Northern Ballet: Perpetuum Mobile, Madame Butterfly
The Curve, Leicester; June 5, 2015
For this tour, artistic director David Nixon has rethought his Madame Butterfly to allow it to be danced on smaller stages. The cast numbers just fourteen, and the setting has been revised, although is still unmistakably Japan. It has made the whole thing more intimate and, if anything, has sharpened the focus and clarified the narrative.
This is very much the unfortunate Butterfly’s story; the tale of a Geisha who falls for an American naval officer on shore leave, but who then abandon’s her without a thought. When he returns with his American wife, Butterfly’s heart is broken, leading her to make the ultimate sacrifice. It’s a heart-rending tale, and one Nixon tells deftly, never rushing things, always remembering the underlying emotion.
Pippa Moore is a fine actress. She holds the stage brilliantly, laying bare Butterfly’s feelings of innocent love, longing and betrayal. In Act I, she is at first filled with shyness which slowly translates into almost puppyish gay abandon as her affections for Pinkerton surface. The naivety of the child she is little more than is there for all to see; a stark contrast to the brash outgoing arrogance of Pinkerton and his two sailor friends.
At the start of Act II, she runs through the whole gamut of emotions as she remembers the now departed Pinkerton. She takes you with her on her sometimes happy, sometimes painful journey through her memories and hopes. After Pinkerton returns with his new wife Kate, and flees before Butterfly even sees him, Moore’s face was writ large with despair when she realises the truth of the situation. The passing of her and Pinkerton’s son to Kate, all done very quickly, is strangely emotionless, though.
Guest dancer Kelley McKinlay, a principal with Canada’s Alberta Ballet, made a fine Pinkerton, every inch the tall, good-looking American naval officer. He is a strong partner and needs to be; the duets between the lovers include a number of tricky lifts. In Act I there is more than a hint of On the Town as he and his sailor colleagues (the excellent Joseph Taylor and Mlindi Kulashe) set about enjoying the delights of Japan, and the geishas in particular.
For Butterfly’s dramatic dance of death, Nixon moves from excerpts from the Puccini opera to traditional Japanese music. At first it jars, but as the fatal moment nears on a stage now bathed blood red, it seems more and more appropriate. When the deed is done, there’s a final fluttering; a last reaching out to what might have been; and a moment’s silence as it all sinks in. It’s not just marvellous, potent dance; it’s marvellous, potent theatre.
Of the supporting roles, Luisa Rocco deserves special mention for her playing of Suzuki, Butterfly’s ever-present maid. This is one of those tricky roles where there’s not much to do in terms of dance, but a lot to do in terms of presence and simply being there. Filippo DiVilio did all he could with Goro, the marriage broker but, and despite his dramatic dance, Hironao Takahashi failed to convince as Bonze, the holy man who denounces Butterfly for converting to Christianity. Ashley Dixon got Sharpless, the somewhat detached American Consul, just about right.
Nixon also designed the near perfect costumes: Pinkerton in his stiff Navy whites, Sharpless in his hat and suit, and the Japanese women in flowing costumes based on traditional Japanese dress. Steven Wilkins and Griz Pedley’s set consists of nothing more than a small house, a glimpse of a tree, a huge moon and falling cherry blossom. Pared down and simple it may be, but I doubt a much larger affair would do any better.
The appearance of Christopher Hampson’s abstract Perpetuum Mobile in Leicester is part of a welcome development. Northern Ballet has a strong and deserved reputation for quality narrative ballets, but now the company is broadening its programmes and taking a more mixed repertory on tour, something previously only available to audiences in Leeds and, more latterly, London.
Perpetuum Mobile is a sunny ballet. Given that it was inspired by Bach’s splendid Violin Concerto in E Major, could it be anything else? As the title suggests, the dance never stops. The cast of nine sailed through Hampson’s delicious, light choreography like yachts skimming across the water in a delicious breeze. They mostly appear as smaller groups, forever coming and going as Hampson’s steps and floor patterns become ever more layered, ever more complex.
At the heart of the work is an sensuous extended pas de deux, here nicely danced by Lucia Solari and Javier Torres. As the lighting dims, it’s the one part of the ballet where there is just a hint of a narrative. Among the supporting dancers, the opening pairing of Miki Akuta and Kulashe stood out, the latter showing some impressive elevation in his jumps, yet always landing feather-light.