Northern Ballet’s Madame Butterfly

Ever since being captivated by their rendition of Dracula way back in 2000, I have tried to make seeing a Northern Ballet Theatre production at Sheffield’s Lyceum Theatre a yearly event. This time round it was Northern Ballet artistic director David Nixon’s staging of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, the tragic story of doomed cross-cultural love. If you know Miss Saigon, you know the story. A young Geisha girl nicknamed Butterfly marries an American officer, only to find herself alone with their child, desperately hoping for his return. When it comes, however, it is not the joyful reunion Butterfly was expecting.

The first act takes a while to hit its stride, and I did wonder if this was to be the blot on Northern Ballet’s otherwise immaculate copybook. The establishment of context is obviously important in ballet, but the focus on local colour stretches on for too long, despite being visually impressive and technically well staged. Of the dancers, the men are definitely the better served initially. The girls put on a good show, but their technique is obscured by some ungainly costumes. It is difficult for ballerinas to express their grace underneath an ornate geisha outfit, though having said that the surprisingly avant-garde finale makes a virtue of the juxtaposition of balletic body-popping and billowing garments. The gents do much better, dressed either in Officer and a Gentleman-style naval whites or more practical Oriental gear. Things improve radically at the end of the act, however, with the story building to its first crescendo in a sensual dance between husband and wife, the furtive courtship of the lovers masterfully expressed (in the performance I saw) by Pippa Moore and Tobias Batley.

Act Two has none of the problems I perceived at the start, with the narrative flowing along in glorious harmony with the dancing. I don’t know what it is about ballet that makes it the perfect medium to express a doomed love, but in my mind it unquestionably is. With Puccini’s wonderful music underscoring the action, the emotional rollercoaster races to its grim conclusion. Moore and Batley, though apart, carry the intimacy of their conjugal dance into their individual movements and facial expressions. It has been noted that Northern Ballet’s performers are particularly skilled at acting alongside their dancing, and this was certainly proven here. The aforementioned avant-garde conclusion is sure to divide opinion, but personally I applaud them for testing the limits of performance and staging. It was quite unlike anything I have seen done before in ballet; Moore contrasted her previous fluidity with careful rigidity, swamped in her robes, while the gaudy red lighting and screeching Japanese song accentuated this alien dance. Experimentation should be praised, and even those who did not enjoy this weird turn will have trouble forgetting it.

Madame Butterfly stands, then, as yet another triumph for Northern Ballet, with even its weaker points serving to show that this is a company unafraid of testing their limits, stretching their repertoire and exploring new ways to rework classic texts. They will continue their tour of Madame Butterfly at Nottingham’s Theatre Royal from the 9th to the 13th of October. Both for ballet die-hards and those who appreciate brave theatrical efforts, this comes highly recommended.