Northern Ballet, the lean company that takes the road less travelled
For a repository of northern steel, look towards Leeds city centre at a striking six-storey, grey and glass building next to West Yorkshire Playhouse. It’s the base of Northern Ballet, a 48-year-old company known for taking narrative works out on the road. It’s no stranger to pressure, especially of the impending-world-premiere variety.
This year, it will unveil three full-length narrative ballets. Kenneth Tindall’s Casanova opens in March, then there’s an adaptation of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by Daniel de Andrade, followed by artistic director David Nixon’s retelling of The Little Mermaid in September.
It’s an unprecedented spate of premieres, but it wasn’t exactly planned that way, as Nixon explains: “We were going to tour a revival, but then we realised another company was doing it at the same time, so we decided that the best thing would be to create a new family production.” And so the mermaid emerged.
This ability to adapt is crucial to Northern Ballet. It spends roughly 30 weeks of the year on tour. In 2017, it will perform in 51 theatres – from smaller venues in Doncaster and Bromley through to Sadler’s Wells in London and the Edinburgh Festival Theatre.
While the design team works out how sets can fit every venue, the dancers themselves need flexibility in spades – and not just the sort that enables an elegant 180-degree extension of the leg.
“You have to be resilient, adapting to different theatres with raked stages or non-raked stages and cramped dressing rooms,” says premier dancer Pippa Moore, who’s been with the company for 21 years. “It can be a shock to the system.”
Ballet dancers endure a tough-enough schedule even when geographically stationary, but touring adds extra concerns, such as sorting out digs, into the mix. Moore says: “I always take snacks because you never know where the closest shop might be. It’s also good to have sachets of soup or something warm if the theatre’s particularly cold, so I always tour my kettle.”
Sojourning suits Moore, but what’s kept her at Northern Ballet is “this special mix of ballet and theatre, of intelligent and emotional storytelling. I’ve never been bored. It’s an inventive atmosphere and that’s the pull”.
The atmosphere isn’t one of stereotypical pecking orders beset by bulging egos, she insists. “It’s a collective. There’s a hierarchy of course, but I had a principal role in the corps de ballet and I’d be expected to do cygnets in Swan Lake. You can never really get above your station.”
Issues of elitism still surround ballet audiences, but bringing a diverse mix of titles to a diverse range of places is integral to this company. As Nixon says: “I love that we have Casanova contrasted with something so poetic and painful as The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.”
5 things you need to know about northern ballet
1. Originally called Northern Dance Theatre (later Northern Ballet Theatre), it was founded in Manchester in 1969 by Canadian dancer Laverne Meyer. It made its debut with 10 dancers, accompanied by student musicians from the Royal Northern College of Music, at Manchester’s University Theatre.
2. The company was the first in the UK to perform Kurt Jooss’ 1932 ballet The Green Table. Along with contemporary works, Meyer created longer classical pieces – such as Cinderella and Aladdin – to meet the demands of the company’s board.
3. After the directorships of Robert de Warren, Christopher Gable and Stefano Giannetti, Canadian dancer and choreographer David Nixon took over in 2001. In 2010 the company changed its name to Northern Ballet and moved from the outskirts of Leeds into a centrally located, purpose-built building, funded by the Arts Council and company-raised capital.
4. No other ballet company in the UK tours as widely. Northern Ballet also performs specially created children’s ballets as well as full-length evening works. These ballets, which include Goldilocks and the Three Bears as well as The Tortoise and the Hare, are filmed for TV broadcast on the CBeebies channel. Northern Ballet’s 1984 was also shown on BBC4 in 2016.
5. The company spends roughly £95,000 to £100,000 on pointe shoes every year.
However, finding titles is also a matter of making canny business decisions, with bigger earners bolstering the more experimental productions. While Jonathan Watkins’ 1984 was a critical smash last year, it didn’t perform as well financially as more approachable offerings such as Beauty and the Beast.
