Madame Butterfly with Perpetuum Mobile

Choreography David Nixon, Christopher Hampson
Northern Ballet
Richmond Theatre, London

Pippa Moore as Butterfly in David Nixon's Madame Butterfly Credit: Merlin Hendy
Northern Ballet dancers in David Nixon's Madame Butterfly Credit: Emma Kauldhar
Bonze's costume from David Nixon's Madame Butterfly Credit: Courtesy of Northern Ballet

Hurrah for Northern Ballet’s new initiative: to take their productions, combining popular story ballets with short contemporary classical pieces to small venues that have not seen them before as well as to some that have.

To places perhaps parched of dance productions. I am reminded of Alan Bennett’s, "That's a bit like asking a man crawling across the Sahara whether he would prefer Perrier or Malvern water".

Well, Northern Ballet is the Perrier and the Malvern. And the audience in the intimate Richmond Theatre is very appreciative, though the theatre’s steeply raked tiny stage tests the resilience of the dancers in Christopher Hampson’s hyperactive seventeen-minute Perpetuum Mobile with its classical batterie.

Bach’s Violin Concerto in E Major awakens the senses, but one worries about the dancers overleaping the small stage—one grand jeté and they are nearly over the footlights.

One is made aware of the challenges a touring company faces, acclimatizing to venues as they go. Must be exhausting, not that it shows on this youthful company. Lucia Solari and Javier Torres are the outstanding central couple and Kevin Poeung stands out in the corps.

The audience sighs with pleasure at the pretty final tableau. There is a three-minute pause, after which follow the two forty-minute acts of David Nixon’s aesthetically pleasing dance drama, Madame Butterfly.

Most will know the opera and its famous arias. Those who love the opera will miss the instrument of the voice; some will find the stunning visuals compensate. Northern Ballet is touring with a live orchestra, the Northern Sinfonia, for whom John Longstaff has re-orchestrated Puccini’s score.

Artistic Director David Nixon’s forte is the narrative ballet, with a whole list of them to his name, and Madame Butterfly seems to be entirely his vision. Choreography, costume design and set design concept are his, but it is a team effort. Alastair West’s lighting and Steven Wilkins and Griz Pedley’s set designs have that wow factor, too.

A collective gasp goes up as the curtain rises on a Japanese scene of geisha dance to the twang of (recorded I think) shamisen strings. So is the demure Cio Cio San—Butterfly—introduced to us.

A slip of a girl with few worldly goods: a comb, a moneybox and her father’s samurai sword. Applying Chekhov’s maxim, that sword will do service at the end. She carries the evening and Pippa Moore is mesmerising in solo and wedding duet with Kelley McKinlay's Pinkerton—dance as foreplay.

Will-o-the-wisp Moore’s delicacy of movement, her butterfly hands, choreography that channels something of Japan throughout, and wonderfully restrained acting carries the evening. Her glorious lengthy duets with guest principal McKinlay—his matinée idol looks don’t hurt—are almost equal to the aria. Timidity yields to abandon, reserve thaws into trust, as love and passion awaken.

Three American sailors (Sean Bates and Kevin Poeung making up the trio with McKinlay) on the town are captivated by the beauty of Japan—Sharpless the American Consul (Ashley Dixon) has seen it all before—but Pinkerton goes one further and has Goro (Matthew Koon brings a bit of comic relief) broker a marriage between him and Butterfly.

Cultural differences and perceptions add to the tragedy. Nixon and his dancers bring this out very well: the large Americans versus the polite Japanese with their traditions and deep bows. Characterisation is excellent: these are true dancer-actors.

Pinkerton leaves, Butterfly waits as the seasons change, her maid Suzuki (Luisa Rocco) worries they have no money, but Butterfly is confident Pinkerton will return. He does, with his new wife Kate (Lucia Solari).

You know the rest. Cowardly Pinketon can’t face Butterfly and flees, leaving his wife to take Butterfly’s child, here called Trouble. In white sailor suit and straw hat, the last remaining vestige of her love for Pinkerton is taken away from her.

Dressed in her wedding clothes, Butterfly dies like a warrior (martial arts movements woven into her final dance) with honour in a pool of red light, as shamisen and Japanese singer-narrator (if only one understood the words—a transcript in the programme notes perhaps…) sing her to her honourable sleep.

Hiranao Takahashi playing two roles—Bonze and Prince Yamadori—contributes to the evening’s exquisite japonaiserie. Geisha girls twirling paper parasols and fluttering fans, dramatic costumes, cherry blossom, and reproductions from the Edo period are pure delight even if this Madame Butterfly doesn't quite pack the punch of Puccini's original.

The tour continues to Bromley, Stoke, Aylesbury and Hull.

Reviewer: Vera Liber