Reviews Dance Published 19 May 2011


Sadler's Wells ⋄ 17th – 21st May 2011

Northern Ballet stages the life of the Egyptian queen.

Sam Smith
Dance like an Egyptian. Photo: Bill Cooper

In David Nixon’s new production, currently enjoying its London premiere, ancient civilisations, belief systems and legends form an intriguing backdrop to the central story of a queen, mother and lover who would change the course of history.

The piece provides a broadly chronological account of Cleopatra’s life and the setting of ancient Egypt creates an atmospheric backdrop. The dancers’ movements often resemble Egyptian wall paintings and hieroglyphs and because Egyptian art involves graceful straight figures and clean, elegant poses, their reproduction through ballet produces great dividends.

The costumes have been designed to show off this style of dancing. The men are generally bare-chested, allowing the audience to witness every intricate movement of their bodies, while the women’s long, light dresses fall in such a way that they accentuate the beauty of their limbs. The set is similarly effective, predominantly Egyptian in style though also featuring modernist lines and an art deco throne that give the piece a universal resonance, while videos projections are used to create different spaces and moods. The first scene, grey-lit and decayed, features a ruined temple and creates a sense of stepping back into Cleopatra’s story. The use of golden lighting then helps to create a stunning Egyptian palace, while later a radiant white light evokes classical Rome.

Where this production really succeeds is in the way in which Cleopatra is made to seem like a real woman.  Martha Leebolt in the title role captures the vast range of attitudes and feelings required of her character. Her opening dance with the god Wadjet (Giuliano Contadini) conveys all of the spirituality and mysticism that we associate with Ancient Egypt. Then as she fights, scratches and bites with her brother she appears a more earthly figure, even though her superhuman cunning and determination are never hidden from view.

When she first encounters Julius Caesar (Javier Torres) she is alluring, but recognises the importance of letting him show off as well. As her relationship with him develops she shows that she must reserve some love for him, though it is hard to grasp how genuine or needful she really is. Though she appears relatively unmoved by his death, it is difficult to tell whether this is because he meant so little to her, or because she recognises that it would be politically suicidal to reveal her pain. Nixon’s production depicts Cleopatra both at her most powerful and most vulnerable. In the second half she lures Mark Antony (Tobias Batley) in a sexually charged, and visually potent, pas de deux. She later deserts him as Egypt ‘swings’, but when, at his request, she is forced to kill him, her distress is evident even if it doesn’t completely counterbalance her cold heartedness.

Claude-Michel Schönberg, best known for Les Miserables, supplies the score and his music supports the ballet well. Through the use of the harp and other lighter instruments he creates a real sense of the breezy idyllic Nile setting, but he is also capable of pulling out all the stops for the ballet’s more climactic moments. Such astute studies of mood are also in evidence in the ensemble dances that embellish the piece. The cool, tender routine that captures the shimmering of the sun on the Nile’s tranquil waters could not feel more different to the foreboding, menacing physicality of the conspirators’ crazed dancing.

Following its run at Sadler’s Wells, Cleopatra will appear at the Theatre Royal, Nottingham (27th September – 1th October), the New Victoria Theatre, Woking (4th – 8th October) and the Theatre Royal, Norwich (11th – 15th October). For further details visit: Northern Ballet.


Sam Smith is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

Cleopatra Show Info

Produced by Northern Ballet

Choreography by David Nixon

Original Music Claude-Michel Schönberg


Running Time 2 hrs 15 mins (including one 20 minute interval)



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