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Kenneth Tindall, music by Kerry Muzzey

Northern Ballet

The Lowry, Salford

May 18 - 21, 2022; 2hrs 10mins

Northern Ballet's Casanova
Athleticism a-plenty: Northern Ballet's Casanova. All pics: Northern Ballet

One thing is clear: don’t see Casanova without reading the story synopsis in the programme first. Otherwise you won’t have the foggiest idea what’s going on.

Kenneth Tindall’s first full-length ballet, seen here first in 2017, has been lauded to the skies (and televised), and is justifiably seen as one of the brightest feathers in Northern Ballet’s cap as it makes the transition from the 20-plus-year reign of David Nixon as artistic director to that of the new boss, Federico Bonelli. It’s good to see that The Lowry’s only regular visiting ballet company bringing large-scale productions and a full live pit orchestra to Salford is triumphantly back.

Bonelli’s touch is yet to be felt in repertoire terms but for this revival, American composer Kerry Muzzey has added a bit to the score, so we have a Casanova that’s even bigger than before.

It’s a narrative ballet, in the tradition established by Christopher Gable in his early days at the head of the company and continued in most respects ever since. The difference here is that the story itself is neither familiar in folklore nor based on a well-known work such as a novel, play or film.

It's derived from a piece of history writing by Ian Kelly that shows there was much more to Giacomo Casanova than the pejorative use of his name in our day might indicate. He wrote his own life story, which indicates (even allowing for a bit of exaggeration) that he was a remarkable musician, social climber and nouveau-riche, with aspirations to be an intellectual and propound a theory of something called “cubic geometry”.

But then there was the sex. His accounts of his experiences are certainly varied, portraying himself as a would-be priest in Venice seduced by music pupils and a randy nun, favoured by a gay senator, intimate with a cross-dressing woman who pretends to be a male castrato singer, another who becomes a soldier to escape her abusive husband, and finally a friend of Madame de Pompadour and her circle in Paris, which happens to include the great writer Voltaire. Pretty much all the things we like to see on stage in our own time then (the show is not recommended for young children).

Not surprisingly, the choreography is mainly to do with the sex – although it sets up other details in mime sequences, at one point near the end splitting the stage so that we see the end of one sub-plot acted out alongside the culmination of another.

It is quite lavishly staged (Christopher Oram) and lit (Alastair West), and Northern Ballet’s dancers, led by Joseph Taylor in the title role, are virtuosic and inexhaustible. The opening in-cathedral scene is reminiscent of Zeffirelli’s famous Act One set for the Royal Opera’s old Tosca, and though there’s a lot of pushing props on and off after that, the visuals are always evocative.

I liked other touches, like the portrayal of castrati singers through the stylized poses of opera performance at the time, but the big set pieces in dancing terms were the pas de deux (and occasionally, de trois) for Casanova’s sexual encounters. There was athleticism a-plenty in each of them, though in the end, if the one with the abused wife Henriette was meant to convey true loving tenderness finally conquering all, it didn’t seem quite to get there, making us feel sorry for her but not really care much about him.

Muzzey’s music, played by the Northern Ballet Sinfonia under Daniel Parkinson, is deliberately film-score like, with chugging rhythms and repetitive motifs in the Nyman mould much of the time, with an occasional foray towards period feel – such as the gavotte-like tunes for the lengthy early ensemble scene depicting a Venetian ball, and a remarkable solo for the timpanist near the end.

Info and tickets here


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