May 2011: Cleopatra – Review and Interviews

Seduction Scene - Martha Leebolt, Tobias Batley

Cleopatra is a stunning new ballet with music by Claude-Michel and choreography by David Nixon.  In the tradition of Northern Ballet this is very much ballet theatre with a very strong story line which moves from Egypt to Rome and back again. It follows Cleopatra from her marriage to Ptolemy, his subsequent death, her union with Caesar, the birth of their son, Caesar’s death, her seduction of Mark Anthony, Octavian’s triumph over Mark Anthony’s forces, Mark Anthony’s death and finally Cleopatra’s death and her ascension to an Egyptian deity.




Clepatra and Caesar
Pas de deux - Martha Leebolt, Javier Torres

It’s a big story but it’s brought alive by a score which so well conveys all the drama,conflict and love, and together with David’s imaginative choreography the ballet moves with pace, style and a great deal of panache. There were many highlights, in particular, in the first act, the wonderfully romantic, lyrical Pas de Deux with Cleopatra (Martha Leebolt) and Caesar (Javier Torres) and in the second act Cleopatra’s seduction of Mark Anthony (Tobias Batley). The physical chemistry between these two is quite extraordinary in their steamy, highly sensual love-making scene and again in Mark Anthony’s suicide. Weakened by hedonistic excess and battle he is unable to uphold his honour by killing himself, without Cleopatra’s assistance. With an extraordinary leap she helps him to drive his blade through his heart. It was literally a breathtaking moment.

 One especially intriguing moment was the birth of Caesarion, when Cleopatra and Caesar’s
Mark Anthony's Death - Martha Leebolt, Tobias Batley
Mark Anthony's Death - Martha Leebolt, Tobias Batley

bed sheet, manipulated by her hand maidens, magically morphs into the new born child. The first act ends with an exciting visual spectacle when, after Caesar’s death, the stage is full of frenetically dancing figures clad in wine-red, floor-length, hooded costumes which swirl menacingly to convey the dramatic impact of his murder.

At the end, Cleopatra’s death by snake bite is portrayed with the snake-like god Wadjet, after which she assumes the form of an Egyptian deity before the ancient Egyptian gods Horus, Hathor and Anubis, in their full glory, a dramatic ending indeed.

Martha Leebolt embraced the role with passion and a good deal of athleticism giving a truly electric, charged, sensuous performance whilst radiating sexual power and disdain. Javier Torres and Tobias Batley were equally powerful, giving excellent performances and a striking sensuality to their duets with Martha. Kenneth Tindall brought both mysticism and strength in his snake-like movements as the god Wadjet and the opening scene between Cleopatra and Wadjet set the mood of the evening.

Journey on the Nile
Cleopatra's death - Kenneth Tindall, Martha Leebolt
Cleopatra's death - Kenneth Tindall, Martha Leebolt

The design team of Christopher Giles (design), Tim Mitchell (lighting), and Nina Dunn (projection design) has created a superb set. The projections create wonderful evocative images whilst allowing an abundance of space for the dance. The set allows us to feel the changing moods of Egypt and Rome and even manages to give us Caesar and Cleopatra’s journey on the Nile. Mitchell wonderfully evokes Egypt’s light with all its brightness and heat.


Cleopatra Martha Leebolt
Wadjet Kenneth Tindall
Ptolemy Giuliano Contadini
Charmian Pippa Moore
Iras Antoinette Brooks-Daw
Julius Caesar Javier Torres
Mark Anthony Tobias Batley
Caesarion Daniel Lewandowski
Octavian Hironao Takahashi
Octavia Hannah Bateman
Egyptian/Roman Women Dreda Blow, Christie Duncan, Isabella Gasparini, Lori Gilchrist, Ayana Kanda, Rym Kechacha, Jessica Morgan, Michela Paolacci, Victoria Sibson
Roman Senators, Gods,Priests Michael Berkin, Darren Goldsmith, Yi Song
Egyptian Men, Roman Army And Roman Men Yoshihisa Arai, Martin Bell, Mathew Broadbent, Giuliano Contadini, Jeremy Curnier, Ashley Dixon, John Hull, Sebastian Loe, Benjamin Mitchell, Yi Song


Music Claude-Michel Schönberg
Choreography David Nixon
Co-Direction Patricia Doyle
Orchestration John Longstaff
Design Christopher Giles
Lighting Design Tim Mitchell
Projection Design Nina Dunn
Music Director John Pryce-Jones
Assistant Music Director Nigel Gaynor
Orchestra Leader Geoffrey Allan
Ballet Master Daniel De Andrade
Ballet Mistress Yoko Chino
Guest Ballet Mistress Charlotte Talbot

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Interview with Claude-Michel

Arrival of Caesar and Cleopatra in Rome
Arrival of Caesar and Cleopatra in Rome

How do you feel about the subject of Cleopatra?
The subject of Cleopatra is very interesting for a composer. In our collective unconscious, she is and will always remain the incarnation of the femme fatal: a seductress oozing sensuality; a destroyer at her most spellbinding; a woman of superior intelligence, manipulative but also touching as the mother of her children and of a whole nation whose culture, thousands of years ago, gave birth to our own civilization. A powerful ruler and a woman in a man’s world, she devoted her life to the protection of her family and her people. To tell the life and the journey of someone so exotic, strange and extraordinary is very inspiring because I have the feeling that I’m trying to challenge my inspiration in new areas I’ve never been before.

