From the moment this project was announced, over a year ago, it was an enticing prospect. A first full-length ballet by a hot new choreographer, already possessing an enviable reputation for a distinctive visual style, having cut his teeth on a handful of one-act ballets that had earned Kenneth Tindall a nomination for emerging artist in the National Dance Awards of 2015.
But, as they say, ‘there is many a slip between cup and lip’ and much sweat and many tears are usually necessary to turn any such enticing prospect into a hit. This, Tindall and his tightly-knit team, both inside and out of Northern Ballet, have achieved with aplomb. Casanova is exciting, absorbing dance theatre enveloped in a majestic visual spectacle.
Tindall is an expansive, experimental choreographer with an imagination to suit; equally skilful with groups, duets and solos; aligning his movement seamlessly into narrative and character development. It’s not an easy story to tell. Everyone will know something about Casanova but few will know the intricacies of his life story. Working closely with Ian Kelly, the author of the eponymous Sunday Times biography of the year (2008), Tindall has carved his two-act ballet from key episodes in the egregious life of the infamous polymath; turning Casanova from a pejorative adjective into a rounded figure of some historical significance. We all know Casanova to have been a notorious lover but he was also a trainee priest, violinist, philosopher, mathematician, scientist, gambler and author.
It is a complex tale involving more than 20 named characters and a prior study of the synopsis is certainly advisable but nonetheless the Kelly-Tindall combo drives the story’s momentum with a remarkable clarity. This seamless connectivity between scenes was enabled by an extraordinary set, designed by Christopher Oram; monumental in scale, yet simple to reconfigure. Giant, reflective gold and black panels dominated the stage, evoking eighteenth century Venice and Versailles; pews, tables and thrones were swiftly manoeuvred into place to move the action from church to Palace in the twinkle of an eye. All of which was effectively enhanced by the eclectic lighting of Northern Ballet’s in-house designer, Alastair West.
Oram also designed the similarly eclectic costumes, which appeared to spread over a few centuries. From Elizabethan ruffs and knickerbockers (theatrical costumes for castrati singers); through every imaginable variation on a wimple; to distinctly modern underwear (stockings, suspenders and tight briefs made from a material entirely alien to the eighteenth century). More than 60 wigs are used, (all designed by the West End’s wigmaster supreme, Richard Mawbey). That these were each an object of beauty that stayed in situ throughout energetic dancing is a testament to his ingenuity and the skill of the Northern Ballet’s wardrobe assistants!
To have found an Italian dancer with the initials G.C. to play Giacomo Casanova seems a remarkable coincidence. Giuliano Contadini grabbed this lifetime opportunity to headline a title role in a new ballet with ebullient verve. He is almost ever-present and performs a half-dozen strenuous duets and trios, partnering six different women. It's a role to set alongside MacMillan’s Rudolf in Mayerling and Tindall’s choreography is no less taxing, full of original and powerful lifts. Although Contadini has been with the company for almost a decade, he has not previously caught my eye with any particularity: that is now changed for good.
Tindall's Casanova is very much a ballet for women, with nine meaty roles for ballerinas, one of which, the naughty nun, M.M., is taken by a dancer Tindall came across while working in Spain. Aileen Ramos Betancourt - appearing here as a guest - made an indelible impression in her sensual Act I duet with Contadini. Despite the prevalence of stockings and suspenders, this Casanova surprisingly–- and happily – underplays the sex. It’s certainly present – in single acts of coitus and rampant orgies - but tastefully and elegantly understated.
The women who captivated Act II came via a classical cameo by Victoria Gibson as Madame de Pompadour and in the two great loves of Casanova’s life: Dreda Blow as Bellino – a woman hiding amongst the castrati – and Hannah Bateman as Henriette, an abused wife seeking rescue. Each dancer brought palpable emotion and impactful meaning to their roles. Throughout the cast, there were charismatic little cameos: such as Sean Bates as a lusciously bewigged, snobbish Voltaire; Jeremy Curnier as a radical priest; and an uncredited Lorenzo Trosello as a hilarious mop-haired portraitist.
The last of the key creative ingredients contributing to this success was the bespoke score by LA-based composer, Kerry Muzzey, who worked hand-in-glove (usually via Skype) with Tindall in the development of the ballet. His score is not thematic but it is certainly cinematic. Each scène d’action is sensibly articulated, building into remarkable and immediately memorable melodies for the main duets and corps dances, which Tindall often constructs as a tightly-knit single organism of group movement; and into a glorious crescendo of luscious music to conclude a tremendous ballet with an emphatic sense of theatre.
We all know of Casanova, the lover; now, we have a Casanova to love.
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