She is an enduring icon of the ancient world. Beautiful and sensual, determined and compulsive, she was a mother, a lover and a queen – and in a world ruled by men she overturned convention and changed the course of history.
Cleopatra’s legacy has spanned centuries; inspiring scholars, artists, actors, musicians, designers and film-makers. She gained mass popular appeal through the movies, not least the 1963 Hollywood film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. More recently it was announced that Catherine Zeta Jones is to star in a musical film about Cleopatra.
But when it comes to ballet, Cleopatra’s story has remained largely untouched. Now Northern Ballet is bringing it to the stage in a striking interpretation focusing on Cleopatra as arguably the world’s most powerful woman in her time, and on her passionate love affairs with Marc Antony and Julius Caesar.
The new production, which premieres early next year, comes as Northern Ballet enters a new era. The company recently moved to new premises at Quarry Hill, Leeds, the largest purpose-built space for dance outside London.
The company also has a subtle name change – Northern Ballet instead of Northern Ballet Theatre – part of an overall re-brand.
For artistic director David Nixon, one advantage of the new centre is the wider space, and perspective. “With our previous rehearsal space we could never get any depth, now we have beautiful big studios,” he says. “I can sit at the top, where the audience sits, and get a new perspective of the stage. I’ve never really had that before. With a show like Cleopatra, which has sensual, intimate scenes, you need to see how it looks from way above, as well as up close.”
David, who is directing, choreographing and designing the ballet, was drawn to Cleopatra as an enigma with a lasting legacy. “She has survived 2,000 years as an enduring iconic figure, but there is little factual information about her,” he says. “I have long been fascinated by the story of Cleopatra, but it’s always told from a male point of view.
“This is a woman who maintained relationships with two of the most powerful men in history. You don’t do that just by being sexy. We have a fantasy about Cleopatra as being this beautiful, sensual woman but, when you look at how she could have sold her country and gone Roman, she also showed great courage. In our interpretation, she’s the dominant character – this is her story.”
Working on the production, which features a moving score by Claude-Michel Schönberg, who composed the music for Les Miserables and Miss Saigon, has been particularly poignant for David. “There’s a point where Cleopatra is about to die and she thinks about all that she’s had in her life; the music conveys that beautifully,” he says. “I lost both my parents recently and listening to that music gave me a sense of looking back on one part of my life, while moving to the next.”
The cast includes internationally acclaimed Cuban dancer Javier Torres, who has joined the company as a premier dancer.
David hopes the staging will challenge perceptions of Cleopatra. “We’re using video projections for the first time. And, while I find I often cover my dancers up too much, this time I’m encouraging them to show off their bodies! This is a beautiful company and this show is for men and women,” he says. “The set refers to the time – the sensuality of Egypt and the barbaric nature of Rome – but there’s a contemporary feel too. Hopefully people will come with fixed views of Cleopatra and see something different.”
This is David’s first new full-length ballet for three years following Northern Ballet’s 40th anniversary retrospective programme last year. Voted Britain’s favourite ballet company for three consecutive years at the National Dance Awards, the company is renowned for both narrative productions, taking inspiration from literature and opera, and new interpretations of classical ballets. A Midsummer Night’s Dream was set aboard a sleeper train taking a troupe of actors to Edinburgh in the 1930s, and Peter Pan and The Three Musketeers with action-packed scenes, were aimed at family audiences, particularly fathers and sons.
There are currently six productions touring the UK and overseas, including Dangerous Liaisons, set to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons played by the Northern Ballet Orchestra, Swan Lake, set in New England in the early 20th century and, this Christmas, a revival of seasonal favourite The Nutcracker, set in the Regency period.
Making ballet accessible to wide audiences has remained at the core of Northern Ballet’s ethos since actor/dancer Christopher Gable transformed the small regional troupe into an internationally-renowned company, staging impressive revivals of old classics.
“Christopher’s adaptations of traditional works overcame prejudices. He went beyond ballerinas in tutus and men in tights. Every dance company has their own identity, we try to find ours within each production. Each dancer has their own character,” says David, whose career began at the National Ballet of his native Canada. He later danced with the Deutsche Oper Ballet in Berlin, Sydney City Ballet, Hamburg Ballet and BalletMet in Columbus, Ohio, where he became artistic director. He came to Northern Ballet in 2001 and has added an array of new works to the repertoire, including Madame Butterfly, Wuthering Heights, Gershwin extravaganza I Got Rhythm and Hamlet. This year he was awarded an OBE for services to dance.
Interpreting a story through dance is challenging, but David says the biggest challenge is taking a production on tour. “It has to constantly expand and shrink to fit the space available,” he says. “It’s like an Olympic athlete who’s used to doing a running jump at 10 feet and suddenly has to do one at five.
“The Bradford Alhambra is one of the few theatres we don’t have to worry about. It’s a joy to dance there.”