Northern Ballet is a risk-taking company and it’s on a roll. Following last year’s exemplary productions of 1984 and Jane Eyre (choreographed by Jonathan Watkins and Cathy Marston respectively), the Leeds-based troupe are back at Sadler’s with another hit: Casanova. Choreographed by former principal dancer Kenneth Tindall, it’s a real achievement – a richly textured, engrossing and energetic piece of storytelling, danced with dramatic verve. It’s wonderful to see that Northern Ballet, whose coffers are far from overflowing, take chances on commissions and choreographers – chances which are hugely rewarding for dancers and audience alike.
But enough with the platitudes for now, because there’s the bulging issue of ‘Casanova’ as a pejorative term to confront: Casanova as a byword for a suave serial shagger and dick-swinging braggadocio. With this in mind, it’s easy to baulk (indeed, to feel stirrings of feminist rage) at the idea of a ballet devoted to a dead, pussy-grabbing white man whose 12-volume memoir (written when he was a crabby old librarian in a decrepit Bavarian castle) details – even celebrates – a penchant for pre-pubescent girls and incest.
However, Tindall’s ballet has been created in collaboration with academic and actor Ian Kelly, whose 2008 biography of Casanova reveals the extraordinary polymath beyond the salacious popular image. Casanova was many things besides a lover – a linguist, cabbalist, priest, mathematician, writer, violinist, spy and gambler. There are few longueurs here – the ballet zips along, moving easily between scenes as Casanova changes careers and lovers. The pacy rhythm is aided by a few nifty props (the odd ornate chair, tables and pews on wheels) and Christopher Oram’s inventive set, which brings to life the incense-heavy cathedrals and society salons of 18th-century Venice via a collection of burnished gold pillars. Kerry Muzzey’s score is evocative and energetic, mixing ominous church bells and swirling strings.
Responding to the source material, Casanova’s massive Histoire de ma vie, as a self-fashioning text rather than a matter of truth, Kelly’s book explores the performative quality of Casanova’s life, and this sense of theatricality is brought expertly to the ballet stage. Casanova (Guiliano Contadini) is a mercurial figure, continually being dressed and undressed. His monk’s robes are undone by a pair of seductive sisters, gold frock coats and breeches are bestowed upon him by wealthy benefactors, only to be stripped away by Inquisitors. Contadini is perfectly protean, adept at playing parts and adopting physical languages. As a violinist he partakes in a nimble group dance in which the bowing arm playfully billows and wafts. We see him as a curious intellectual, restless and pacing, his furrowed brow bent over various books. There’s a beautiful section in which a mathematical discussion between Casanova and the foppish Senator Bragadin (Javier Torres) is rendered in movement, their arms and hands forming inquisitive, interlinking geometrical patterns.
What of Casanova the lover? Instead of dishing up a load of conventional crotch-splitting, spread-eagled ballet-sex, Tindall suffuses many of the pas de deux with a startling sense of generosity. Casanova lifts Henriette (the excellent Hannah Bateman), an escapee from a brutal husband who’s disguised herself as a man, through a series of breezy running steps. It’s a lovely, liberating sequence.
Then there’s Bellino (Dreda Blow), a girl who’s pretending to be a castrato, bedecked in an excellent pair of metallic pumpkin breeches with an attached beige protuberance. Casanova, obviously, is intrigued by the appendage. (According to the man himself, it was “a kind of cat-gut, long, limp and as thick as one’s thumb, pale, and of very soft leather”, secured by gum made from a shrub. At 40, he was already suffering from erectile dysfunction, so he open-mindedly encouraged her to use it as a sort of precursory strap-on.) Anyway, Bellino’s evasiveness is gradually eroded – her costume and binding peeled away, fake leathery knob and all – as the pair plunge into a duet filled with ecstatic lifts and supported extensions.
What Tindall and Kelly try to show is that Casanova wasn’t always a canny seducer, but sometimes seduced by rebellious women for whom sex was powerful form of expression. A randy and determined nun, M.M (Ailen Ramos Betancourt) quickly gets the libertine into a compromising position over a table, all the while watched through a keyhole by a lurking lover. M.M might have the upper hand and the agency on one occasion, but sex is her only currency. She’s still trapped in a convent, an object to be peeped at. As with all Casanova’s female lovers, disease and disgrace are the lasting fruits of surmounting sexual frontiers.
So, to frame Casanova as a kind of proto-bastion of the sex positivity movement whose pursuit of the sensual is celebratory and free from moral censure, and whose love of women is genuine and respectful, seems like wishful thinking. The ballet’s tendency to sanitise is its one major flaw, though perhaps that’s inevitable, seeing as it’s a form that’s wordlessly eloquent about emotional states, but constrained when it comes to the socio-economic complexities and minutiae of narrative. So, we don’t see Cas succumb to syphilis, imbibe lead, or sluice out his re-usable condoms. Kenneth MacMillan might have wrenched ballet into the realm of sexual wretchedness and pathology (Mayerling, anyone?) but Tindall steers clear of the really troublesome stuff – namely the young girls and incest (Casanova impregnated his daughter and wrote that “I have never been able to conceive how a father could tenderly love his charming daughter without having [sic] slept with her at least once”).
Still, this is a superbly danced and successful piece of storytelling that confirms Tindall as a major choreographic talent who handles narrative with clarity and élan. Bravo. Now I’m off to get myself a pair of those augmented breeches.
Casanova is at Sadler’s Wells until May 13th. For more details, click here.