Cleopatra. Her very name has stirred within you a reaction, no ?
Seductive, sensual Egypt mashed up against the male-dominated barbarism of ancient Rome. The perfect incompatibility.
David Nixon’s compelling interpretation of Cleopatra’s story for Northern Ballet casts a spotlight on her pivotal liaisons with Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, and on Monday night the ballet company previewed two pas de deux from the new ballet.
Not many facts survive about Cleopatra, 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.
Cleopatra was regarded as a great beauty by many, including the Greek historian Plutarch, who 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.
She was clever, though, and her wit and charm were said to have been noticed as much if not more than her beauty.
Premier Dancer Martha Leebolt, who has been nominated for a National Dance Award in the ‘outstanding performance (classical)’ category, First Soloist Tobias Batley and Premier Dancer Kenneth Tindall travelled from Leeds to perform these two excerpts at Sadlers Wells.
The role of Cleopatra has been created on Leebolt, Marc Antony on Batley, with the role of the God Wadjet (the snake-man) created on Tindall.
The first pas de deux, based on Cleopatra’s meeting with God Wadjet showed strong interpretations of a snakes head – though of course we did not see the conclusion ! Now I was no more than a sneeze away from Leebolt and Tindall but even so, the rich, intense drama was utterly absorbing. Leebolt is so strong and secure, and the clichés that you might expect to see in relation to Egypt are simply not there. The ballet sits somewhere between classical and contemporary – the choreography is classical but the sets, with video projection, are entirely modern. Put away any pre-conceived ideas of a stage packed with artifacts from Ancient Egypt; Nixon has created an Egyptian feel with movement based on his own ideas; something you won’t have seen before.
In fact, Nixon has brought together a stellar artistic team to help him realize his particular vision, which has been some years in the making. Composer Claude-Michel Schönberg, responsible for the music of Les Miserables and Miss Saigon, says that it took him five years before he could find inspiration for the score of Cleopatra, which reflects “the chaos of being in love with such a woman as Cleopatra.” It’s beautiful music, even in recorded version without orchestration. Schönberg’s first ballet score, Wuthering Heights, again, for Northern Ballet, premiered in 2002. Patricia Doyle is co-director, Christopher Giles is co-designer and Tim Mitchell is lighting designer.
I’m thrilled to bring you a Ballet NEWS WORLD EXCLUSIVE – your first glimpse of the costumes. Nixon & Giles very kindly agreed to these photographs being taken, but I must emphasize that these are very early drafts and are not necessarily the finished article.
Giles is a former dancer, and so is designing with fabrics that will move with the dancers, so that the battle dress is made from Lycra. I asked Giles about the ‘tattoo’ theme that I saw running through the costumes and he agreed – it is deliberate.
One of the things that Nixon is very keen to avoid is any suggestion that the ballet is overly dominated by men. Of course, in Cleopatra there are more male leads and that will be reflected, but in choreographing the ballet he has enlisted the experience of Doyle, who will ensure that the females have defined roles beyond that of Cleopatra, and that their voices are not drowned out.
The second pas de deux, between quixotic Cleopatra and Marc Antony is, well, sex. A charged atmosphere from the start, and even in the confined space (much smaller than a conventional studio) the dynamic lifts and twisting patterns evoke such an intensity that you literally forget to breathe. There is something quite lawless about Leebolt, and she is easily matched by Batley.
This pas de deux is based on an unverifiable story about Cleopatra, and one of the best known. Legend has it that she bet Marc Antony that she could spend ten million sesterces (an ancient Roman coin, usually small and silver) on a dinner. He laughed but accepted the bet. Foolish ? You bet it was. The following evening she has a very average meal served, which Marc Antony laughed at. Mistake number two. The second course arrived, consisting only of a cup of strong vinegar. Removing one of her priceless pearl earrings and dropping it into the cup, she drank it.
Leebolt moves towards Batley with turned out feet, one thigh in front of the other, arms outstretched with the golden goblet between her hands, until she reaches him and drinks from the cup. There follows a tumultuous, frenzied ‘interlude’ until the couple collapse (she on top of him) on the floor and remain still, arms outstretched. Hands slowly entwine and they begin a series of lifts and you, the audience, are left to decide whether or not Cleopatra is in love with him.
One word : Go.
Production credits :
- Music Claude-Michel Schönberg
- Choreography David Nixon OBE
- Scenario Claude-Michel Schönberg, David Nixon & Patricia Doyle
- Orchestrations John Longstaff and Claude-Michel Schönberg
- Co-directed by David Nixon & Patricia Doyle
- Design David Nixon & Christopher Giles
- Lighting Tim Mitchell
- Projections Nina Dunn
Tour details :
World Premiere – Leeds grand Theatre
Sat 26 February – Sat 5th March 2011
Box office : 0844 848 2701
Edinburgh – Festival Theatre
Thurs 10 – Sat 12 March 2011
Box office : 0131 529 6000
Hull – New Theatre
Wed 16 – Sat 19 March 2011
Box office : 01482 226655
Sheffield – Lyceum Theatre
Tues 5 – Sat 9 April 2011
Box office : 0114 249 6000
Cardiff – new Theatre
Tues 5 – Sat 9 April 2011
Box office : 029 2087 8889
Milton Keynes theatre
Tues 5 – Sat 7 May 2011
Box office : 0844 871 7652
Belfast – Grand Opera House
Tues 10 – Sat 14 May 2011
Box office : 028 9024 1919
London – Sadlers Wells
Tues 17 – Sat 12 May 2011
Box office : 0844 412 4300 www.sadlerswells.com