Northern Ballet’s Wuthering Heights is an emotive, expressive and eloquent adaptation of Emily Brontë’s absorbing tale of two doomed lovers.
With its deep and interwoven romantic relationships and powerful themes of betrayal and revenge, the narrative could not be more suited to portrayal through dance – and Northern Ballet are the company to beat when it comes to dramatic interpretation.
The intensity was palpable in the air at Milton Keynes Theatre during Tuesday evening’s opening performance. Headstrong Cathy Earnshaw and foundling Heathcliff have an instant connection when wild child Heathcliff is taken in by Cathy’s father. However, what begins as harmless fascination and affection evolves into a passionate and obsessive force, as unruly and dangerous as the Yorkshire moors that surround these beguiling characters.
Dancers Rachael Gillespie and Jeremy Curnier are delightful as Young Cathy and Young Heathcliff. Scampering across the stage with a series of gravity-defying leaps and playful turns, they radiate innocence and vitality. Frolicking ballet steps morph into charming moments of contemporary technique – replete with handstands, cartwheels and counter-balanced postures – as the pair cavort around, tumbling over each other like excitable puppies.
While they continue to spend their days running free on the windswept moors, the relationship between Young Cathy and Young Heathcliff soon rolls into adulthood. At this point, the movement ramps up a gear – from light and carefree to whole-heartedly immersive and teetering on seductive.
Through her rendering of the grown-up Cathy, premier dancer Martha Leebolt demonstrates effortless classical lines and athletic command of the more innovative movement Artistic Director David Nixon OBE employs. Her dramatic dexterity is admirable. Whether expressing anguish while doubled up in pain or capturing Cathy’s unrestrained joie de vivre, Martha Leebolt’s performance is sublimely watchable and believable.
Tobias Batley makes an equally potent Heathcliff. The choreography for Heathcliff leans towards being more contemporary-based than ballet and Tobias throws himself in with the fervour that audiences have come to expect from Northern Ballet dancers. After deliberation, I think Heathcliff’s sequences illustrate every possible means of executing a leap, whether with two straight legs (a ballet grand jeté); a bent front leg (a contemporary ‘stag jump’); a bent back leg (in a right-angled ‘attitude’ position); two bent legs; turned out; inverted; turning; making a half turn: I could go on! As well as travelling through the air, Heathcliff has some grounded moments when fist banging and floor thumping convey the mounting desperation he feels upon separation from Cathy.
Heathcliff’s rough-and-ready, untamed and unruly explosions of movement are brilliantly contrasted with the virile poise of Edgar Linton and the ladies and gentleman in the garden at a well-to-do mid-summer soiree. Amidst a sea of white-suited male corps de ballet dancers pirouetting their way through a refined game of badminton (this group includes dancer Sean Bates who is from Milton Keynes), Heathcliff’s brazen boisterousness is a chaotic juxtaposition.
Cathy’s chance encounter with Edgar Linton is the beginning of the end for her previously untarnished relationship with Heathcliff. Hironao Takahashi is a compact dancer but his expansive, expressive arm movements and springy jumps give him an assured presence onstage as the genteel Edgar. Bestowed with dignified steps to perform and a courteous attitude towards an injured Cathy, it is no wonder the girl finds herself well and truly wooed.
The betrayal Heathcliff is subjected to and his subsequent ploy for revenge gives Northern Ballet’s dancers plenty of dramatic motivation. The company is known for taking inspiration from an eclectic mix of classical dance, theatre, popular culture, literature and opera to develop new and original productions.
Wuthering Heights was the first production Artistic Director David Nixon OBE choreographed for the company after he joined in 2001. Premiered in 2002, Wuthering Heights was also celebrated composer Claude-Michel Schönberg’s first ever ballet score.
It has been many years since I last saw Northern Ballet’s Wuthering Heights (I think I must have seen it during its very first tour) but the memories I had were of a riveting, poignant production. Fortunately, Tuesday night’s performance was just as enthralling as I hoped it would be.
Ticket-holders should prepare to be swept up in Cathy and Heathcliff’s turbulent romance as one of the greatest love stories ever written is brought to life Northern Ballet style.
> Northern Ballet’s Wuthering Heights continues at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 2nd May.
This review is also featured on Total MK.