Well, who would have thought it, another new experience just days short of my 73rd birthday – my first ballet. I have watched them on television but, as with any art form which is not specifically made for that medium, the live experience is something else.

I am fortunate that Northern Ballet’s winter programme has items perfect for the newby and this set of three short pieces was a perfect bridge between modern dance and the more formal version. I am going to blatantly steal a thought from one of my earlier articles, alright, I know that you can’t steal what is already yours, and say that all art is a form of communication and you just have to learn the language as you go along. Fortunately the programme had a summary of the thinking behind each piece as well as a biography of the choreographers.

Before the performances began, Federico Bonelli, Artistic Director of Northern Ballet, took to the stage and offered his condolences to The Royal Family, which was followed by a minute’s silence and the playing of The National Anthem, both immaculately, and appropriately observed.

The first short ballet was Wailers choreographed by Mthuthuzeli November which he describes as ‘a work that gives thanks to life. To its struggles, beauty and its people. Those with us and no longer with us. It is a prayer for guidance.’ Given the happenings of last Thursday it could not have been more apropos.

If I needed to be reminded that this was a ballet and not freeform modern dance, it was done from the off. ‘Grandmother’, Aerys Merril, and ‘Mother’, Sarah Chun, were in the middle of the stage surrounded by ‘Ladies’ who numbered four but, in retrospect seemed like more. Grandmother was giving comfort to Mother when the Ladies jumped up on pointe and began to move quickly from one foot to the other. I am sure that there is a term for this but Google and YouTube have failed to enlighten me. The stage is not a solid floor so acted like a sound box and the noise of the hard-toed ballet shoes sounded like a machine gun. They then began to circle the pair whilst keeping up the step rate. I was wondering when they were going to stop and in awe that it was possible to do this exercise for so long. Had it been on TV it would have seemed effortless, in fact it did here, but the viewer would not have appreciated the force required to perform this type of step. I was instantly hooked and couldn’t wait to see what other delights the evening was to bring.

The dancers in rehearsal for Wailers. Aerys Merrill in yellow.

This was the only ballet of the three to have anything like scenery, they were all performed on a bare black stage, although the odd prop was used. The item in question here was a wall covered in cracks which I took to be a representation of The Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, the music, however, also written by Mr November, and Grandmother’s dress, suggested sub-Saharan Africa rather than the Middle East. I was overcome by a self-satisfied feeling when I read that the composer is of South African descent and, after the ‘Gentlemen’ had taken to the stage to add their contribution to the story, the piece finished with them all depositing pieces of paper in the cracks on the wall. This is a practice exercised at The Wailing Wall where written prayers have been offered in this way since the mid 18th Century. As an aside, something which tickled me when I was doing my research, was I saw that it is now possible to email your prayers to the wall.

Sadly there was no reference to Bob Marley, but that would have probably cost a fortune in royalties!

Apart from the Grandmother’s dress, the rest of the dancers were clothed in monochrome by Costume Designer Yann Seabra, after the choreographer saw a picture featuring black and white figures able to occupy the same space in harmony.

Other credits go to Mthuthuzeli November (yet again) and Steve Wilkins for the set design; Orchestration & Conductor, George Morton; Musical Producer, Daniel Parkinson; Poetry, Siphokazi Jonas; and Lighting, Alistair West.

When it comes to the dancers I propose to cheat – again – and add a copy of the handout at the end of this article.

Minju Kang and Jonathan Hanks in rehearsal for Nostalgia

It was Peter De Vries who said that ‘nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.’ All I can say is, judging by this second performance, it must have been quite something at one time. Nostalgia is the name of this piece and examines the way in which we fall back on memories ‘in times of loss, anxiety, isolation or just boredom.’ It was choreographed by Stina Quagebeur who was born in Belgium but trained at the Royal Ballet School from the age of eleven, going on to English National Ballet School and being First Artist and Associate Choreographer with English National Ballet. The work also questions whether what we remember is totally accurate or if we edit our history to improve the feeling.

