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Northern Ballet's Cleopatra, Leeds Grand Theatre


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To create a ballet set in Ptolemaic Egypt at the time that Rome transitioned from republic to empire covering such momentous events as the assassination of Julius Caesar and the battle of Actium and featuring such important figures from history and literature as Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, Augustus and Cleopatra was quite a challenge. Ashton never tried anything like that. Neither did Macmillan though he did tackle historical events in Anastasia and Mayerling. Nor, indeed, did any of the great choreographers of the imperial or soviet eras. The nearest I can think of is Spartacus which was set in the servile wars. David Nixon and Northern Ballet accepted that challenge and I think that they succeeded. I left the theatre quite dazed. Something that rarely happens to me and never before in ballet.  The normal laudatory adjectives - even superlatives - will not do justice to this work so this will be a factual, possibly even clinical, review.

 

The first thing that impressed me was that an enormous amount of work had been done not just by Nixon but also by the other members of the creative team and indeed Martha Leebolt who danced Cleopatra and for whom the role was created. In the programme she wrote that she had prepared for the ballet by reading lots of books, watching the film and everything on TV that she could find. She took in anything and everything because she was aware that even the smallest detail strengthens a character and makes it more realistic. This is a fascinating period of classical history that has interested me since the age of 7 and I know it well. I actually studied it formally for my A levels in Latin and Roman history and informally before and since. I have visited the temples and seen the artefacts of Hellenistic Egypt in the great museums around the world. Even though a ballet does not have to be a historical document it is clear that considerable trouble was taken to get the history and the artistic details right.

 

For those who have yet to see the ballet the story and the characters are set out on the company's website. The score, specially composed by Claude-Michel Schönberg, can be downloaded from Amazon or i-tunes or heard by Spotify subscribers through the music page. The stage designs were spectacular and ingenious transporting the audience seamlessly from Wadjet's temple to Ptolemy's palace,  a vessel in full sail, the streets and senate of Rome and back to Egypt. Equally impressive were the costumes from Cleopatra's regalia to the deities of ancient Egypt who appeared in the last scene as Cleopatra's spirit entered the afterlife.

 

The choreography covered two murders, riots and commotion, a great battle, love scenes of Cleopatra with Ptolemy, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, Cleopatra's confrontation with Octavia and her worship of Wadjet and much more. I cannot begin to describe it all.  There is only so much that the senses can absorb but there are sequences that stick particularly in my memory such as the opening and closing scenes of Cleopatra and Wadjet and the battle of wills between Cleopatra and Octavia.

 

A stellar cast danced last night.  On stage with Martha Leebolt were her handmaidens Charmian and Iris danced  by Pippa Moore and Antoinette Brooks-Daw, three of the company's best. The other strong female role was Octavia performed by Hannah Bateman yet another star. For me, Octavia's encounter with Cleopatra in which both dancers showed their considerable acting skills was the high point of the evening. As for the men, there were impressive performances by Kenneth Tindall as Wadget, Javier Torresas Caesar and Tobias Batley as Mark Antony.  Everyone danced well from principals downwards.

 

This is a ballet that has to be seen more than once and probably many times to be appreciated fully. It is to be performed only in two theatres, The Grand in Leeds until 15 March and then The Lyceum in Sheffield between the 25 and 29 March 2014. We have had to wait since 2011 for the return of this work. Goodness knows how long we shall have to wait to see it again.

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Last night's performance, as so vividly described by Terpsichore, was outstanding.

 

Martha Leebolt WAS Cleopatra, utterly MAGNIFICENT. Her partnership with all her leading men is very special indeed. She and Toby Batley were spectacular together. I think last night Toby gave the best performance I have ever seen him give ( and that's saying something! ).

 

I was completely overwhelmed by last night's performance. Another one locked into my memory banks forever!

 

Roll on next weekend!

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  • 2 weeks later...

What did I say last week???  Well after 3 more performances a week later I can say that I don't think I have ever seen Northern Ballet perform as well as they have been for the past year and Saturday night's performance (Martha's cast) was one of the most emotionally charged performances I have ever seen.  Sleep was a long time coming that night as I just couldn't get the performance out of my mind!

 

This was after 2 sublime performances from the alternate casts! 