Casanova instantly had the sales team hooked. Of course, sex sells and Casanova is synonymous with seduction. But Tindall – a former principal dancer – insists that his production, devised in collaboration with Casanova biographer Ian Kelly, is far from a balletic bodice-ripper.
Authenticity – albeit peppered with poetic licence – is key: “It’s rare in ballet to tell the story of a real life and Casanova had an incredibly theatrical existence. It’s exciting to reveal his more unfamiliar faces: he was an incredible intellect, a linguist who translated the Iliad, a priest, a violinist and a spy.” Tindall also draws a parallel between the decadent masquerade of 18th-century Venetian society and today’s digital culture, whereby the veil of an internet username permits bolder behaviours.
Nonetheless, given that we’re living in an age of resurgent feminist discourse and conversations about consent galvanised by a pussy-grabbing president and the rabid ‘alt-right’, did Tindall have qualms about placing Casanova centre stage?
“I want to put him into context – he wasn’t a libertine, notch-on-the-bedpost kind of man but someone who absolutely adored and helped women,” he says. “Half the time he claimed he was being seduced. For Casanova, the game of love and pleasure of food were the two absolutes by which to cultivate the senses. I want to show that there’s nothing wrong in the art of the sensual. It doesn’t have to be a moral story of downfall.”
Despite the onstage decadence, the company is “a very, very lean machine”, says Nixon. For this financial year, chief executive Mark Skipper forecasts a turnover of £8.9 million, 42% of which comes from Arts Council and local authority funding. Ticket sales account for a quarter, with a further 10.5% from fundraising. Learning projects and a commercial venture – a leaflet-display business – provide the rest.
The London-centric nature of funding and critical discussion is an ongoing frustration, confirms Nixon. “We’re meant to compete. I’ve always hated that word because I don’t think it’s about competition, it’s about a contribution to an overall dance ecology. In the past few years we’ve had great recognition but we’re often forgotten. Critics will go to see many casts perform in London but see only one cast of our work. So they don’t know the depth of the company.”
He continues: “It’s hard to think of what other companies spend on productions – probably our entire budget for the dancers and more. There’s only so many times you can tell yourself that if you have less you can be more creative.” Political promises about investment in the ‘northern powerhouse’ haven’t come to fruition in Yorkshire; Skipper notes that Northern Ballet’s director of development works two days in London “just to try to unlock more fundraising opportunities”.
Despite hardships, the company maintains a nurturing approach to training. The Academy of Northern Ballet – housed within the company’s HQ – isn’t a boarding feeder school but instead offers open classes, an associate programme and selective, advanced-level training for students aged up to 16.
“I think kids and parents should have the option of staying together as a family, rather than the kids always being sent south,” says Nixon.
Ballet mistress Yoko Ichino’s progressive Cecchetti-based methodology lies at the heart of the academy and company classes. Moore explains that “it’s about analysing and understanding which muscles are holding a position and how you can improve, rather than attempting positions using brute force and tearing muscles for the sake of looking ‘right’ immediately”.
Careful planning for the future is another of Nixon’s considerations as the company approaches its 50th anniversary. He wants the repertoire to include mixed bills of shorter abstract works by emerging choreographers as well as heritage works by the likes of Balanchine and MacMillan.
Money is an object, though, with hefty licensing costs for major-name ballets. Nevertheless, Nixon seems determined: “I want us to be able to be at a point where we can invest that way. Oddly, by going back and doing that kind of work you can move further ahead.”
Meanwhile, Northern Ballet continues to dance to its own tune, one that’s set at an impressively ambitious pace.
Profile: Northern Ballet
Chief executive: Mark Skipper
Artistic director: David Nixon
Number of performances: 275 in 2016/17
Audience figures: 185,000 in 2016/17
Number of employees: 119
Turnover: about £8.9 million for the current year
Funding levels: £3.1 million for 2017/18 (Arts Council national portfolio organisation)
The world premiere of Casanova is at Leeds Grand Theatre on March 11, before a UK tour