The dance focuses on two couples, wearing red, each mirroring the other until one pair splits up for a while being attracted by a Group, dressed in fawn, before getting back in sync. Once again, to my untrained eye, the performance was spellbinding and the timing nigh on perfect. The Principal Couple were Minju Kang and Jonathan Hanks, whilst Rachel Gillespie and Gavin McCaig danced the Soloist Couple. Again, the full list of dancers is at the end.

The energy expended by the dancers in this work was illustrated by the red shirts worn by the male participants which had darkened by several shades at the end due to the perspiration. The athleticism and grace had me wrapt.

The stage was totally bare with every inch utilised, and as there were no props either, the only other creatives were Louie Whitemore, Costume Design; Jeremy Birchall, Music, and Alastair West, Lighting.

Finally we come to the third piece, Ma Vie Live, Choreographed by Dickson Mbi which was a superb way to end the evening. It has been developed from the short dance film, Ma Vie which explores ‘Giacomo Casanova’s thirst for love, his complex relationship with the church and his eventual downfall.’

Rehearsal for Ma Vie Live. Photograph by Mthuthuzeli

Don’t worry if this sounds a bit deep and you might not be too familiar with Casanova other than by name and reputation. I am sure it would help, but this is very watchable in its own right. If the first two works were physically demanding then this cranks the scale up to eleven. It is also the most spectacular in its production, beginning with what appears to be an extremely tall woman in a lavish white dress, see featured image, which is not only amazing in its own right but acts as a screen onto which an animation is projected to set the tone of the dance.

The woman in question then makes the most incredible backward fall, fortunately into the arms of a chap behind her, to reveal that she has been standing on a square table, beneath which is Casanova, seemingly incarcerated as if in prison. This table becomes utilised in several other ways throughout the performance.

The cast list, although having the most dancers, comprises of Priest, the seemingly elastic bodied Jonadette Carpio, Ladies, and Gentlemen.

Mr Mbi is an award-winning Hip-Hop dance artist from Cameroon although he grew up in London. He is renown for including popping into his work which was much in evidence this evening, with Jonadette Carpio throwing shapes which would dislocate every bone in my body were I to attempt even a hundredth of them, as they would have done had I been fifty years younger!

Ma Vie Live in rehearsal. Photograph by Mthuthuzeli.

Once again the action utilised the whole of the stage with the full gamut of emotions covered. The unison between the dancers when all were in the same spot on the stage, struggling with various emotions and problems, was magnificent and by the end the audience, including this newbie, was in raptures. That was not all, though.

Whilst we had been applauding the cast assembled in a line at the back of the stage and joined in, but clapped in rhythm, which we soon picked up on. This beat was to be the music enabling each one of them to move to the front and perform a kind of party piece. They must have some cracking parties! Most of these moves were of the classical ballet type with gravity-defying leaps, mind-boggling spins and others which I simply cannot describe as they were so involved.

As you would imagine this brought the house down and even Mr Bloody American Standing Ovations found himself on his feet and clapping to the echo.

The creatives responsible for Ma Vie Live are; the aforementioned Dickson Mbi, who was not only Choreographer but was responsible for the Concept, Co-wrote it and provided the vocals with Violeta Vicci; Associate Choreographer, Kenny Ho; Composer, Roger Goula; Animation, Tim Grabham; Producer, Farooq Choudhry; Associate Producer, Geni Lou; Rehearsal Director, Begoña Cao; and Lighting, Alastair West.

Full cast list

I think that there could be no better way to introduce yourself to the medium of ballet, than this production which is on at Leeds Playhouse until Saturday, 17th September, 2022. It lasts for two hours but there are two intervals so very manageable. You don’t need to fully understand the language of dance, I don’t, just immerse yourself in the mood and marvel at the grace and athleticism of the participants and the invention of the creatives and choreographers. Tickets can be bought for as little as £15 which is not bad for a couple of hours of live entertainment, in fact it is probably the amount you would spend in a Leeds City Centre pub in a couple of hours, and that’s without the pork scratchings! Go to https://leedsplayhouse.org.uk/events/three-short-ballets-2022/ for tickets and to see what other events are on at Leeds Playhouse.

For more information about this, and other, productions from Northern Ballet, please go to https://northernballet.com/ you will even find some video previews.

You will thank me later!

All photographs, provided by Northern Ballet and by George Liang except where stated.

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