 

On Friday evening we saw Hannah Bateman with Javier Torres as her Mark Antony, Giuliano Contadini as Caesar, an incandescent Toby Batley as Wadjet and Jeremy Curnier as an incredibly bad-tempered, petulant Ptolemy (what a brilliant portrayal that was).  Lucia Solari was a perfect foil for Hannah as Octavia and Ashley Dixon a powerful Octavian.  This performance was so exciting and moving in turn that I quite forgot to breathe!

 

On Saturday afternoon Michela Paolacci was a sheming, delicious and divine Cleopatra with Ashley Dixon incredibly macho as Mark Antony, Hiro Takahashi as Caesar, Kevin Peoung amazing as Ptolemy and Joseph Taylor in only his second year in the Company as Wadjet (wow!).  Pippa Moore gave a sublime performance as Octavia - all hurt, wronged wife who was trying to win her husband back but at the end of the day was a ROMAN!  Matthew Topliss was very martial as Octavian and his "duel" with Mark Antony at Actium was particularly powerful.

 

Yes, I've mentioned the dancers in the leading roles but the whole company threw themselves into the piece and I can quite honestly say that I was totally bowled over by all three performances!

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Cleopatra is a ballet that deserves a second look. At least as second look and probably more.

 

However I usually like to take a little break between performances. As we have had to wait a long time for this revival and as it is to be staged only in Yorkshire I have to see it next week in Sheffield if I see it at all..

 

Casts lists for Sheffield have not yet been published on the Northern Ballet website. Last time I saw Leebolt as Cleopatra and she is my favourite dancer in the company but I would like to see what Bateman makes of it.

 

It will also be interesting to see what a Sheffield audience makes of the ballet. Sheffield is very different from Leeds. It suffered badly from the decline of manufacturing, mining and steel making. 

 

I will do a write up after I have seen the show.. 

Edited by terpsichore
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I have just come back from Sheffield where I took a second look at Cleopatra. This is a ballet that demands a second look and possibly third and fourth to understand properly.

 

The ballet was performed at The Lyceum which is a lovely theatre. Michaela Paolacci danced Cleopatra, Joseph Taylor Wadjey, Hieaneo Takahashi Caesar, Ashley Dixon Mark Antony, Matthew Toppliss Octavian and Pippa Moore Octavia.

 

It was interesting to compare Paolacci to Martha Leebolt whom I saw on the last occasion.  Whereas Leebolt was hard as nails Paolacci was softer, a victim of circumstances rather than a first class bitch. Moore was as excellent Octavia. One could feel the tension when she challenged Cleopatra.

 

It is a shame this revival is no short. We have had to wait three years for this one and heaven knows how long we have to wait till the next.

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Well, it's taken me a week to come down from seeing the 2 final performances of Cleopatra in Sheffield last Saturday.

 

Both performances were intensely emotional and all the cast looked overcome at the curtain calls of both of them.

 

Michela Paolacci's cast was outstanding at the matinee.  Michela herself was stupendous - she made great use of her eyes and she was sexy, manipulative of Caesar (Hiro Takahashi at his brilliant best), hopelessly in love with Mark Antony (the always wonderful Ashley Dixon) and in desperation when she turns to Wadjet to help her take her own life.  Joseph Taylor was a lithe, brooding presence and gave a stellar performance in only his second year in the company.  Kevin Peoung was superb as Ptolemy and I loved Matthew Topliss as Octavian.  He was particularly well matched with Ashley in the duel at the battle of Actium.  Pippa Moore was every inch the patrician Roman matron as Octavia, in a lovely contrast to being one of the Egyptian hand maidens in other casts.

 

Speaking of being patrician both Darren Goldsmith and Matt Broadbent stood out in the scene with the senators, both being very authoritative in their acting.

 

I think the evening performance led by Martha Leebolt was the best performance I have ever seen Northern Ballet give in nearly 30 years of being a fan!  Martha is a truly exceptional dance actress and even the tiniest gesture has meaning.  She gave the most wonderfully nuanced performance as the Queen of the Nile.  She has a wonderful onstage rapport with all her partners - Giuliano Contadini as Ptolemy, Javier Torres as Caesar, Toby Batley as Mark Antony and Kenneth Tindall as Wadjet.  I'm surprised I didn't need to be carted away in an ambulance because the performance was so thrilling and profoundly moving that I forgot to breathe for most of it.  Hannah Bateman had a wonderful showdown with her as Octavia.  Hiro Takahashi was a decisive Octavian.  I felt truly privileged to be in the audience that night.

 

I am sad that we are unlikely to see Cleopatra again in the near future but very very glad to have seen the performances I did.

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