When you think about Northern Ballet Theatre (NBT) you automatically think dramatic 3 act ballets, and over the last few years the company has built an enviable reputation, country wide, by delivering a stream of such works to a loyal public. The result is that you rarely see a poorly attended house when NBT dance. Now, having gained the audience's trust it's great to see the company starting to broaden their repertoire again and introducing at least some of their public to a wider dance vocabulary - though that sounds a bit too patronising and pretentious. It's really about the fun of doing and seeing 'new' and different things for both NBT and its audience.
The first night of Simply NBT, the name of the new mixed bill, was given at the Bradford Alhambra last Thursday and the theatre was suitably full and buzzing. The best known piece on the bill, previously performed by NBT, was A Simple Man - the ballet about the painter LS Lowry which registered with many when it was originally commissioned and performed on BBC TV.
That was back in 1987 when Christopher Gable played/danced Lowry - just before becoming Artistic Director of NBT. On TV Lowry's mother was played by Moira Shearer and on the stage Lynn Seymour danced the role. Hard to imagine more dramatic dancers - all stars of some considerable magnitude. Painter and mother are at the heart of a ballet which like the Lowry paintings themselves, is full of distanced affection, apparent simplicity and ungainliness. Lowry's mother really wanted a girl and instead got a son whom in many respects she regarded as a misfit and who she dominated.
Had Kenneth MacMillan choreographed A Simple Man it would doubtless have been challenging and painful but Gillian Lynne (Cats, Phantom of the Opera and countless other shows) was far more subtle and understated perhaps. It has power but it does not confront you and allows you to make your own connections for the most part. Subtle, but not too subtle of course: it also has 2 angel girls who have the most enormous breasts - not something that features in so many Lowry paintings I fancy. The staging and designs are well realised and they do bring some of the pictures to life. There is also an excellently staged dream sequence of a seashore in which the waves flicker into life as womanly bodies. Lowry was anything but a simple man.
Overall the choreography comes across as professional rather than inspired. But the piece was never planned as pure dance - it's theatre to its core and well fits the NBT style. Bringing all this to life was Luc Jacobs and Jayne Regan. Regan knows a thing or two about acting (in fact she is one of our foremost dance actresses and ought to be much better known) and Jacobs, as a company soloist, excels in this aspect as well. As a package A Simple Man is a good one-act ballet which will repay more than a few viewings. On the night it was the last piece performed and people went home suitably enthralled.
The evening began with Derek Williams' Jazz Concerto which was originally created for NBT in 1993 and we are told is changed somewhat for 1999. Williams, like Gillian Lynne, has a pedigree that is much wider than ballet and much more contemporary. He has run a number of companies and does a lot of teaching, though it would appear not so very much choreography.
Jazz Concerto is a leotard ballet that derives much of its excitement from the score (by Philip Feeney who has created much else for NBT) and its bold use of drums and percussion. The dancers looked technically sharp and it makes a good contrast to what many will think of as 'NBT'. But the choreography seemed a bit run-of-the-mill and 'West End' without perhaps the razzmatazz of the rest of the package. I found myself following the score rather than the dancers.
Jardi Tancat, by Nacho Duato, was the middle piece and the hit of the evening perhaps - it certainly got a lot of applause and rightly so. Duato's choreography is not often seen in the UK, but aside from this viewing at NBT, the Royal Ballet have recently invited him to provide a piece in the International Choreographers season that effectively opens the new House.
Jardi Tancat takes its name from a series of songs recorded by the Spanish singer Maria del Mar Bonet based on turn of the century poems of the love and struggles of couples trying to scratch a living from a barren earth. The music, traditional in nature, is haunting and evocative as is the response in dance - a perfect marriage. Duato brings a real Spanish feel as Flamenco creeps into essentially smooth ballet inspired movement. The arms and hands in particular have become much more expressive and Duato seems to pick up the mood and appreciates that a short, fluent, movement can say it all.
Duato also produced the designs - traditional, simple, unassuming and quite lovely. This is why we go to see new things I thought as I drove the 200 miles home. Good night!