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Casanova

Choreography Kenneth Tindall, music Kerry Muzzey
Northern Ballet
Sadler’s Wells

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Northern Ballet Casanova Credit: Emma Kauldhar
Aerys Merrill and Julie Nunes in Casanova Credit: Riku Ito
Joseph Taylor and Abigail Prudames in Casanova Credit: Caroline Holden
Joseph Taylor and Minju Kang in Casanova Credit: Emma Kauldhar
Joseph Taylor and Minju Kang in Casanova Credit: Riku Ito
Joseph Taylor and Saeka Shirai in Casanova Credit: Riku Ito
Joseph Taylor in Casanova Credit: Caroline Holden
Northern Ballet Casanova Credit: Emma Kauldhar
Northern Ballet Casanova Credit: Caroline Holden

What do you know about Casanova? Prepare to have it subverted as well as verified in a milieu of smells and bells, religion, sex and high society in Venice and Paris in the eighteenth century.

A graphic (in every sense, lots of crotches, splits in the air and beautiful bodies) comic strip novel of Casanova’s early life (with several walk-on parts)—how he became the Casanova of legend—it wasn't that he was a bad sort, just that society was. He was originally training for the priesthood, though he’d have found plenty of sex there, all those available nuns… and doesn't one get sucked in… Ultimately, he crosses the Rubicon and dons a Janus mask to fit in.

Venice a place of masks and Mardi Gras all year round, the corrupt church fathers enjoying carnal pleasures and a touch of voyeurism, whilst the Inquisition has its own sadistic vices. Paris, Versailles, halls of mirrors, bordellos and gaming tables… cross-dressing, androgyny, fluid gender, gilded fruit and gilded youth. Casanova seems to have two serious loves, both women in travesti, one to escape an abusive relationship, the other to have a male career. But he wasn't averse to threesomes and orgies of any gender.

Patronage helped, toy boy to Madame de Pompadour (Hannah Bateman) in Paris and to Senator Bragadin (who seems to have loved him for real) in Venice. Both take Casanova under their wings, protection he sorely needed, for was he inquisitive… ripe for the Inquisition’s dungeons… think Ken Russell, think Franco Zeffirelli. Think Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon. The eroticism of Catholic Church ritual is symbolised in those wheeling spinning prayer stalls. And women’s bodies are musical instruments to be played with cello bows…

Talking of music, the thriller-ish cinematic score, speaking of secrets and illicit deeds, does much of the heavy dramatic lifting. Choreographer Kenneth Tindall’s first full-length ballet and composer Kerry Muzzey’s first commission for a ballet—Casanova was a hit in 2017, and really I could almost write the same review I wrote then, except there are subtle changes, not just in casting. It feels less overloaded, if still not entirely clear as to who’s who. Should one need a two-page synopsis?

This time I do know who is who and ignore the synopsis. My companion is confused, but enjoys the pas de deux as well he might. They are the highlights of the ballet, as they were in MacMillan’s ballets. And the dancers are terrific: Joseph Taylor an obliging polite Casanova, his several female partners (Abigail Prudames as M.M. the willing nun, Minju Kang as Bellino the breast bandaged castrato, Saeka Shirai as Henriette, Sena Kitano as Manon Balletti) provide the salacious sex in a tangle of limbs and deep pliés.

Javier Torres, who I hear is retiring this season, too early surely, repeats his Bragadin of five years ago with sly panache—I never did get to see his Casanova…The stage is filled with busy interludes for the company in masquerade balls, as courtesans and gamblers, seminarians, castrati, musicians, which has the effect of making Sadler’s Wells seem larger than it is.

Christopher Oram’s atmospheric set and costume designs, gold, glitter, faded peeling gilding, blacks and reds, are probably the stars of the show, lit by Alastair West in blinding chiaroscuro, spotlights cutting through the mist and gloom. “In here life is beautiful, the girls are beautiful, even the orchestra is beautiful”, but the rich, sordid underbelly will soon have its nemesis in the coming revolution.

To say Casanova led an eventful life is an understatement, and it was an eventful century. He recorded his life at epic length (twelve volumes), Ian Kelly’s biography on which the scenario is based is four hundred plus pages, this ballet is just two hours in length, hence its snapshot scenes that play to Casanova’s image. Never mind the hundreds of notches on his bedpost, the polymath is not omitted, his interest in forbidden literature, a book lighting up from within. In the end, pages rain down on him as he balances on the edge of life in a haunted solo and all his recalled characters parade before him.

David Nixon is retiring as artistic director after twenty years, and former Royal Ballet Principal Federico Bonelli is replacing him as of this month. Again, as with Torres, it feels too soon for him to be hanging up his dancing shoes. Royal Ballet colleagues are out in force tonight to support the changeover. The press are treated to wine and ice cream—now that’s decadence for you… I love Northern Ballet, their can-do ethic, and look forward to their next visit. Nixon is handing over a fine ship.

Reviewer: Vera Liber