Set in imperial Russia, this magical production adds more layers, says Kelly Apter
Walk into the early stages of a Northern Ballet rehearsal, and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled upon a theatre company. Dancers, usually so silent, can be found reciting lines of text, improvising dialogue and generally giving voice to the characters they’re playing. It’s a strategy artistic director David Nixon and dramaturg Patricia Doyle hit upon several years ago, when Northern Ballet was staging A Midsummer Night’s Dream. They discovered that in order to eventually let their bodies do the talking, the dancers benefited from letting their mouths do it first.
“We often read sections of a book out loud – for example when we staged The Great Gatsby – so that the dancers understand the language and the story,” explains Nixon. “But what I really find helpful is when I ask dancers to come up with a verbalisation of what we’re trying to do.
“Then, all of a sudden, they start to question what they’re dancing, and it transforms the movement. Their minds have to kick in in a different way and they stop thinking purely about the steps, and focus on what the steps mean.”
For a large group scene, one of the first things Nixon does is send the dancers away to create an “oral conversation” that the characters might have in that situation – then they all explore what movements would go with those words.
“The pay-off is that the people on stage all know why they’re there,” says Nixon. “So the dancers in the corps de ballet know what their purpose is – and it isn’t decoration. They know that they’re setting different atmospheres and adding to the scene in a very clear way, which I think is important.”
For Northern Ballet’s new show, Cinderella, Nixon and Doyle found their “dialoguing” strategy crucial to help the lead characters find their way. For although the framework of the original fairytale is still in place, Nixon has given the main players a far more three-dimensional personality.
“I wanted to show where Cinderella comes from, and why she ends up in the situation she does,” he says. “In most versions, you’re there already – in a silly situation with an ‘ugly’ stepmother and sisters. Well, why are they ugly? They’re ugly because of their behaviour – but why are they that way?”
To give the stepmother’s cruel behaviour some context, Nixon and Doyle created a prologue, during which Cinderella’s father dies trying to retrieve his beloved daughter’s shawl from a dangerous river. Consumed by grief, the stepmother takes her sadness out on Cinderella, condemning her to a life “below stairs”.
The relationship between Cinderella and the Prince has also received something of a makeover. Nixon confesses to feeling “like cardboard” when he danced the Prince role himself during his performance career, and was determined that the leading man in his production would feel more real.
“I wanted the Prince to have to earn Cinderella’s love,” says Nixon, “and for her to forgive him for rejecting her when he thinks she’s a servant – because he is the right man for her.
“But my point is there is no perfect man, that’s really the wrong message to send to women. They could find a good man, with flaws. And somebody who can recognise those flaws and ask for forgiveness, that’s a good man, not somebody who’s just got a pretty face.”
Character analysis aside, Nixon was also keen to give the entire production a new feel. But to re-work a well-loved (but also well-worn) classic, they needed an angle.
To that end, he and Doyle have set the production in imperial Russia, peppering it with circus artistes, ice skating and magic. And it is a magician – not a fairy godmother – who facilitates Cinderella’s attendance at the ball.
Nixon confesses that the inclusion of stilt walkers, acrobats and jugglers – not to mention a spectacular transformation scene – added an extra layer of complexity to rehearsals (“it was hell,” he laughs). Allowing Cinderella to change from servant girl to the ultimate party-goer before the audience’s eyes, however, is a rare feat in the ballet world.
“Usually she goes off stage for 10-15 minutes and comes back fully ready for the ball,” says Nixon, “and there are good reasons for that. Dancers are thin, their costumes are tight-fitting, and the minute you try and do something different with the ball gown, their shape changes – so how are you going to do that?
“But we have a reputation for doing things a bit differently, and we really wanted a very good transition scene and for Cinderella to change on stage. Duncan Hayler, our set designer, is very imaginative, so the whole stage is transformed.”
• Northern Ballet perform Cinderella at Edinburgh Festival Theatre from 20-22 March