Made in Leeds review: faith, community and hip-hop Casanova

It is the moments when you see a dancer’s eyes light up that give a thrill. When a smile breaks out as they nail a difficult rhythm, or bend over into a juicy move, savoring the unfamiliar, taking a risk. Under new management since the arrival in May of artistic director (and former director of the Royal Ballet) Federico Bonelli, the Northern Ballet’s usual territory is accessible story ballets based on popular titles such as The Great Gatsby, Casanova and 1984. But this triple count shows that I’m not on autopilot, commissioning three choreographers who bring different influences with them.

Mthuthuzeli November draws on memories of her South African childhood; Dickson Mbi brings elements of hip-hop; Stina Quagebeur connects with the qualities of everyday life and you can see the dancers find their way with this new material. Regardless of the success of each work, this is what artists, and ballet companies, need: to put a toe (in pointe shoes or whatever) in a different way of moving, and therefore of thinking. This doesn’t have to mean a dramatic change from the dance vocabulary they’re used to. The refreshing thing about Quagebeur’s piece, Nostalgia, is its ordinariness of hers. It is one of the most perceptive representations of a realistic relationship that I have seen on a ballet stage. We see fragments of a couple in an unspectacular and non-fantasy romance. First it is with a slight tension between two bodies. Then he is more hostile, more wounded. Now they seem to be asking, “Who are you too?” Or maybe realize, “I think I need you.” However you look at it, it’s complicated. The couple (Minju Kang and Jonathan Hanks) observe the appearance of an identical couple, dancing with cheerful and playful ease. Was it us? They are enchanted by their memories, caught up in it all until somehow they have swapped partners and everyone is dancing with their own fantasy.

Wailers is a piece by Ballet Black’s November that takes dancers out of their comfort zone. November has imaginative ways of blending ballet with a deeper, looser physicality. This piece portrays faith, struggle and community, especially among women, with Aerys Merrill as a figure of grandmother’s wisdom and steadfastness at the center. Sarah Chun, in the role of a mother, really gets into the flow, the enthralling and undulating rhythm of the choreography, especially in an uplifting finale where the stage shines with hope and commonality.

Quagebeur and November are used to working within ballet companies, as dancers and choreographers, but Mbi comes from a hip-hop and contemporary dance background. Her piece, Ma Vie, began as a film in response to Kenneth Tindall’s Casanova ballet, and has a certain cinematic ambition and style. Tindall followed the famous seducer’s colorful escapades in a sensual movement; Mbi is more interested in showing us Casanova’s demons. The former prisoner seems very trapped by his own impulses of him. The dancers of the ensemble are dressed in black, with hoods, only the hands and wrists not covered by the clothes, and become invisible forces that manipulate it. It’s a device you see in street dance routines, so it’s interesting to see it transferred to ballet and to see the dancers absorb different accents and momentum into their bodies from the way Mbi moves. The greater demon, however, possibly Casanova’s shadow self, is played by a host, brilliant hip-hop dancer Jonadette Carpio, who rather steals the show.

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