Northern Ballet: Madame Butterfly @ Theatre Royal

This passionate tale of love and subsequent sacrifice was charmingly played by the company of Northern Ballet, whose flair and style portrayed a clash between cultures which eventually led to the betrayal of this love. David Nixon’s Madame Butterfly was written for the woman he would later marry and the themes of passion and lust could be felt throughout.

The glint of a dagger and the suicide of a father (Giuliano Contadini) opened this ballet with immediate energy and darkness however, this was soon brightened by the appearance of the geisha ensemble.  Kimonos of vibrant colours, created by Julie Anderson, were given life by the staccato nature of the choreography. The inclusion of parasols added flair and placed the dance firmly in the East, although they could sometimes accentuate the slight miss-timings of the dancers.

Nixon’s choreography moved between the elegant poise of the geisha to the youthful liveliness of the joking trio of naval officers with great effect. The difference in culture was clear from the start and further emphasised through the shifts in the music of Longstaff and Pryce-Jones. The upbeat, pompous brass of the American influence seemed somewhat harsh against the dainty chimes of the shamisen-like instrument which accompanied the swirls of the geisha, a glimpse at the conflict to come as Naval Officer Pinkerton (John Hull) became increasingly bewitched by Butterfly (Michela Paolacci).

The skill and strength of the male dancers in the company was evident throughout but no more so than during the wedding ceremony. Kevin Poeung, Sebastian Loe, Isaac Lee-Baker perfectly executed their energetic sequence of leaps, adding spice to this section of the performance.  Under the boughs of cherry blossom, an effective design feature by Ali Allen, Butterfly eventually bowed to the affections of Pinkerton, though her demure reservation was sustained throughout this engaging duet as two differing romantic traditions became one.

As the blossom was replaced with autumnal leaves the seasonal change reflected the start of Butterfly’s wait for her lover’s return.

The development of friendship between herself and her maid became a joy to watch, as the two giggled together and awaited the arrival of Pinkerton. It was these small nuances in the choreography, the mixing of classical ballet with Eastern influence, the knowing smiles or the flexed foot that added spark to this performance and told of the people and cultures behind the dance.

A mural lowered into the American dressing room of Pinkerton’s wife maintained the presence of Butterfly as a centrepiece in the thoughts of Pinkerton and the audience. It was these key pieces of staging, the boughs of the tree or the simple lines of the Okiya, which worked so effectively with the ever shifting lighting by Olivier Award winning designer Peter Mumford, to move the ballet from Japan to New York and back again.

A thrashing of red silk within a black box showed the Butterfly’s final descent into despair, in what was a shattering concluding dance. The pained soul heard in the recorded score told of the betrayed geisha’s anguish as a glint of metal ended the ballet on the same dark note with which it began. This breathtakingly beautiful piece artfully showed the effects of a conflict between cultural traditions and beliefs when passion has been founded in these differences.

Lauren Wilson 

See Madame Butterfly at the Theatre Royal until Saturday 13th October

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