As a composer of musicals, how different is it to work on a ballet score?
It’s not easier that’s for sure. You don’t have the voices to hide behind. You are front row, you are very exposed. You have to tell a story, but at the same time you don’t have to deal with arrangements, with a change of key, with female or male voices, so you’re very free in terms of where you want to go and how you want to get there. You can do stuff that you can’t do if you have singers. You don’t have the lyrics to explain things, so you must add something in the narrative way of the melody that you’re not doing in a musical, where the lyrics are doing half the job.

Martha Leebolt, Kenneth Tindall

How is the music for a ballet created?
With ballet, as with musicals, everything comes from the script and the subject. After a long period of reflection, I came to understand the sheer brutality of the Queen of Egypt’s life. All the men she loved met a violent end. She herself disposed of her own brother and committed suicide rather than capitulate. Such were the themes that fired my inspiration, and four pivotal chapters emerged, embodied by Wadjet (the Egyptian snake god, who is the protector of the pharaohs), Ptolemy (Cleopatra’s brother), Caesar and Mark Anthony, all intimately woven into her destiny.

So once we have the scenario and the subject I can start to write the music for the scene we have been talking about and agreed on. As soon as I had the scenario the music came forth, sombre, eerie, wild or amorous, luring me back to my keyboard again and again. After I have finished a section I play it to David and he tells me that’s fine or that’s too long or too short. But generally about eighty percent of the time we agree on what I’m writing and we carry on shaping the ballet together with co-director Patricia Doyle. In the end it’s about what’s best for the production.

How does it feel when you create music?
It’s a very spiritual experience. The best moment is just before you start writing, when there is a little light at the end of the tunnel and you know that something is coming. That is the best moment because you don’t share it with anybody; you do it on your own. It’s such a gratifying feeling that you can’t describe it.

Interview with David Nixon

Martha Leebolt, Tobias Batley
Martha Leebolt, Tobias Batley

Why did you choose to make a ballet about Cleopatra?
It’s a story that has interested me for a long time. When you’re creating dance you have to find a reason why a story will work in dance as opposed to just any other medium. Cleopatra is about sensuality and relationships, manipulation and political manoeuvring and these are all things that dance can portray very well.

It was not our ambition to do a historical retelling of Cleopatra’s life but to capture through movement, visuals and music our interpretation of this unique and iconic woman, whose name has echoed through the centuries. So much of what you read about Cleopatra is revealed via her relationship with Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony but what we’ve tried to do is to put Cleopatra at the centre of the story. She held in her hands the two most powerful men of that time and she was the last pharaoh. I wanted to show that there was an intelligence, exotic beauty and charisma in her and that even after defeat she builds herself back and goes for everything a second time.

Physical Passion - Martha Leebolt, Tobias Bately
Physical Passion - Martha Leebolt, Tobias Bately

What relationship does the dance have to the music?
With Claude-Michel’s music, the dance really comes out of the music. His music is phenomenal for dance and I feel I respond to what he’s written. Maybe because he writes for musicals there’s always a bit more latitude in what you can do with the music. When you pick symphonies and things like that, they’re quite rigid in what they have to say. Claude-Michel’s music is imaginative, sensual and moving and it captures the humanity of the characters. It is very powerful, it moves you and you move to it. For me it’s some of the best music he’s ever written. There’s a rhythm to his stuff that responds to the rhythm for a dancer; an emotional quality. It’s because I’m a romantic and he’s a romantic, I respond to the music, the sadness. It’s the kind of music that people listen to easily and dancers dance to easily. And I think our dancers are emotional artists. They’re able to show you the kind of physical passion that turns into absolute intimacy.

The Court of Ptolemy and Cleopatra
The Court of Ptolemy and Cleopatra

Is there any movement choreography specific to a character? What can you tell us about the set?
We wanted to capture the feeling of the time but with a contemporary point of view. The original concept for the set was to create the most beautiful blank pallet for the projections. I wanted to absolutely not have a set that was trying to be Egypt or over the top, elaborate gold or pyramids. Christopher Giles came up with a picture that was just a stone room with broken columns, and illuminated in a way that made you feel the heat of the room. It works so well with Nina Dunn’s projections whereby you can change scenes so that they appear transitionless. The stage is one colour so the costumes have to bring a lot of colour to that picture.

Is there any movement choreography specific to a character?

Tobias Batley, Martha Leebolt

The choreography is very classical but with a contemporary approach. I think definitely the movement language is different. The dancers are much more physically exposed than in our other productions. The costumes are very simple and they have as little on as possible because they have extraordinarily beautiful bodies and they use them well and expressively. I’m very fortunate that Claude-Michel has written the score for Cleopatra. That’s the most exciting thing because I think his music is so inspiring for dance.

All production photos by Bill Cooper

See News September 2010 for Cleopatra Tour Dates and  News May 2011 for Additional Tour Dates