Ian Kelly: A life in dance

Ian Kelly.
Ian Kelly.
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As Northern Ballet’s latest work, inspired by the life of Casanova, opens in Leeds next month, Yvette Huddleston spoke to the great lover’s biographer.

The one thing most of us know about Giacomo Casanova is that he was a prodigious sexual adventurer, but there was actually a lot more to the infamous 18th century seducer than just that.

A polymath who wrote 42 books, including a five-volume early sci-fi novel, as well as philosophical and mathematical treatises, poems and plays, this was a man whose impressive intellect clearly matched his formidable sex drive. It is this more rounded view of ‘the world’s greatest lover’ that Northern Ballet is aiming to bring to light with its latest production, Casanova, which premieres next month.

In recent years the Leeds-based company has excelled at narrative works adapted from classic books and plays – Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Dracula, Romeo and Juliet, The Great Gatsby, Macbeth and 1984 are all examples that have made their way successfully into their repertoire – but this is the first time they have been inspired by a work of non-fiction.

The acclaimed 2008 biography of Casanova has been their starting point and its author Ian Kelly has been working with choreographer Kenneth Tindall and the company on developing the ballet. Kelly, who is himself a man of many talents – writer, actor, historian and dramatist – has been thrilled to be part of the process of bringing Casanova’s story to the stage in dance form.

“It has been one of the most enjoyable creative experiences of my life so far,” he says. “There was an approach from Northern Ballet more than a year ago about the dramatic rights to the biography which was exciting – as a non-fiction writer, ballet is not where I expected it to go.” He met up with Tindall and they began talking about collaborating on a scenario. Kelly has previously adapted some of his own books for the stage. His biography of one-legged 18th century dramatist, actor and theatre manager Samuel Foote became the West End hit Mr Foote’s Other Leg in 2015. He has also created stage versions of his biographies of Regency dandy Beau Brummell and of chef to 19th century European royalty Antonin Carême. “I have done a lot of plays and screenplays but in ballet there is a whole other canvas you are working with,” says Kelly.

“You are dealing with metaphor and the impressions that dance and movement can give. I thought about the various stories we might tell and some of the big ideas of the time that we might want to try and address. There is a lot of new work in the academic field at the moment around the idea that the first sexual revolution took place in the 18th century – and Casanova was right at the centre of that.” At different points in his life Casanova was a trainee priest, a violinist, served in the army and the diplomatic corps, collaborated with Mozart on the opera Don Giovanni and ended up as a librarian.

He was a gifted linguist who could speak eight languages and write in four. “He was incredibly intellectually curious,” says Kelly. “He had an amazing energy and he was reinventing himself all the time.” This was the age of the Enlightenment and Casanova’s own writing reflects some of the thinking of that time, such as the idea of consciousness and the inner self.

His best known work, published posthumously, is The History of My Life written in his later years on the advice of his doctor in an effort to ease his melancholia. “He never imagined it would be published,” says Kelly. “But he wrote about a sensual universe and the joys of his life from a place where he was no longer joyful.”

It also contains a degree of self-knowledge and perhaps even some regret. “It is a reflection on what it means to balance sexual freedom and the damage one might do to oneself and other people.”

Northern Ballet’s Casanova, Leeds Grand Theatre from March 11. Ian Kelly’s biography of Casanova is published by Hodder and Stoughton, £9.99.