Northern Ballet | Sky Arts goes behind the scenes as the company creates Beauty and the Beast
How many times have you heard cries of “we’re not ready yet” or, “it’s not finished” when opening night looms for a new ballet ? We saw it in Agony & Ecstasy : A Year with English National Ballet, and backstage at the Leeds Grade Theatre with Northern Ballet it is no different.
Beauty and the Beast was choreographed, despite stinging arts cuts, on tour – an added challenge for the dancers and Artistic Director David Nixon OBE – towards the end of The Nutcracker tour in Manchester and for four weeks at their home base, Quarry Hill in Leeds, before opening night on December 17th last year.
Narrated by Juliet Stevenson, Sky Arts at the Northern Ballet is a half hour documentary following the fortunes of the dancers and staff as the premiere looms. “It’ll come together. It always does” says dancer Graham Kotowich, and Rachael Gillespie says that the dancers are used to putting ballets in boxes and that dancing Nutcracker and rehearsing Beauty at the same time is quite normal for them.
Premier Dancer Martha Leebolt dances Beauty, with Hull born Ashley Dixon cast as Beast. They’ve not been cast together before, partly because Dixon is shorter than Leebolt and in classical ballet terms, not ideally suited to partner her. But Nixon wanted his power and physicality as Beast and says of him “Ashley dances way beyond what he should be dancing.” Returning to rehearsals of Beauty, Leebolt says, “every day until we open Beauty and the Beast on December 17th will be full on, definitely. Really difficult rehearsals. There’s no time to ease your way back into it. I have to turn on mentally to pick up steps quickly, to fix them if I’m not able to do them right away.”
Nixon admits that his ideas for the choreography of Beauty are late and that choreographing on tour is difficult when the space around you changes every day. Of the dancers, he says “they were unbelievably focused and super because they knew they didn’t have a lot of time.”
The Sky crew join Leebolt as she takes time out at 18th Century stately home, Harewood House in Yorkshire – one of the first she visited when she came to England from her native California. Leebolt enjoys the hard work that comes with ballet but finds it very hard to switch off especially when new roles are being created because the music and the steps play in her head all the time. Finding something arty where she can be calm and enjoy the beauty of the surroundings is very important to her.
As the technical rehearsals begin, tensions mount backstage. The dress rehearsal turned out to be the first time they’d run everything; normally they would tech each Act at least once but until the night before the dress they hadn’t run everything or even seen Act 2. The huge sets are a challenge for Leebolt.
In design terms, Beauty and the Beast is a haute couture mash-up borrowing from past, present and future : of Amy Winehouse 50’s retro beehive, Armani in 2050 and Made in Chelsea, with the focus very much on the ‘look’ and how, generally, we are all obsessed about outward appearance. Unusually, the designs have influenced Nixon’s choreography in a way that they never have before.
As ever in ballet, the cast and company pull together on opening night and Dixon sums up by saying “for me, it’s the best premiere I’ve ever had.” Leebolt finds that you can gain something new from every show, and Nixon pays tribute to the company who did everything they could to make the premiere happen.
Sky Arts at the Northern Ballet
Sunday, 15th January @ 5pm
repeated on 15th January at 5pm on Sky Arts 2
Sky Arts 2 HD TV listing
Read Sugar Plum Moments with Martha Leebolt
See Martha Leebolt in ballet class
Visit Harewood House