Wuthering Heights

Northern Ballet Theatre reimagine Bronte's tragic tale

We are living in turbulent times. The economy is in a state of chassis, the weather doesn’t know whether to freeze or frazzle us and, even on stage, it is the season for the most tempestuous love story ever written.

Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights offers heaven-sent opportunities for dance theatre of the most dramatic kind. At least two leading contemporary choreographers have found its heart-wrenching, passionate human tragedy impossible to resist and currently a couple of contrasting adaptations are on public show.

Switzerland’s Bern Ballet has just made its UK debut at the Linbury Theatre in London’s Royal Opera House with Cathy Marston’s new adaptation. Sadly, it did not find favour with all the critics.

'There are certain fearful evenings with dance theatre when you know that time has died, that the last darkness has claimed the world. [This is] a show interminable, despite its advertised 70-minutes and no interval listing,' lamented the dance critic of the Financial Times.

No such charge could be levelled against David Nixon’s version for Northern Ballet Theatre, which is currently touring the UK as part of the company’s 40th anniversary celebration season. Structured in two full-length acts, with an additional prologue and epilogue, its two hour duration positively flies by, leaving the audience emotionally drained and creatively fired by the imaginative audacity of its theatrical conception and the sheer brilliance of the dazzling choreography.

The Leeds-based company was founded in 1969 with only ten dancers and is now one of the UK’s most influential companies. Artistic director Nixon has built on and enhanced the strong tradition for narrative dance established by his predecessor, Christopher Gable, whose premature death robbed the dance world of one of its guiding lights.

In a European context, ballets based on literary pieces have rather gone out of fashion in favour of a more minimal, abstract approach. But there is little to beat the heady combination of sublime dance, coupled with striking design, an accessible score and a ripping yarn - as long as the performers are capable of acting as well as they can dance.

What has won NBT an army of devoted fans over the years is its dancers’ irresistible ability to look fabulous, dance like demons and give real credibility to their characters.

The final night performance at the Belfast Grand Opera House features the second string pairing of Georgina May and Tobias Batley as the doomed lovers, Cathy Earnshaw and the wild, untamed Heathcliff. Theirs may not be the partnership photographed in the glossy programme, but not for a single second did this stunning fusion feel as though it had come from anywhere but the top drawer.

In counterpoint to their very adult love affair, Nixon has created a sweet pair of innocent children – here danced by Christie Duncan and John Hull - whose instinctive attraction begins the moment that Cathy’s father returns home with this child of nature in tow.

As one of the company’s leading soloists, May brings unbridled passion as well as exquisitely beautiful finesse to the headstrong Cathy, briefly seduced by the pretty attentiveness of Yi Song’s Edgar Linton but soon longing to swop the genteel claustrophobia of Thrushcross Grange for the storm-lashed moors, where she and Heathcliff can truly be themselves.

Few will forget Batley’s dynamic performance as Demetrius in the company’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Belfast a year ago. Great things are surely destined for this prodigiously talented junior soloist, whose intense looks, lithe strength and athletic fireworks bring real edge and danger to Bronte’s exploitative, sexually charged anti-hero, fated to remain forever at odds with a world in which he can find no place.

Jane Coyle