winter scene for the ballet and Russia is identified with very cold and very beautiful winters. What has it been like to have a completely new score for the ballet? And how did this come about? MS - It’s amazing to have new music and when you have the opportunity to create new music for dance then you have to do it. We have been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to create new scores for many of our ballets such as Wuthering Heights and Cleopatra and the benefit is that the music is created for the story you want to tell rather than having to make the dance fit to existing music. Of course it adds a new financial aspect to the production with the composition fee but royalties can often be huge and securing rights on existing music can also be very challenging. We have had a relationship with Philip Feeney since 1987 when he produced a score for our short ballet Memoire Imaginaire. He creates exciting music for dance and is well respected in the field working with many other dance companies. We trust Philip as you know we’re going to get a high quality score rather than taking the risk with someone you don’t know. With a new production you need to keep some areas of stability. DN - I was never completely happy with the Prokofiev score so I was pleased to be able to build it from the bottom up and the opportunity to work with Philip Feeney again is always a wonderful thing. What are the challenges of pulling a new production together? DN - The Company’s touring schedule has been a challenge as we have been trying to rehearse here and there whilst also working on the rep that we’re touring. Another challenge is that the production is so huge, it’s been touted by our technical department as Northern Ballet’s biggest show to date. Time management is the biggest challenge as there are so many elements to pull together including the circus tricks and the magic which the dancers need training in. MS - Coordination of the various elements is the biggest challenge when producing any new production as there is so much to pull together, from the lighting, to the set design, to choreography and so on. The music needs to be composed in advance so the choreographer has something to work with but of course the Composer needs the scenario first before he can produce the music. Lead time is the most important thing so that you have enough for it all to come together and then add in the extra elements like we have done with the magician and circus elements in Cinderella. You also have to take into account that the costumes and props will develop with the story and the choreography so you often don’t know what you will need from the outset. Ideally two years would be the optimum time to start work on a new production but normally we work to a much tighter schedule. When did planning start for this new production? DN - We started planning in autumn 2012 but the scenario wasn’t finalised until the end of February this year so we have really had a short time. What can the audience expect from the production? MS - A magical family production which is an interesting interpretation of the story – not Disney-fied. DN - Audiences can expect something that is beautiful and fantastical to look at. The dancing, as with all Northern Ballet productions, will be of the highest level and there will something unexpected. Interview with Philip Feeney - Composer You have had a long relationship with Northern Ballet. How does it feel to be working with the Company once more, and what is it that keeps bringing you together? To some extent, Northern Ballet feels like home. I cut my teeth in composing full-length ballets over twenty years ago. I have also developed collaborative associations with the dancers and have, in Ballet Central, composed scores with Northern Ballet choreographers including David Nixon himself, but also Kenneth Tindall, who Signature 31/30 was included in the pick of the Edinburgh Fringe earlier this summer, and Daniel de Andrade, for whom I am currently creating a score for this year’s Ballet Central annual tour. Furthermore, it goes without saying that I hold the musicians of the Northern Ballet Sinfonia, and the Northern Ballet music staff in great respect. When composing for companies across the world I have often missed the dynamic interchange and sheer expertise that they would bring to a project. It is Northern Ballet’s dedicated commitment to narrative ballet and to new scores that keeps bringing us together. A specially commissioned score opens up so many possibilities with a narrative ballet, allowing for great dramatic swiftness of foot which can be blocked by using existing music and tugging and pushing it into shape in order to fit the synopsis. I also admire Northern Ballet’s ambition. The Company has never been cramped by their modest size into modest aspirations. David Nixon has triumphantly continued in the tradition set up by Christopher Gable of a can-do culture of pioneering narrative work. You have previously composed a score for Northern Ballet’s Cinderella in 1993. What was it like to work with Cinderella again? It’s very rare for a composer in opera or ballet to tackle the same story twice. There are a few examples in Metastasian Baroque Opera, but we don’t have two Magic Flutes or two Coppélias. There’s no doubt that it was a challenge as initially I was quite ensure of how to engage with a subject that I had already created music for. However, David Nixon and Patricia Doyle’s synopsis took the story into quite different territory. Whereas Christopher Gable’s Cinderella is a visceral re-telling of the Grimm’s Tale, by setting it in 19th century Russia, David Nixon provided quite a different and tempting context which enabled me to think afresh when dealing with this timeless and ancient folk-tale. Of course we still have the prince and the dysfunctional family, and it was at these moments when I needed to dig deep and find a new way of depicting