Cleopatra at Leeds Grand Theatre

Tobias Batley (Caesar) and Martha Leebolt (Cleopatra).
Tobias Batley (Caesar) and Martha Leebolt (Cleopatra).
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If you’re going to blow audiences and critics away with a comeback show it’s a savvy move to enlist the elite talents of Claude-Michel Schonberg.

The legendary French composer is the genius behind a long line of huge stage epics ranging from Les Miserables to Miss Saigon.

Now, after writing the score for Cleopatra, he’s a crucial contributor to Northern Ballet’s latest production, which has its world premiere in Leeds this weekend.

Due to financial constraints and a time-consuming move into a new HQ in Leeds city centre, this is the company’s first new work in over two years.

Which is why artistic director David Nixon wanted to make such a big impression. Of course, Schonberg’s addition to the credits goes a long way, but it also helps if you base a production on one of history’s most notorious women.

“I’m always looking for great characters,” says Nixon who started working on the project almost two years ago. “Cleopatra’s an incredible woman and a great role to develop.

“Her story’s also something that people know but there’s no definitive version. Years ago there was the Liz Taylor and Richard Burton film, but that’s not really in our present day psyche.

“Fortunately that gives us a lot of freedom in terms of how we do the story and more latitude with the expectations of the audience, which allows for more creativity and imagination.”

Part of his motivation was also to try to reveal the true Egyptian queen. Popular and high culture have explored her legend with everything from slapstick in Carry on Cleo to Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and Jules Massenet’s opera Cléopâtre.

But Nixon feels we’ve always been somewhat misled.

He says: “The trouble is that the first historians and writers were Romans who were probably trying to discredit her. She was always portrayed as a beauty and the point is that that made her seem less intelligent and more of a whore.

“In fact, we aren’t too sure what she looked like and there is some evidence that she may even have been a virgin and Caeser was in fact her first love.

“Even the story about her rolling out of a carpet may be a little misleading, chances are that she actually was carried in covered up by something more like a sack.”

Nixon wrestled with the challenge of creating something as epic as this within the natural constraints of dance and the variety of theatres which a touring company like Northern Ballet has to fit inside.

The answer was one which came to him when he returned to his native Canada and witnessed the opening ceremony of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

It featured an aspect which he has employed extensively in Cleopatra: projections.

“They will hopefully be what makes it all come to life,” he says. “The projections mean we don’t need quite so much ‘stuff’ on stage so we have more room and, in turn, that give the dancers far more freedom of movement.

“That freedom is our concern, but audiences still expect a certain visual experience, and this is a way in which we can accommodate both.

“Also, we have to give people something different and this is something we’ve never really used before. If it achieves half of what I’m hoping it will achieve then I will be pleased.

“With just days to go I feel like a kid in a sweet shop – everything looks like it will be good but will the end product actually be as good as it looks?

“Everything has to work together, the lighting, the projections, the set, the dancers, the costumes. But the starting point was always the score.”

Nixon first started working with Schonberg almost a decade ago when the latter was recommended to approach Northern Ballet with a score for adapting Emily Bronte’s book Wuthering Heights into a ballet. (Randomly enough the recommendation came from ballet fan and TV presenter Angela Rippon.)

After premiering the work and reviving it a few years ago, the composer and artistic director started talking about the idea of creating Cleopatra as a work of dance.

Nixon wasn’t instantly convinced, but Schonberg used his ultimate weapon to convince him.

“We knew we definitely wanted to work together,” the composer recalls. “So I went home and started to write a new scenario and then asked him to come to what I had done – he wasn’t sure.

“So I just kept on writing more and more music and giving it to him. When he was finally covered in sheets of paper he was, like, ‘Ok, ok, I’ll do it!’ My intention was always to force him.

“Like all creators he has doubts and I was just there to encourage him and bring to the surface what he had inside him.”

Unlike with Wuthering Heights, Nixon and Schonberg have worked far more in tandem on Cleopatra, altering the score and relevant scenes so they dovetail perfectly in a joint vision of what the finished ballet should look and sound like.

It’s quite a change for the composer, who’s more used to working with bigger producers and companies in New York or London. He’s had to adapt, but relishes the chance to.

Schonberg says: “Northern Ballet are a touring company so they have to give me a relatively small stage, which means you’re not going to be able to physically recreate Cleopatra’s entrance to Rome. And I don’t have 75 musicians or whatever like I might if I were working with English National Ballet, but anything is possible.

“I like a challenge and the reason why I am more selective about what I do these days is that I don’t want to keep doing the same things over and over.

“I think there is neither big nor small work, there’s just good work and bad work. If we can achieve a wonderful ballet in Leeds I would feel just as proud as if I’d achieved a big musical on Broadway or the West End.”

Not only are expectations high, but there’s a certain amount riding on this show. It not only represents something of a comeback for Northern Ballet, it’s also part of a significant rebranding exercise for the company who, in a matter of months, changed their home, logo and overall look.

This is not only a statement of intent but also a way to show the world why Northern Ballet exists. It’s crucial at a time when all arts organisations are facing cuts and forced to justify continued funding.

“The pressure has been the only downside of this whole process,” says Nixon. “There’s been an awful amount of pressure to succeed with Cleopatra. We don’t just want it to do well, we really need it to do well.

“We need to get those audiences through the doors but, more than that, we’d like to show people what we can do with the limited resources we already have. We want to show why we’re a worthwhile investment.

“We have to go on creating new works as well as reviving old ones because our whole life is based around that balance. We haven’t done a new, full length production since Hamlet which was in February 2009, but with Cleopatra we’re finally back to where we need to be and where we should be.”

• Saturday to March 5, Leeds Grand Theatre, New Briggate, Leeds, 7.30pm, Thu and Sat mats 2.30pm, £8.50 to £37. Tel: 0844 8482705.

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