NBT Madame Butterfly
18th February 2002
Bankable piece well executed as dance theatre. Really rather moving.
This is the first production by David Nixon who took over as artistic director last September. Nixon's background, at BalletMet in Columbus Ohio, was to concentrate his own choreographic efforts mainly on strong narrative works while commissioning more diverse pieces from elsewhere. Madame Butterfly, as a full length ballet, was first seen there and has since entered the repertoire of a number of North American companies. However the NBT production is much rethought with some 50% changed with new designs and orchestration. The character and Kabuki elements have been brought more to the fore and the production even credits a Butoh teacher. Which is a long way of indicating that this is a serious and thought-though piece that aspires to more than merely a literal telling of the story.
As plots go Madame Butterfly is very simple. Love misunderstood and betrayed - was it ever really different?
Set in 19th century Japan, Butterfly gives her all for a US Navy Officer (Pinkerton) who is enchanted for all of a day/night and then goes home for years, marrying an American girl along the way. Posted back to Japan, an ever waiting Butterfly, dutifully bringing up his son and longing for his return, at last sees her life betrayed and kills herself.
The programme notes are comprehensive, but the story is told clearly on stage and you can read them at your leisure later if you like.
Design, Sets and Costume:
Set designs are by Ali Allen - a Leeds 'girl' with a wide theatrical track record - following David Nixon's 'design concept'. The sets are simple, Japanese minimalist and have the look of the scenes you get on pots and plates. Pleasantly effective I thought. The costumes of course look very period Japanese and for the girls are quite sumptuous.
Choreography and Music
Nixon likes both the literal and the more suggestive and both come to the fore in this production. The ballet begins and ends to the echo of traditional Japanese music and occasional accompanied singing - they set the scene in a totally oriental perspective of honour and code. The Puccini music, so well known in its own right, supports the majority of the action and the more western story telling.
Nixon's choreography is very moving at times. The central pdd between Butterfly and Pinkerton does have inventive lifts, unique poses and gestures that convey growing love in new ways. I was moved. As I was by the final deathly solo. The geishas' parasol dance at the beginning was also a pleasant spectacle though I think there should be more than four of them. In fact I got the overall feeling of a chamber ballet rather then a piece for the whole company and at times some of the numbers come over as a little too pat.
It was almost a one woman show for Chiaki Nagao. Obviously from Japan she looks the part and the nuances of modesty and despair come ringing through. At the curtain call she looked totally drained from giving her theatrical 'all' - in what is a particularly poignant end. There was a fair silence before the eventual applause as the audience came down too. This is dance theatre so it's pointless being po-faced about company technique etc since that is not what the company has put to the fore and I don't think I missed much in this context anyway. Nagao is very much worth seeing but I'm intrigued to see what some of the non-oriental girls will make of it.
There is one lapse which is possibly a poor production value more than anything: Jerry Kerridge (a terrific and thoughtful character dancer) is the Marriage Broker and played it rather in the style of a jester in a Russian production of the classics - it needs to be much straighter.
Does it Work?
Yes - an encouraging work in the NBT tradition but wider in scope and all the better for it. A pretty good start for Nixon I thought at curtain down.