it rather than falling back on the solution I had discovered twenty years ago. Undoubtedly, the collaboration with David Nixon has provoked different ideas and different musical avenues. In the score, the work is entitled Zolushka which is a Russian name for Cinderella. I use that to give it a separate distinct identity. How does the new score compare to the one produced for the 1993 production? My score for Christopher Gable’s Cinderella is still very dear to me and had many elements that are still fresh, raw and emotional even now. When writing the new ballet, one area where I was slightly intimidated was in the two pas de deuxs that Cinderella has with the Prince in Act 2 which must be at the heart of any score dealing with the Cinderella story. I feel that the new score also creates its own unique sense of magic, a beautiful Japanese bell and a hesitant violin jeté fashioning an enchanted space where young love can take hold, and David Nixon’s choreography has done the rest. In many ways however the new score is a tighter score in which we can follow Cinderella’s narrative by means of the thematic growth of the music. The gentle lost music heard soon after the opening, symbolic of the love of Cinderella’s dead mother, provides the basis for most of the musical material in the score, acting almost like a protective angel, and like Cinderella, coming good in the end. Has it been difficult to avoid allowing the previous score to influence the new one? When debating exactly what my approach should be when embarking on a second version of Cinderella, I turned to an old Cambridge friend and colleague, the independent curator and Professor of the Bath School of Design, Mike Tooby. How was it, I thought, that while composers baulk at the idea of returning to the same subject, painters and visual artists seem quite content, even inspired, to do so? Tooby encouraged me with the idea of embracing the first version, and to allow it to inform the newer account. While none of the music of the 1993 production is used in the new score, there are points when it is self-referential. Devotees of the earlier score will, I’m sure, hear resonances at certain points in the story which are equivalent. An enriched and spatially infinite piano glissando that periodically creates moments of wonderment in the new score could be said to have its origin in the beautiful moment of Jayne Regan’s flying release from persecution at the end of Act 1 of Gable’s production. What have been the challenges with producing this new score? The challenge is the same as any undertaking that adds music to a story told through movement; to find a music world that is not only the equivalent of the dramatic situation on stage, but can actually control its dynamic. Other challenges have to do with the standard balance at Northern Ballet between creative ambition and small forces. I know there are passages, like the closing bars of Act 2, for the percussion that are unplayable; they would need a percussion section consisting of six rather than two musicians. However, I have left it up to them to find a way, so that we can have a flavour of glockenspiel, tamtam, timpani, cymbals and tubular bells to send us all out in a glow of celebration. The extraordinary thing is that they will! How has the music influenced how the story will be told? That is the real value of a new score expressly composed for a specific production. The entire score underlays David Nixon’s story; at points the choreographer allows the music to tell the story and create the shadows and texture that are so powerful in the Cinderella story. This allows for choreography which is not histrionic, but honest and which communicated with genuine emotion. When Cinderella flees from the ball, it is the music and the set coming alive that reflects the young girl’s desperate turmoil. What external influences or musical styles have you used when producing this new score? Some of my scores take on something of an eclectic channel-hopping technique where diverse and contradictory musical styles are co-opted to tell the tale; something which has a long and respected tradition in the theatre. This Cinderella isn’t really one of those. While there are resonances of other musical worlds, in particular there are several strains of waltz that appear in the ballroom scene (where else?!), the focus of the score is upon compiling an integrated score that is a backdrop and a regulator of what happens on stage. The Russian flavour is quite prominent in the score, certainly in the heady mix of street-fair music that explores the same tradition harvested by Stravinsky in Petrouchka. But there are also quite a few audio references to Russian folk instruments such as the balalaika and the dulcimer, digital software which can be heard as part of the orchestral texture. I did ask whether anyone in the orchestra could play the balalaika but the disappointing answer was that it was much too risky – what if they went off sick? However the harpist, Celine, Saout, suggested that she could do a fair balalaika on the harp, and so at perhaps the most delicate moment of the entire score, an ethereal tremolando signals the start of Cinderella’s ballroom solo. One thing I did borrow, but only from myself, was the opening distant humming theme, beautifully sung by actor/dancer Heidi Hall which was taken from a work I wrote while in Rome thirty years ago. It was a setting of Taleisin, a Welsh bardic poet from the dark ages; I felt that its unusual antique melody could be symbolic of ancient mystery, emblematic not only of Cinderella’s mother, but also of a pre-literate past wherein lies the origins of the Cinderella myth. What are your highlights or favourite pieces of the score? I don’t really do favourites but one of the things that most attracted me to David Nixon’s new Cinderella synopsis was the emphasis placed on magic. It was an invitation to be as inventive as I could while retaining