Sadlers Wells, London
17th May 2011
“At the moment of death does our life flash before our eyes and if so, does our killer, staring into our eyes, see it too?” Northern Ballet’s Artistic Director David Nixon asks the question, posing it as the premise for his story of Cleopatra.
Cleopatra. Seductive, sensual Egypt mashed up against the male-dominated barbarism of ancient Rome. The perfect incompatibility. It’s not an immediately obvious choice for a ballet; few facts survive about Cleopatra. She was born in late 69BC an ancient Greek, a queen and the last pharaoh of Ancient Egypt. She allegedly committed suicide in 30BC, according to tradition with the bite of an asp. She was arguably the most powerful woman in the world of her time; as pharaoh she became Julius Caesar’s mistress and bore him a son, as per Egyptian custom she also married her two brothers and ruled with them (later on her own), and she bore twins to Marc Antony after Caesar’s assassination as well as a second son.
Certainly the scene was set at Sadlers Wells for the London premiere of this new work, with flaming torches welcoming guests including Lorraine Kelly, Ronnie Wood & Craig Revel-Horwood along the red carpet. Inside, the father of Northern Ballet dancer Matthew Broadbent spotted English National Ballet’s Daniel Jones and promptly relayed the story of how his son was inspired to dance after watching Jones. It must have been some inspiration – the whole company fly through the steps with confidence and precision.
The ballet circles around Cleopatra’s relationships with Julius Caesar and Mark-Antony, focusing on her roles of lover, mother, god-queen and most of all, woman. The Greek historian Plutarch said that “she was going to visit Antony at the very time when women have the most brilliant beauty.” When she met Caesar she was inexperienced; by the time she seduced Marc Antony they were both experienced. You can imagine. Martha Leebolt, as Cleopatra, embodies her beauty and sense of power. She is quicksilver and strong, frightened and vulnerable, knowing & regal. On stage almost the entire time, Leebolt has beautiful feet and with them creates flowing, strong lines. Her pas de deux’s with Caesar and Mark Antony reflect exemplary partnering in the many and varied difficult lifts which were clear and perfectly controlled.
More could have been made of Cleopatra’s early life; it would have been interesting to learn what had shaped her early years. That said, there is quite a lot of story packed into the ballet and you’d be well rewarded if you buy a programme and have time to read the notes beforehand. When we first meet her, she is summoning the God Wadjet (imposingly drawn by Kenneth Tindall) who is protector of her family -the Egyptian Pharaohs. The story moves along rapidly and it’s not long before she drowns her brother Ptolemy (in a neat on-stage bath tub), a move designed to see her as sole ruler of Egypt. There isn’t much harmony in this ballet, not much light and shade. All of the time the characters are brooding or battling and all seem discontent and serious. When Cleopatra smiles, there is even more reason to worry, as you’ll see.
Cleopatra knows how to attract attention; whether it’s the right sort is another matter. Unravelled from a carpet in front of Caesar (Javier Torres), he is quite taken with her ingenuity and this is what you can take most from the ballet – really clever moments of pure theatre amid a restless creative fury. One such moment comes when Cleopatra is acknowledged Queen, and her son Caesarion is born. But still, all is not well. Cleopatra senses it, and the walls of Rome run with blood (more ingenuity from Nina Dunn, responsible for the projection designs that take us between Rome and Egypt). The Ides of March bring stormy, stomping passionate dancing from the corps de ballet who were really on form tonight, dancing their hearts out. Jeremy Curnier looked completely at home with the choreography and his acting was strong. Not long after, Caesar is killed, leaving a grief stricken Cleopatra back in Egypt.
When she meets Mark Antony, the tables have been turned and she laughs in his face. This role was created on Tobias Batley and so it’s a perfect fit, but more than that, Batley has a level of skill that allows him time. Time to reel in the audience, Cleopatra and her handmaidens (Charmian & Iras, danced with delicacy by Pippa Moore and Antoinette Brooks-Daw respectively). Batley does it well, and you’ll be surprised at the lengths he goes to! He is captivated by her wanton extravagance, but the excesses of Egypt don’t sit well with the powers that be in Rome. Mark Antony is a married man but when Octavia tries to bring her husband home, Cleopatra wins the day – though it’s a short-lived victory. Hannah Bateman dances the role of Octavia with tenderness, rippling jumps springing from nowhere and long fluid lines enticing him, but not quite enough in the face of the wilful Cleopatra. When she returns to Rome empty handed, we feel her pain. Mark Antony is killed at his own request, by Cleopatra, who by this time has a considerable amount of blood on her hands.
Even the God Wadjet has fallen under her spell and refuses to kill her until nature takes over and he poisons her, as is traditional. And here another piece of theatre takes place. As Cleopatra dies, her life passing in front of her, three Gods receive her and she ascends the staircase to her destiny.
The anticipation of watching a new work is always a thrill. There was a buzz in the audience and Cleopatra delivers. The ballet is very well lit, the costumes are delicious and the company are on fire. Result.
Cleopatra is in rep until Saturday at Sadlers Wells. Please note the 12+ rating.
Watch the official Cleopatra trailer.
Read Tobias Batley’s interview
Read Hannah Bateman’s interview
Read Kenneth Tindall’s interview
Read Antoinette Brooks-Daw’s interview