Congratulations to Northern Ballet for reaching its half-century (a milestone that was not a forgone conclusion in the early years, particularly when public funding was threatened). This grand gala at Leeds Grand Theatre was a celebration that unashamedly looked backwards, presenting a “greatest hits” medley of (mostly) pas de deux in a three-hour event that would have benefited from some judicious editing. Eighteen danced items interlaced with spoken introductions and film was a structure that proved the old adage of less being more.

© Guy Farrow

The gala was hosted by David Nixon, Northern Ballet’s artistic director of the past two decades, who grasped the opportunity with theatrical panache, interlaced with snippets of film to represent the tenures of his four predecessors: the founding director, another Canadian, Laverne Meyer; Robert de Warren; the late Christopher Gable (represented in a charming filmed segment by his widow, Carole); and the brief term of Stefano Giannetti.

Putting so many narrative-based duets together consecutively had the unintended consequence of making sex a ubiquitous theme. The main prop was a bed with lovers making immediate use of it (as in the bedroom duet from Didy Veldman’s Carmen) or as the final destination for other clinches. When no bed was in sight the couple either suggestively retired into a room and closed the door (in the Wedding Night duet from Madame Butterfly) or simply undressed and romped in the woods (1984). Undressing was a leitmotif of this steamy evening with Carmen (Minju Kang) and José (Lorenzo Trossello) also stripping to their scanties and Casanova unravelling the bandage covering Bellino’s breasts in the sizzling duet from Kenneth Tindall’s debut full-length success of 2017. His Masquerade from Casanova – with a female corps clad in stocking and suspenders – continued this erotic theme!

The gala was enlivened by the presence of many guests, both former company members and from other companies supporting this important landmark. These external contributions began with the charming solo from Peter Darrell’s Five Rückert Songs, danced with great sensitivity by Scottish Ballet’s Marge Hendricks. Northern and Scottish Ballets have a shared history, both rising from the ashes of Western Theatre Ballet, which gave an extra resonance to her performance. Amanda Assucena and Greig Matthews travelled from Chicago to dance the impassioned proposal duet from Cathy Marston’s Jane Eyre (a co-production with the Joffrey Ballet).

In the Golden Room duet from Gillian Lynne’s A Simple Man, the Moira Shearer role was danced with dignity and elegance by a blonde-bewigged Tamara Rojo alongside Jeremy Kerridge (a Northern Ballet veteran who survived four of the company’s five artistic directors). Three dancers travelled north from The Royal Ballet: Federico Bonelli accompanied Abigail Prudames in the intimate balcony pas de deux from Massimo Moricone’s Romeo & Juliet; and Laura Morera and Ryoichi Hirano bravely shed their outer clothing to dance the love duet between Winston and Julia in Jonathan Watkins’ 1984. Vanessa Vince Pang and Aaron Chaplin of Phoenix Dance Theatre, which shares Northern Ballet’s HQ in Leeds, performed an ebullient and exciting duet from Sharon Watson’s Windrush: Movement of the People. Another highlight was that lyrical Madame Butterfly pas de deux by BRB’s César Morales and Momoko Hirata.

Several former Northern Ballet stars returned for this special event, notably Martha Leebolt (David Nixon’s muse for so many ballets) and Tobias Batley, joining Harris Beattie and Rachael Gillespie in an extract from Wuthering Heights. Dreda Blow and Giuliano Contadini reprised the roles of Bellino and Casanova created on them by Tindall, who appeared himself in the finale from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The current roster of excellent performers based in Leeds were well represented: Prudames excelled in the complex steps from Nixon’s Cup Duet in Cleopatra; Antoinette Brooks-Daw and Jonathan Hanks breathed new life into Moricone’s A Christmas Carol; and the most fascinating revival came with the coruscating duet between Sean Bates and Mlindi Kulashe in the full-length Dracula co-choreographed in 1996 by Gable and Michael Pink.

The gala’s nod to the future was the appearance of two students from Central School of Ballet, which Gable founded, in 1982: Elise de Andrade (the daughter of Northern Ballet’s artistic associate, Daniel de Andrade) and Matteo Zecca danced the fireside duet from Gable’s Cinderella. De Andrade’s own choreography was represented in the emotional Twin Souls duet from The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, performed by Filippo Di Vilio and Matthew Koon.

It terms of length, it would be churlish not to acknowledge the challenge of selecting from the wealth of material that Northern Ballet has brought to the stage. Some of the excerpts have whetted my appetite to see the ballets again (notably the Gable/Pink Dracula). Nixon reminded the audience that Northern Ballet has produced 29 full-length ballets during his tenure as director, 19 of which have been choreographed by him. It is an amazing feat that single-handedly kept new narrative ballet creation alive in the UK during a time when other (bigger) companies were producing next to nothing. That alone, is worthy of celebration.