a fundamental simplicity and this I found stimulating. Interesting combinations of woodwind, pizzicato strings and exotic ringing percussion could create its sound-world coupled to the sound of the harp, and two lonely chords on the piano. An encounter with the theories of anthropology giant, Professor Chris Knight, concerning the interpretation of fairy-tales underscores the ballet. Knight speaks of how in fairy-tales a world of enchantment is entered, where reality is suspended, which transforms the protagonist unlocking demons and ultimately empowering her forever. Here in David Nixon’s ballet, the agent of this magical transformation is the enigmatic magician. At his entry, the music jumps up a semitone, ending the first act in the wrong key. Gradually, as the magic begins to work, the music climbs through all the tonalities until it finally reaches the key of the opening, only an octave higher. Cinderella has found her lost happiness and won a prince to spend the rest of her days with. Interview -Duncan Hayler Set Designer, Northern Ballet This isn’t the first time you’ve worked with Northern Ballet. Which other sets have you designed for the company? The first ballet I worked on for the Company was A Midsummer Night’s Dream followed by Beauty and the Beast. Cinderella is the third set I have worked on with Northern Ballet. Your set design comes across as quite magical in itself, how do you go about achieving this? My approach to design is that I never want to just produce decoration, which means that I want any design that I create to be really multi-functional. It needs to look good and give the public an idea of where they are. The fascinating thing when you play with the forms, the shapes and the colours is that you start an intriguing little game in your mind which develops ideas of how to change one form into another, or how to change one location into different location. That’s why I enjoy working with David Nixon, as it allows me to design a quick transformation that happens when the public really aren’t expecting it. You set up the convention of the public thinking they know where they are, then switch it; it’s that surprise switch that creates a magical element in the piece as far as it comes to design. When designing for a production like Cinderella, where do you begin? I start with the scenario, which for Cinderella was written by David Nixon and Patricia Doyle. Then I focus on the music, which for me, gives a real sense of the space in the production, the timing of possible scenic transitions and how big those possible transitions could be. That is the real inspiration for me, it’s what the music is doing and what sort of atmosphere it is creating which then transfers into a visual approach of what one could do the piece. So with Cinderella, I just tried to dream up as much as I could. My ideas seem to drop out of the sky once I have a certain amount of information concerning the music and I know what David Nixon wants to do with the scenario, I try to respond to that. Have you created any magical sequences for Cinderella? There are magical sequences within Cinderella although I shan’t reveal them so they will stay magical for a bit longer. I also think it’s important for the public to discover those magical moments themselves and not for me to pinpoint them. How long does the process take from your initial ideas to everything actually being created? After the initial request, I met the composer where we discussed ideas before I went away for a few weeks and came back with small model boxes to give a three dimensional sketch of what I think we should do. Then comes the fun part for me when David gives me the freedom to go off and be creative and invent everything. After these smaller models have been approved, I then create a bigger model which is used by the workshops until it becomes a full size reality on stage. I think the process from the beginning to the drawings being ready takes anything from four to six months before anyone has actually built anything. What are the biggest demands when it comes to being a designer? It’s a big demand on the designer to make a piece of set fit 10 or 15 different theatres. You really have to think a lot in advance about the biggest place you’re going and the smallest place you’re going, how the sets are going to adapt to the new place and how that will affect the dancers. It also means the timings for moving pieces of scenery are different because there might be more distance to travel, it has to be a really flexible thing. How much involvement do you have once you’ve handed those designs over to the workshop for them to start building it? I generally do around two or three checks around the building process. In today’s day and age, photos can be sent in order to give an update. It’s not the same as actually seeing it in reality but it gives an indication and helps me to give somebody a quick answer, but when I do come to visit it’s about rounding up and solving as many questions as possible. Interview with Richard Pinner and Trudi Patient - Magic and Circus Consultants for Cinderella Richard, you’ve had a very interesting career in the arts, can you tell us a bit about your career, starting with how you became interested in the magic and who inspired you to become a magician? RP - My father was a professional magician and so I learnt the family business and I never considered doing anything else. I remember having a conversation with my mum when I was young and when she asked me what I wanted to do, I said, “I want to be a Magician like my dad but I want to be a carpenter too so I can make things.” I’m far from a carpenter, but that’s why I studied design and performing arts so I could be either a performer myself or create magic for theatre. You are a Member of the Inner Magic Circle, what does that mean? RP - The Inner Magic Circle is a members club where most of its members are amateurs or enthusiasts of