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Northern Ballet Theatre

'La Bayadère' (Kingdom of the Shades), 'Angels in the Architecture', 'A Simple Man'

by David Mead

February 28, 2009 -- Grand Theatre, Leeds, UK

Anniversaries are usually a time for looking back, and while Artistic Director David Nixon gives a nod to the past by including “A Simple Man”, Northern Ballet Theatre’s first programme of their 40th birthday season is much more a celebration of NBT today than NBT past.

The company has built its reputation on dramatic, full-length, narrative works.  Out and out classicism is not something one expects to see.  So it came as quite a surprise when Nixon decided to open his mixed programme with the technically demanding “The Kingdom of the Shades” from “La Bayadère”. And what a pleasant surprise it turned out to be.  As if the ballet is not difficult enough, in Leeds the dancers also had to contend with the Grand Theatre stage’s significant rake.  There were a few shaky legs as the Shades entered via the dual ramp, and once later on, but on the whole they showed the elegance and discipline the work demands.

As Nikiya, the steely sharp Keiko Amemori used every inch of the stage.  At times she was beautifully delicate, while at others she sliced through the space with great precision.  John Hull was assured and confident as Solor, especially in the fast series of leaps and turns.  It would be interesting to see just how much more spectacular both could be on a larger, and flat, stage, which makes it all the sadder that the piece will not be presented at Sadler’s Wells or Cardiff later in the season.  The three soloists were equally impressive, especially the rock-solid Pippa Moore.

“Shades” may have been well-danced, but Mark Godden’s “Angels in the Architecture” took the performance to another level.  Originally made for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in 1992, the work is inspired by, and is a tribute to, the simple but spiritual life and beliefs of the Shakers.  It is danced to Aaron Copeland’s iconic “Appalachian Spring”, the best-known section of which, “’Tis a Gift to be Simple”, is appropriately based on a Shaker tune.

Godden claims not to have been familiar with Martha Graham’s classic dance to the same score, but it is impossible not to make and see connections with her work.  Stylistically, it is remarkably similar, especially in the way Godden uses the women’s dresses in the choreography.  Unlike Graham’s piece though, Godden’s “Angels” has no plot but rather embodies the Shakers’ spirit in movement.

That movement is highly inventive.  Godden takes inspiration from everyday events such as praying and cleaning, making great use of stylised arm gestures.  Three ubiquitous Shaker symbols are also to the fore: the broom, the chair, and the peg rail.  At different times, all three become an integral part of choreography that is completely at one with the Copeland score.  The dancers were quite simply outstanding and conveyed perfectly the mood and feel of the people, place and music.

The work is further enhanced by lighting that appears to send shafts of sunlight onto the stage as if there were windows in the wings, and Paul Daigle’s austere, long grey dresses for the women and grey shirts and trousers for the men, which combine to give an almost cinematic feel.  I could quite happily have sat through it again immediately.

Premiered in 1987, Gillian Lynne’s “A Simple Man” has become one of Northern Ballet Theatre’s signature works.  It may be based on L.S. Lowry’s paintings of everyday northern life, but the ballet is much more than that.  Lynne does bring to life many characters from those pictures, but the real heart of the ballet is the relationship between Lowry and his mother, danced here by Darren Goldsmith and Nathalie Leger, who conveyed fully just how loving, yet distant their bond was.

“A Simple Man” may be NBT past, but like the other works on show, it too is NBT present.  It is much more than dance or ballet.  It is theatre.  As with “Angels”, it is a near-perfect reflection of time, place, and the people therein.  It is perhaps a little long, but, like the rest of the programme, the audience lapped it up and loved every minute.

“La Bayadère” (‘Kingdom of the Shades’), “Angels in the Architecture” and “A Simple Man” continues on tour to Nottingham, Edinburgh and Sheffield.  “Angels in the Architecture” and “A Simple Man” will also be performed in London and Cardiff.  See for details.

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