David Nixon’s new ballet about the Serpent of the Nile provides a perfect role for the newly-crowned queen of classical ballet, Martha Leebolt. Any doubts about her Critics’ Circle award will be silenced by her performance as the god/queen who bestrides the worlds of semi-divinity and human fallibility like a colossus.
Against a simple but effective set of sandstone pillars and steps, Nixon’s work races through history in a series of very short scenes, though the actual steps and movement have the stately pace of Cleopatra’s barge sailing along the Nile. The introduction of the serpent god Wadjet (Kenneth Tindall) keeps the narrative alive, as he shadows Cleopatra’s every move like a reptilian Svengali, finally delivering the coup de grace as the fatal asp.
Tindall’s sinuous undulations complement Leebolt’s more direct, edgy style and their duets are breathtakingly sensual. Only the early duet in which Cleopatra and her incestuous brother Ptolemy (Giuliani Contadini) battle for dominance has more expressive power and excitement, although the extended sequence when Cleopatra seduces Mark Antony (Tobias Batley) oozes lush decadence before evolving into a full-blown orgy.
Claude-Michel Schonberg’s score is disappointing, however, and often plays too much against the action. The light skipping melodies and neo-Baroque tropes are quite at odds with the events unfolding on stage. A little more Eastern exoticism or Egyptian-inflected music would not have gone amiss.
The corps is well drilled, with the girls skipping and jumping like ancient Egyptian cheerleaders and the Roman legionaries stomping and swirling with military precision, though there is a notable lack of invention in their architecture.
But it is Leebolt’s performance that keeps the attention. Her fabulously-muscled legs and sexual energy propel the piece through the holes in the music with a reckless, abandoned momentum that is wholly appropriate.