magic and we have various degrees. You can join by performing an exam, and if you pass, you become a Member of the Magic Circle. If you choose to you can do a further performance exam and if you are good enough you become an associate of the Inner Magic Circle. Our highest degree is Member of the Inner Magic Circle which is by gift of the President which you gain by being at a certain level professionally, and a certain standard of performance and notoriety. You are a consultant for theatrical magic, how did that come about and how long have you worked as a theatrical consultant? RP - It was around 1990 when I consulted on my first professional show which was Some Sunny Day at the Hampstead Theatre with Rupert Everett (before he was famous). My brief was ‘his character transforms into a floating orange blob and flies out the window’. I spent weeks trying to work out how to do it and when I showed it to the Director he said, “No, more like this.” So I changed it and did it in half an hour. That taught me a lesson early on that you can’t be precious about the magic and tricks you create. Trudi, can you tell us a bit more about Greentop Circus and what it does? TP - Greentop is a circus arts charity, which aims to use human circus skills to transform lives and bring about positive social and individual change. We offer professional training and artist development to circus professionals, workshops and master classes for the public, Youth Circus provision and regular cabaret performances. We also act as an entertainment agency providing circus entertainment across the UK. Have either of you worked with a ballet company before? RP - This is the first time I’ve worked with ballet, it’s usually theatre and musicals. I’ve done one Opera but there is a lot that’s very different to ballet; the creation process, the rehearsal process, not letting the dancers near the show until we’ve finished ‘tech-ing’; it is just a completely different way of working. So working with Northern Ballet is a whole new world for me. TP - No, this our first experience of working with a Ballet Company. It has been very good working with learners that are already body aware as they have been able to pick up a variety of more complex skills with relative ease. What are the different skills that you are working on with Northern Ballet? TP - Acrobalance, Stilt walking, Manipulation – ball, ring and club Juggling, Diabolo, Plate spinning, flower sticks. RP - We’ve agreed what we are trying to achieve, there’s lots of magic ‘peppered’ throughout this show and when I was first asked about it, it wasn’t the obvious elements. There’s no pumpkin turning into a coach, this is not a pantomime. The magic is incidental as well as integral and the set itself is quite magical. With our Magician character, his magical journey is from not being able to do a card trick to near Jedi as his powers grow stronger and stronger. How difficult is working with performer with no circus or magic experience? How quickly did the dancers pick up the skills? TP – From a basic level, the students picked up the skills quickly, and once the basics were grasped we moved on to more complex tricks and styles. We work with lots of different client groups, many of which are not performers or have no circus experience. It has been very easy to work with the dancers, as they have taken the sessions seriously and worked professionally to perfect their skills, having fun but with a serious purpose and dedication to their learning. RP - It’s better to teach someone with no magic experience. It’s much easier to teach actors to do magic than a magician to act. I’ve been asked in the past should we cast a magician for this and my answer is always “No we shouldn’t”. Dancers have this amazing skill of picking up steps in minutes as they have so much to learn, so I’m hoping it’s the same with magic even though it is completely new skills. Northern Ballet have been fantastic to work with and David Nixon’s attitude has been great. It’s always been “What’s the best we can do? Ok let’s do it”. How do you work alongside other members of the production team – costume designers and so on? TP - We generally don’t get to work with the production team on our projects, so this is really exciting for us to be involved in the production process. RP - I’ve worked alongside the costume department as we create a clever piece of costume that can be both efficient and magical to achieve what we want to. I’ve also worked with the technical department as there is something with air that we want to see if we can achieve. I’ve got an idea in my head, where physics isn’t as important, it works, but we will have to find out if we can do it in reality. The workshop is working with me to accommodate my magical needs and of course, I’m working with the dancers teaching them manipulation. Some things are mechanical and will happen around them, other things, especially manipulation, we are teaching them as early as possible so that it becomes natural. I can’t wait to see them do it. Ballet dancers doing magic, that’s just great. How would you recommend starting to learn magic or circus skills for anyone who is interested? RP - If you are in theatre it’s much easier to see what the play calls for, if you want to do it yourself it’s mastering being a show off without being annoying. Learning good magic is much easier than learning to play the piano or how to dance. The cleverness has already been done for you; the trick has already been created, so you are just learning the sequence of moves. Then you have to learn how to be a good performer and have confidence in your own abilities without coming across as arrogant. TP - The best thing to do is to come and have a go! You could come to one of our beginner’s classes or skill share sessions, book a private lesson, or come as a group of friends. See our website for more details (www.greentop.org) or contact circus schools in your area.