Choreography by Kenneth Tindall; music by Alexandra Harwood
Northern Ballet
Leeds Grand Theatre

Ayami Miyata (Aiko) and Minju Kang (Okichi) Credit: Guy Farrow

To celebrate its 50th anniversary, Northern Ballet is premièring three new productions this year. The first of these is Geisha, directed and choreographed by Kenneth Tindall—the man responsible for a lustrous staging of Casanova three years ago.

Fascinated by Japanese culture from a young age, Tindall’s latest production draws inspiration from the little-known (at least to western audiences) story of the geisha Okichi. I had no knowledge of the ballet before I sat down to watch it, so was completely unprepared for the supernatural phantasmagoria that awaited me.

The first half takes place in a broadly realistic vein and opens with the daughter of poor villagers, Okichi, being sold to a geisha house. Skip ahead several years, we watch our heroine (Minju Kang) form a deep, sister-like relationship with fellow trainee Aiko (Sarah Chun) before becoming an accomplished geisha.

When the US Navy arrives, Okichi and Aiko are sent by the Mayor (Matthew Topliss) to entertain the Americans. However, whereas Aiko falls in love with her naval officer, Henry (Joseph Taylor), Okichi is humiliated by hers, Townsend Harris (Daniel de Andrade). Shunned by her people for associating with a foreigner, the disgraced Okichi drowns herself.

In the second half, however, Okichi returns from beyond the grave to wreak vengeance on those who destroyed her life, culminating in the murder of Aiko’s beloved. The remainder of the ballet focuses on the complicated relationship between the young heroines. Will their friendship endure from beyond the grave? Will Aiko ever forgive Okichi for her rash actions?

I am deeply impressed by Northern Ballet’s latest production, which I consider the company’s finest new work since Cathy Marston’s Jane Eyre in 2016. Tindall’s Geisha offers audiences an irresistible blend of melodrama and gothic fantasy, combining an imaginative plot with a beautifully detailed tribute to Japanese culture and history.

Screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes has been brought onboard to add substance to the Okichi story, and while the first half is perhaps overloaded with plot, the second provides an utterly transfixing portrayal of supernatural revenge.

Minju Kang is superb as Okichi, powerfully capturing the character’s transformation from pitiful victim to murderous spectre. She is particularly moving in the final scenes as a spirit trapped between two realms. Sarah Chun is equally poignant as heartbroken Aiko, and her duet with Kang towards the end of the show is beautifully realised.

With her kabuki-like movements, Hannah Bateman makes a strong impression as the coolly detached geisha mother. Riku Ito brings lithe athleticism to the part of Takeda—Okichi’s former love—and the scene in which he is supernaturally manipulated into killing Henry is both electrifying and disturbing.

Apart from a few issues with synchronisation in the first half, the dance ensemble brings Tindall’s ambitious choreography to life with great skill.

In the first half, Christopher Oram’s sleek set design captures the elegance of a Japanese geisha house. In the second half, however, he truly outdoes himself. The demonic effigies that rise from the floor are simply jaw-dropping, as is the sight of ghosts appearing from headstones during the Obon Festival. Oram’s period costumes are suitably sumptuous, and the cadaverous look of the spirits reminded me of the ghostly Sadako from Japanese horror classic Ringu (1998).

Alexandra Harwood’s intelligent and sensitive score serves the emotional drama of the piece whilst also evoking 19th-century Japan through the use of traditional instrumentation.

Geisha proves that Kenneth Tindall is a director and choreographer of singular talent, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

Reviewer: James Ballands

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