Northern Ballet Seduced by Cleopatra

Director David Nixon takes inspiration from the Egyptian people and puts the iconic queen centre stage

With the recent death of Elizabeth Taylor, Kim Catrall playing the title role in Shakespeare’s great tragedy at the Liverpool Playhouse and Angelina Jolie cast in a new feature film, public attention is again fixed upon one of the most iconic historical figures of all time - Cleopatra, queen of Egypt.

Now it is the dance world’s turn to pay tribute to her powerful, sensual presence in a spectacular new work by Claude-Michel Schonberg, composer of Miss Saigon and Les Misérables, and Northern Ballet’s artistic director David Nixon, OBE.

Cleopatra is the company’s first new full-length ballet in over two years, and comes to Belfast's Grand Opera House from May 11, only a matter of weeks after its world premiere in Northern Ballet's home city of Leeds.

'Cleopatra is of the moment and who could have planned that?' reflects Ontario-born Nixon. 'She keeps coming round in cycles and her popularity is right up there again. She’s an epic figure, a woman who has endured as a legend for over 2000 years.'

The piece was nearing completion at the same time as massive political change was taking place in Egypt. That must have given Nixon and the creative team some pause for thought?

'It was very interesting,' he agrees. 'As they were protesting in Cairo, I was doing some of the scenes about the Egyptians reacting in Cleopatra’s time. People are looking to the Middle East right now and the whole region is taking a huge focus in the history of today. This has been very different from any other creation because you feel you’re really in the moment.'

This year, Nixon is celebrating the 10th anniversary of his arrival at Northern Ballet. A former principal dancer with National Ballet of Canada and Deutsche Oper Ballet in Berlin, he has notched up even further the company’s famous tradition of narrative dance.

'Our strength, our identity is that our dancers are all dance-actors,' he says. 'When they come to the stage, they always know why and where they are; they are intent on getting across the characterisations.

'I grew up with that training and was always a very strong actor as a dancer. The difference is that then it was probably more of an elective thing, whereas now we do the workshops, the improvisations, the text reading... whatever we need to do to support the fact that the dancers have to inhabit characters. It’s a much more thought-out process.'

The company has been touring to Belfast for many years and has built up a solid base of admirers of its high-quality performance and presentation style. Looking back over Northern Ballet's extensive canon of work, a pattern emerges of exciting new dance interpretations of literary and operatic texts such as Carmen, Wuthering Heights, Dracula, Madame Butterfly, The Three Musketeers and Hamlet.

This approach has been crucial to Northern Ballet's philosophy of making dance accessible to a wide audience and generating new audiences for ballet. But Nixon cautions against coming to a performance with pre-conceived notions.

'Stories are something that people love, but sometimes with a very well-known story, they come with such an expectation of what they think it should be that they are often not open enough to see what’s actually put before them,' he argues.

'With Cleopatra, there is not really any scenario out there that people think they should be following, so as a choreographer you can relax and the audience can just watch what’s been given to them.'

In this case, Nixon and composer Schonberg started with the rare privilege of an iconic central figure and a fairly clean textual slate. 'We had been mulling over the idea for a couple of years,' Nixon recalls. 'After the second revival of Wuthering Heights, Claude-Michel went away and started to write some music. He always has to write to a scenario. He just needs to get a setting, a feel for colours and sounds.

'What I love about that is that Patricia [Doyle, co-director] and I can come in at a slightly later point and put a more concrete story onto it. We faced a little battle between history and what we wanted to do theatrically. There are different opinions about who this woman really was. Nobody knows her or what she was like. Was she really in love with Mark Antony and Caesar?'

Nixon reflects that both the challenge and the joy of their task lay in recreating a real-life character, who embodied both the romantic and the political on a grand scale and who had passionate relationships with two colossal figures of the time.

'There are the love themes, but then you get this chaos, which keeps happening as she disrupts things politically. These people are epic. We have no idea of the kind of lives they led. They are just so much larger than life.'

The storyline puts Cleopatra at the very heart of the action, beginning with the moment when she conjures up the Snake God to lead her into death. In that instant, she sees her own past in sharp relief and the action rewinds her extraordinary life as a lover, a political operator, a queen, a woman in despair.

'We are about trying to make ballet accessible, but with a high quality product that people can engage with and not be afraid of,' says Nixon. 'What I’ve been really thrilled about with Cleopatra is that the look of the production seems to appeal very much to young people and yet doesn’t make older people uncomfortable.

'You’re always walking that fine line between your core audience, who may have one idea of things may be, and a younger audience, which has another aesthetic. So how do you encourage one to be there and be comfortable but not alienate your other audience?

'This piece does it. I see in the audiences a lot of younger men in their early 20s, out with their dates. It seems like a cool thing to do.' So, a whole new genre then: date ballet? 'Yeah, I guess.'

Cleopatra runs at the Grand Opera House from May 11-14.