Three Short Ballets – Northern Ballet – Review

Pop quiz: What do moonwalking, David Bowie, 1950s swimwear and synthpop Mozart remixes have in common?

Stumped? Not surprising. The answer is that all appear in Northern Ballet’s season-opening work Three Short Ballets, which graced Doncaster’s CAST venue this week.

Forever eschewing the form’s conventions, Northern open this awesome anthology with a slapstick skit featuring Wolfgang Mozart’s father Leopold and sister Nannerl arguing over a powdered wig.

The Kingdom of Back paints a tragicomic portrait of little-known Nannerl, also a composer and pianist, whose early fame would soon be eclipsed by her younger brother’s.

Choreographer Morgann Runacre-Temple masterfully blends playfulness between the young siblings and angst between Nannerl and her disciplinarian dad.

The former shines through in a mimed four-handed piano practice, interrupted by young Wolfgang, who at first slides on caterpillar-style and then tumbles and rolls about the stage.

Musical pieces by Mozart and Bach — chopped and remixed with ambient electronic beats, or curiously voiced in doo-wop-like harmonies — are brought alive in colourful ensemble dances.

But darkness descends as Nannerl ages, with strict Leopold taking her out of the limelight to marry her off.

The young musician’s split loyalties are exquisitely, athletically embodied, with Nannerl reaching and stretching as a host of hands lift and restrain her; a sensuous visual feast of precision, poise and strength.

Her final acceptance is marked with an eerie, disembodied, a capella rendition of Bowie’s Life on Mars.

Such wonton modernisation might raise traditionalists’ eyebrows, but anyone wanting strictly old-fashioned ballet from a Northern performance is missing the pointe, as it were.

With many young dance students in the audience on Tuesday, this fascinating blend of heritage and humour made a wonderful job of making ballet relevant and fresh.

Powerhouse Rhumba is a pastel-coloured parade of pool party posing, with swimsuited sun-seekers whirling one another around soft blue scenery.

Its choreographer is David Nixon OBE, the Northern’s artistic director since 2001 and architect of spectacular interpretations of The Little Mermaid and The Three Musketeers.

This short but continuous spectacle sees a dozen dancers fill the stage almost throughout, punctuated by occasional duo performances.

Such dense choreography feels at times frenzied and a little overwhelming — whipping the focus left and right, potentially leaving viewers unsure where to look.

The action frequently coalesces into breath-taking, synchronised lifts and dips; sometimes perfect, but with a pair lagging slightly behind on occasion.

Such tiny lapses seem inevitable in such full and rich sequences, but it softened the impact somewhat and raised questions about over-reliance on microsecond synchronicity.

In the third piece, For an Instant, choreographer Amaury Lebrun seems to address the issue in heart-stopping, rippling waves of asynchronous movement.

This mysterious montage alludes to the human emotional experience, expressing themes of love and loss through steps which are at times gracefully flowing and at times violently robotic.

There is a sinister, dystopian undertone to the performance, with dancers dressed in coarse blue shirts evoking the company’s superb 2016 adaptation of 1984.

At one point the ensemble advances across the stage with a lone man dancing in frantic opposition, reminiscent of Thom Yorke’s bizarre musical short film Anima.

Retreating again, dancers peel off into paired movements which echo across the stage with each duo’s repetition.

Another scene sees the male cast in an almost frightening formation; their jagged, jarring, anguished movements collapsing singularly in despairing prostration.

First soloist Kevin Poeung, who so acrobatically portrayed d’Artagnan last year, once again delivers a stand-out performance in this segment.

Stricken with some animating passion, he leaps and whirls alone while fine black dust rains down from a single spotlight.

The stuff blankets the stage when his castmates reappear for the finale, their sweeping feet spinning it into fine circles across the boards.

The three-part structure of the showcase rules out a traditional set, like those so beautifully concocted for Mermaid or Musketeers, for instance.

Instead, subtle use of lighting — sometimes soft, other times fiercely strobing — reinforces the fast-changing moods of these rollercoaster scenes.

Simple costuming emphasises the incredible musculature of these supremely fit performers, whose feats of strength and self-control are seldom less than jaw-dropping.

The whole is an Olympic Games of traditional and contemporary dance, embracing drama and comedy in a beautiful showcase of what this superbly creative company can do.

Three Short Ballets appears at Newcastle Northern Stage on Friday 17 and Saturday 18 April, 2020.

Visit northernballet.com/three-short-ballets or call 0191 230 5151 to book.

About Author /

Formerly the arts editor for a regional newspaper group, Dave is now a freelance journalist and culture writer. He has appeared in amdram productions around South Yorkshire and performs improv comedy as part of the Sheffield troupe Trouble Salad.

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