Dancing to the tune of Puccini

Madame Butterfly

Wedding guests celebrate Butterfly's marriage. Pictures: Emma Kauldhar

Madame Butterfly

Northern Ballet

Wolverhampton Grand


IF you thought Madame Butterfly was a much loved opera by Puccini, think again, in the hands of David Nixon, the tragic tale of heartless US Navy Lieutenant, Pinkerton, and his Geisha bride, Cio-Cio San, has become a beautifully staged ballet.

Nixon, the Canadian artistic director of Northern Ballet since 2001, created the ballet for the then struggling company in 2002, and, like the cherry trees in the Japanese set, Northern, based in Leeds, has blossomed into one of the leading ballet companies in the country.

This was Northern Ballet’s first visit to the Grand and what welcome visitors they are bringing not only Butterfly but a shorter, more classical opener, Perpetuum Mobile, choreographed by Scottish Ballet’s artistic director Christopher Hampson, to Bachs Violin Concerto in E Major, complete with pianist Andrew Dunlop on harpsichord.

Madame Butterfly has all the makings of a tragic opera, romance, love, betrayal and, finally, the death of our heroine but the tale can be told equally in dance and, like the ballets of Tchaikovsky, Puccini’s much loved score gives a sweeping, symphonic canvas upon which the dancers can paint their tragic tale.

Rachael Gillespie is just exquisite as Butterfly, the Geisha chosen by the fates for heartbreak. Not only does she dance beautifully but she can act, we not only see but we feel her fears, her happiness, her pain and her final despair.

Ashley Dixon is suitably smarmy as the marriage broker setting her up with Pinkerton – for a fee -while South African dancer Mlindi KulasButterflyhe gives us both Bonze, the Holy man angry as Butterfly’s dalliance with Christianity, and Prince Yamadori, Butterfly’s wealthy, preening, pompous, pain in the proverbial suitor.

Cuban dancer Javier Torres is a dashing Pinkerton, producing some fine dancing as the handsome lieutenant who eventually sweeps a geisha off her feet in a romantic pas de deux before sailing back to the US leaving her penniless and pregnant.

Martha Leebolt as Butterfly in an past performance of Madame Butterfly

Their go-betweens are the US Consul in the equally fated Nagasaki, Sharpless, danced with some style in a suit by Sean Bates,who has the uneviable task of telling Butterfly Pinkerton is married in the USA, and Suzuki, Butterfly’s loyal maid, danced sympathetically by Ayami Miyata who hails from Japan.

She is part of one of the most haunting dances of the piece to the music of one of the best known arias in opera’s repertoire, Un bel di, (one fine day), a theme so emotive that it will hold its own in any medium.

Nixon has topped and tailed his retelling of the story with traditional Japanese music which helps set the scene, the final piece being a song which appears full of bitterness and anguish leading up to Butterfly’s suicide by the only thing she has left in the world, her father’s Samurai sword.

The final dance, in blood red lighting, is ritualistic, ever more frantic and sad as we watch Butterfly’s world disintegrate having lost her husband, child and now her life.

The child incidentally was played with commendable concentration by tots Jessica Bill or Ava Hupperdine.

Nixon also designed the excellent costumes, no doubt helped by his wife, Japanese dancer and teacher, Yoko Ichino, and he had a hand in the simple set designed by Steven Wilkins  and Griz Pedley. The set had tree branches which appeared from the flies in blossom or autumn colours to show passing of time, and had little more than a giant rising and falling sun and a simple Japanese house, leavings a stage free for the story told by the dancers.

Upon that is overlaid imaginative lighting from Alastair West which sets moods, times of day and emotions from dawn to sunset, spring days and happiness to the blood red of despair. Wonderful stuff.

Perpetuum was a much different proposition as a curtain raiser. More a ballet étude than a narrative piece, with nine dancers and a lovely pas de deux from Abigail Prudames, and Joseph Taylor, who both trained at Elmhurst School for Dance.

All to the Northern Ballet Sinfonia under John Pryce-Jones who sound much bigger than their 11-strong touring orchestra.

Nixon has turned Northern Ballet around from a barely alive basket case when he joined, into a world class ballet company and it is to be hoped we will be seeing more of his charges in the Midlands in the future to complement our own Birmingham Royal Ballet.

If you have never seen ballet and fancy giving it a try, the classical bit is short and gives you an idea of the strength and athleticism demanded of a ballet dancer and the main feature has a simple storyline which is easy to follow with lovely music. If you are a ballet fan, it is a treat. To 03-06-15.

Roger Clarke



A view from the shoreline


MOST people think of Puccini’s great opera when considering Madam Butterfly, but here it was transformed into a beautiful, emotional ballet by the hugely talented Leeds-based Northern Ballet.

The dancing was superb in the specially adapted story of how American naval officer Lieutenant Pinkerton wins then breaks the heart of teenage Geisha girl, Butterfly, who believes she is entering a serious marriage.

Puccini’s music was well performed by the Northern Ballet Sinfonia, under musical director John Pryce-Jones, and the use of traditional Japanese music in the tragic finale added considerably to the dramatic impact.

Rachael Gillespie danced with sublime technique as Butterfly, and had an impressive partner in the handsome Cuban, Javier Torres who looked every inch the military hero, and the pair delivered a delightful, sensual dance before spending their first night together.

Mlindi Kulashe gave a suitably menacing performance as the Holy Man, Bonze, angered at Butterfly’s decision to betray her own religion to adopt her husband’s Christian faith, and later in the role of would-be suitor Prince Yamadori.

Fine contributions, too, from Sean Bates as the American Consul, Sharpless, and Ayami Miyata, Butterfly’s maid, Suzuki.

Before Madam Butterfly, members of the company performed Christopher Hampson’s short, neoclassical piece Perpetuum Mobile which proved a real bonus for the audience.

Paul Marston 

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