Entertainment & Arts

Ballet keeps Cleopatra legend alive

Tobia Batley and Martha Leebolt in Cleopatra. Photo: Justin Slee
Image caption Martha Leebolt plays Cleopatra, with Tobia Batley as Mark Anthony

Seductive, ruthless and ultimately tragic - the legend of Cleopatra has inspired numerous artists, dramatists and film-makers down the ages, from Shakespeare to Hollywood. Now, her story is being turned into a ballet.

Characters in ballets are often too nice.

That is the view of David Nixon OBE, artistic director of Northern Ballet and choreographer and co-writer of the new production about Cleopatra.

The story of the Egyptian queen and her lovers Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony is filled with power struggles, sexual manipulation, warring empires and passionate love.

"A lot of the times in ballet we have very sweet, normal, romantic people," Nixon says.

"These people are not nice, necessarily, but they're hugely attractive to us. They are commanding and so larger than life."

Ballet need not be innocent, he argues, despite the fact that some audiences want their shows to be "pretty and sweet".

"They don't want to allow us to be deeper and richer artists," he says.

"The most interesting people in life are actually the ones that have these multi-facets to them. They have huge dark sides.

"They have good sides as well. But when you're a God queen and you're dealing with the Roman Empire, you're not just a sweet loving person.

"You have to be manipulative and politically savvy and you have to be ruthless. And I think those things build for huge performances on stage, potentially."

Image caption Liz Taylor played Cleopatra in one of the most expensive films of the 1960s

It is fair to say the sugar plum fairy would not last long in Cleopatra's company.

The Cleopatra ballet will join a long list of dramatisations of her myth - from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra and an opera by Handel to the lavish 1960s blockbuster starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

The Northern Ballet version has been written by Nixon with Claude-Michel Schonberg, who composed the scores for Les Miserables and Miss Saigon, two of the most popular stage musicals in theatre history.

"As a composer I'm a storyteller with music," Schonberg says. "What I don't like is to have the feeling that I'm repeating myself.

"Each time I write something I want it to be a brand new challenge for me, something I've never done before, and of course after all the musicals I've done I wanted to find something new."

This will be Schonberg's second ballet, after his 2002 adaptation of Wuthering Heights, also co-written with Nixon.

Image caption The ballet opens in Leeds on Saturday before going on a UK tour

The composer has learnt a lot about ballet since then, not least because he married ballerina Charlotte Talbot, who was Cathy in Wuthering Heights.

Schonberg says: "Now, knowing from the inside, there are many things that I ignored before - the process to write a choreography, to be a dancer, and the huge difficulty and hard work that they are doing."

The trick when devising this production was to tell the story of ancient Egypt without resorting to stereotypes, Schonberg explains.

"We are walking on a very thin line trying to tell the story and at the same time not falling into all the cliches that we know about Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton and everything", he says.

Cleopatra opens in the Northern Ballet's home city, Leeds, on Saturday, before going on a UK tour. It is one of a number of new ballets to take inspiration from classic stories.

Next week, two more premieres take place - The Royal Ballet is presenting Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, while Matthew Bourne's The Lord of the Flies opens in Glasgow.

And David Nixon is an old hand at adapting well-known tales, having created ballets based on A Midsummer Night's Dream, Peter Pan, Dracula, The Three Musketeers and Hamlet during his 10-year tenure at Northern Ballet.

That strategy is a result of hard economic reality - at least in part - he admits.

"If you don't base it [a ballet] on something that the audience know, you're not going to sell enough tickets to sustain your organisation," he says.

"When you're a big organisation with big productions and live music, all that is expensive and therefore it's a little bit of a compromise game still. You have to interest the public enough to spend their money to come and see you.

"We would be fools to think that we can do what we want, because we do need an audience."

One lesson learned is that audiences will not buy tickets if they cannot imagine the story being told through dance.

"I remember when I first arrived, we did a version of A Streetcar Named Desire and it didn't sell," he recalls. "When we asked people, they said: 'Well I couldn't see it as a dance piece.' So you do struggle."

He is now relying on the belief that ballet lovers will have fewer problems imagining the exotic and sensual Cleopatra coming alive on stage.

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