Cleopatra – Northern Ballet: Sadler’s Wells, 17 May 2011

When in Rome… Or Cairo

Kenneth Tindall and Martha Leebolt get down to some serious sexual symbolism.

The ambitious Northern Ballet rolled into town last night with a red carpet to present their new Cleopatra to Sadler’s Wells. Relating the Egyptian queen’s story from marrying and murdering her brother Ptolemy to her own death it seems an obvious tale for a ballet; strong female lead, plenty of love interest and all sorts of slaves and priestesses for ritual dancing, but it worked in fits and starts here.

Martha Leebolt made a bewilderingly delicious Queen of the Nile, unexceptional in her solo work her lightness of movement and subtlety of expression proved sensational in the love duets, first in her erotic tenderness with Caeser and then in her animalistic lustfulness with Mark Antony.

Despite some excellent partnering Caesar, played by Javier Torres, was weakly drawn and rather overwhelmed by Cleopatra. As Antony Tobias Batley fared rather better in his boisterous jostle for attention but his death came across as curiously dispassionate.

David Nixon’s choreography, for the most part, avoided over-reliance on cliché hieroglyphic posturing; the duets were alluringly suggestive but the ensemble work let the side down with a great deal of stage school histrionics. The inevitable human pyramid was accomplished without too much disruption and the transition showing the conception and birth of Caesarion using only a roll of silk and thirty seconds of stage time was original and touching.

Pharaonic costumes in ballet often come across as plain silly (exhibit A m’lud, the Bolshoi’s Pharaoh’s Daughter) but Nixon has avoided this with a skilfull blend of the ancient and the contemporary, though the skin-tight catsuit thing that Cleo sported for most of the second act was a bit odd. The biggest haute couture statement, however, was reserved for the disrobing of Antony with the audience’s gasps creating a vacuum his magnificent bottom amply filled.

The beige sets were functional but dull, missing the colourful realities of ancient Egyptian architecture, while Claude-Michel Schönberg’s music tripped superficially along, some excellent tabla playing adding a touch of North African exoticism to the cinematic score.

Though the narrative was unclear at times (the lady next to me thought that Wadjet, God and Protector of the Pharaohs, was a gecko) this was an enjoyable production, memorable for being as sensually erotic as Classical ballet gets.

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