One of the great pleasures these last few years has been seeing Northern Ballet welcome new choreographers to create (and present) work on the company and in the doing the company becoming much more artistically interesting and diverse. The main changes really started in 2015 with Jonathan Watkins’ 1984, which won a National Dance Award, and last year for me kicked up another notch with Cathy Marston’s telling of Jane Eyre which got many 4 star reviews. This year Kenneth Tindall, with Casanova, unveils his first full-evening work and it must be particularly gratifying to all who know and are involved with the company – Tindall was a much-loved premier dancer with Northern and his choreographic career (which really only started in 2012) has been nurtured by the company’s artistic director, David Nixon. And that support is far from stingy with a custom score and seriously classy sets and costumes for Casanova. It looks the most lavish piece I’ve ever seen the company put on.
Northern Ballet, formally Northern Ballet Theatre, are known for presenting new dramatic ballets on known stories that resonate with the public. Casanova seems to fit this mould well insofar as many have heard of him and particularly his sexual exploits, and surely there is nothing sexier than dancers for conveying love and sex from the most spiritual to the most base and carnal. While much of the advertising imagery naturally picks up on this sexual angle, as Tindall says, “Casanova’s life was epic…” and he wanted to cover the diversity of it. Tindall and his dramaturg, Ian Kelly, author of a Casanova biography, realised that his story was too vast to tell from A to Z and simplified things but probably not really enough and one is still left with a very long list of characters from an ambassador, inquisitors, an aristocratic nun, a senator, a castrato impostor… through to Voltaire and Madame de Pompadour and many more. Both the programme and Tindall, via the stage, do much to explain the action, but you’d be well advised to bone up on Casanova and this particular telling (link to synopsis).
The many characters may bring complexity but they do convey the life of the man and that it was more than just endless sex – thank goodness. It’s a largely sympathetic view of an intelligent free-thinker who connected with the highest in society and followed his fancies in ideas, love and sex. Giuliano Contadini does a fine job of portraying Casanova as real, rather than an endless lecher. And of the many other roles I have to praise Hannah Bateman’s aching (and long-suffering) Henriette and Dreda Blow’s multi-layered Bellino, living publicly as a man but privately eventually sharing her real self. There is great depth in all these characters and it will repay repeat viewing. And Tindall’s choreography builds throughout the 2 acts, as the passion and stakes become larger. It can be subtle but also robust and big, amplifying the tumultuous thoughts within. Kerry Muzzey’s custom score punctuates the action with unashamedly big tunes when needed – it’s a good fit (and guide) to the action and a great success. The sets and costumes of Christopher Oram, the lighting of Alastair West and wigs/makeup of Richard Mawbey do more than anything to elevate the production to a new level of refinement – it really is an opulent feast for the eyes. The set is particularly impressive, monumental yet effortlessly reconfigured as the action moves from Venice to Paris, from Cathedral to gambling salon. Yet for all the bold ideas of choreography, music and design the section I enjoyed most came early on as a young Casanova, in priest’s training, is seduced by the 14- and 16-year-old Savorgnan sisters. There is a playful innocence about much of the movement and the focus is on the movement rather than the total theatrical experience of so much of Casanova.
This is Northern Ballet firing on all dramatic cylinders – a fine show made great by the entire company. It might attempt rather too much in storytelling but all the creatives involved have really delivered a dramatic classic in the Matthew Bourne mould and one that connects with the company’s core audience. Where now for Tindall? Casanova is top-notch traditional narrative work, but where does narrative dance go now? – tradition like this has been the stuff of good ballet for many decades. Both Cathy Marston and now Tindall represent a new wave and inevitably more fresh views will come forward in the future as they both well know how to deliver the core elements of a plot. I hope they both do more for Northern and look forward to seeing where they take us.