It’s all change for the Leeds express as a new leadership team takes shape at Northern Ballet including a new chair (Guy Perricone), Executive Director (David Collins, who joins early next year) and Artistic Director (Federico Bonelli). Given that the former incumbents in the latter two roles (respectively Mark Skipper and David Nixon) served for a combined total of almost 50 years, it is a seismic watershed in the company’s relatively brief history. And this programme of new work seemed a strong affirmation of that change, recognising the emerging talent of three exceptional British-based choreographers. 

Minju Kang in Ma Vie Live
© Emma Kauldhar

These works may have been “Made in Leeds” but they also represent an opening up to wider creative influences. Past programmes have often come from within the company (especially in Nixon’s own work and that of former company principal, Kenneth Tindall) but none of this trio of choreographers have any permanent association with the company (in fact, all are very much engaged elsewhere): Mthuthuzeli November (Wailers) is a dancer and choreographer with London-based Ballet Black; Stina Quagebeur (Nostalgia) is a former dancer and resident choreographer with London-based English National Ballet; and Dickson Mbi (Ma Vie Live) leads his eponymous company from the capital. So, this Levelling Up programme for ballet was made in Leeds, but imported from London. The subtitle sells the programme short since there was nothing particularly brief about these substantial ballets, each between 25 and 40 minutes duration. 

Aerys Merrill and Sarah Chun in Wailers
© Emma Kauldhar

Under Nixon’s direction (and previously) the company had built a strong reputation for storytelling ballets and while this programme ostensibly continues that intent, these were thematic tales with a blurred focus. In Wailers, November returned to his roots in South Africa with a ballet themed on the hardship of the townships but with no discernible narrative; Quagebeur’s poignant Nostalgia was faithful to its title, exploring evocative but nondescript themes of loss, anxiety and memory; while Mbi, developing a short film previously made for Northern Ballet, had the more obvious tale to tell in his exploration of the adventures of Giacomo Casanova but – especially set against the literal full-length ballet by Kenneth Tindall (2017) – his scenario is a surreal dream-like affair, integrating contemporary hip-hop (there was even krumping in the mix) with imagery inspired by 18th-century Venice.

Each work had much to admire. Wailers extends the genre of November’s work inspired by his homeland with further credit in choreography that has a charming and poetic flow. With this ensemble he has been able to expand the scale of his work, utilising a dozen dancers and managing this larger group’s movement with style. A small “cracked-earth” panel (designed by November in association with Steve Wilkins) provided a sense of place and Yann Seabra’s costume designs provided a powerful sense of identity. One innovation saw Aerys Merrill as the Grandmother wearing pointe shoes with ghungroo bells around an ankle, thus providing the wherewithal for a strong, stamping solo finale. Sarah Chun provided strong support as the Mother figure.

Jonathan Hanks and Minju Kang in Nostalgia
© Emma Kauldhar

Quagebeur prematurely retired as a dancer only a fortnight ago to concentrate on her choreographic career and Nostalgia, performed to the haunting music of Jeremy Birchall, gave further emphasis to support her difficult decision in this career transition. She has the rare and consistent gift of musicality in her movement arrangements, including when choreographing different trajectories in simultaneous and consecutive actions, and she can convey a powerful sense of theatre in a minimalist style. Having recently left to join ENB (where there will be many more chances to work with Quagebeur), Minju Kang returned as a guest to form the principal couple with Jonathan Hanks and they were strongly supported by Rachael Gillespie and Gavin McCaig.

Ma Vie Live was a rollercoaster of surprise. I can’t think of any other work that brings hip-hop into ballet with such success even to the point of a street-style ending where every crew member demonstrated a particular party-trick move. The ten ballet dancers (including Kang, Chun and Merrill) did their best to get down and dirty but it was guest dancer/actor Jonadette Carpio who captivated my attention with her scintillating all-action performance. One needs to stretch the imagination to capture the particulars of Casanova in the story but who cares with such a plethora of excitement and surprise in the diverse movement motifs. 

It is not a matter of coincidence that Mbi is guided by Farooq Chaudhry, the same producer behind Akram Khan’s groundbreaking work for ENB. Now with Mbi as another major force, he is blowing the cobwebs away from ballet’s fusty image and bringing a much-needed new generation to the audience. Bravo to Leeds and Northern Ballet for joining this movement for change!