Dreda Blow as Bellino and Giuliano Contadini as Casanova – Photo Emma Kauldhar
Many months ago I attended an intriguing introduction to the new Northern Ballet production of Casanova in the Theatre Royal studio.
We were told the fascinating history of the man by writer Ian Kelly, the author of the definitive biography of Giacomo Casanova from which this ballet is adapted. We were introduced to the sheer scale and complexity of building a new ballet, underpinned by the ambition of artistic director David Nixon. I was dazzled by the ambition and scope of the project, which left me in a state of considerable anticipation and the feeling that I was witnessing the birth of a new classic.
Tonight, my only apprehension heading for the theatre was that I might have built my expectations too high. I need not have worried.
Like a Peter Greenaway film every scene in this production resembles a beautifully composed painting. The lighting and set is predominantly red and gold, with simple but elegantly textured stage furniture and clever use of lighting styles and techniques, including some distinctly modern use of lighting and texture to convey a Venetian sense of mystery and tension. Lighting Designer Alastair West creates mood perfect and highly detailed stage atmospheres.
The biography of Giacomo Casanova has some familiarity to all of us, his name having passed into common parlance as a man who loves well if not always wisely. Set against the religious and cultural conventions of his time this will never be a dull story, and this account based upon Ian Kelly’s biography does justice to a man who is one of the few who manage a reputation outliving their mortal life.
The fable of Casanova has been presented to us in many ways over the years – but does it work as a ballet? Many find ballet a difficult medium to consider as contemporary and relevant. Very pretty but not my cup of tea, not my thing, and so on, say friends.
Well get you down to the Theatre Royal and look at just what the Northern Ballet team can do. The skill, strength, grace and beauty of classical ballet are all there, but so much more as well. The muscular, physical and often sexually charged language of the best of modern dance makes this the most complex and powerful ballet that I have seen.
Casanova thrived at a time before modern moralities imposed the rigour of social constraint on behaviour which to many seems natural, carefree and joyous. In more modern terms, he got about a bit and enjoyed it. This gives the choreographer Kenneth Tindall a remarkable opportunity to create a dynamic, physical and exciting tableau of close encounters, confused sexuality and romantic joy, with a few moments of violence and threat to give light and shade to a complex story. The themes are as powerful and relevant today as ever. Personal pleasure and adventure is set against perverse religious proscription and penalty. In a world where the daily news highlights religious intolerance and its consequences have we moved on?
Choreographer Kenneth Tindall says “Casanova’s life was epic and I wanted to do this justice”. This work is indeed a showcase of the talent available to Northern Ballet. By introducing a more modern and highly detailed approach Tindall has given his ensemble a way to communicate so much more of the story of Giacomo Casanova than we might expect from a ballet. To condense this epic story into a manageable length over two acts, while completing the account, is genius.
Casanova was training as a priest until his convent girl pupils Nanetta and Marta (Abigail Prudames and Minju King) seduce him and take his virginity. This sets the theme for his progress to wealth, patronage and pleasure. He is cultivated and enjoyed by a succession of powerful men and women, including Senator Bragadin (Javier Torres) in Venice and the French King Louis XV’s mistress Madame de Pompadour (Victoria Sibson).
Along the way he falls in love, not once (this is Casanova) but twice, with Henriette (Hannah Bateman) who is escaping a loveless and violent marriage, and the intriguing Bellino (Dreda Blow) a woman masquerading as a man in order to work as a castrato singer. The scenes between Casanova and his lovers are beautiful, intricate, physical and tender – conveying perfectly the strength of feeling and growing devotion of all three. This ballet constantly accentuates the positive, and challenges us all to live and love a little more adventurously and to grasp the joy of life while we can, perfectly expressed by a cast full of energy and passion.
This story, unsurprisingly, focuses on one man. Casanova is the title, the story, the draw. So one dancer is on stage and at the centre of events for almost the entire production. Giuliano Contadini is the dancer, performer, star at the centre of this epic. Muscular and capable, balancing pathos and tenderness, strength and grace he fills this dream role and makes it his own. There are many impressive moments. Many a ballet features the lead male lifting a ballerina effortlessly – this guy does it with two women. With that and a good amount of leaping on tables, racing to precipitous stage edges and generally being rather fit he is clearly strong and capable, yet he also brings a real tender charm to the role of the famous seducer, so we never really know who seduces and who yields in his complex web of encounters and adventures.
The score commissioned for this ballet from Kerry Muzzey is distinctive and accomplished, setting an elegant framework for the dancers while contributing to the drama and atmosphere of the evening. Once in a decade or so there comes a collaborative artwork that is greater than the sum of its parts, and for me in this decade this is the one. Every component enhances the others, and the Norwich audience gave a mighty standing ovation at the end of this first night of what will undoubtedly become a new classic in the world of ballet.
There was nothing to fault on the Theatre Royal stage tonight, a company always ambitious taking a bold step forward and getting it right. My only gripe was with the Norwich audience. If you must fight with noisy sweet wrappers for several minutes, try and match the beat of the timpani you compete with, and if you must give your companion a running commentary of the historical significance of events on stage it is probably better that you sit at home by the TV and not behind me in the theatre auditorium. Northern Ballet deserve an audience who will give this work the respect that it will earn as a landmark event and artistic achievement of 2017.
Please credit the author and/or Norwich Eye if quoting this review.
Northern Ballet’s Casanova Tuesday, April 4 to Saturday April 8, 2017. Eves 7.30pm, Mats Thur & Sat 2.30pm Tickets £8-£37.50. Discounts for Friends, Over 60s, Under 18s, Under 30s, Groups. BOX OFFICE 01603 630000. For more info or to BOOK ONLINE www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk