Northern Ballet’s Victoria is an enthralling epic that intelligently and emotively chronicles Queen Victoria’s life as a monarch and mother.
Created to celebrate this year’s 200th anniversary of Queen Victoria’s birth, the ambitious two-act ballet is the impressive handiwork of acclaimed British choreographer Cathy Marston. Her spirited exploration of Victoria as a passionate woman, emblematic queen, working mother and stricken widow inventively depicts some of the most significant events in this remarkable Royal’s life.
Working alongside dramaturg Uzma Hameed, Marston has managed to condense Victoria’s lengthy reign (she spent 63 of her 81 years on the throne) into two hours of absorbing dance.
Victoria is Marston’s fourth work with Northern Ballet. Historically, their collaboration yields satisfying results – her previous full-length piece for the company, Jane Eyre, won Northern Ballet much applause in 2016 and again in 2018. It is being performed in the USA this year by both American Ballet Theatre and the Joffrey Ballet.
When it comes to creating movement, Marston is known for fusing ballet with contemporary dance, telling stories from a fresh perspective and revealing new meaning in existing ideas.
For Northern Ballet’s Victoria, Marston does not simply chart the sovereign’s story in a linear fashion. Instead, her intellectual approach uses the collection of 122 journals that constituted Victoria’s personal diary as an inspired catalyst for a multifaceted narrative.
The ballet basically explores two stories simultaneously: Victoria’s story and the story of her youngest child, Princess Beatrice. This is achieved by having the memories Victoria wrote in her journals dance off the pages to be witnessed by Beatrice as she prepares her late mother’s musings for publication.
Victoria had nine children with her beloved husband, Albert, and Beatrice was the baby of the family. When Albert died unexpectedly, Beatrice was the final link to him. Consequently, grieving Victoria held her close and Beatrice became her mother’s constant companion. Marston’s narrative shows the mature Beatrice making sense of the past; making peace with the memory of her mother so that she can move on with what remains of her own life.
We meet Beatrice as a grown woman, just as elderly Queen Victoria takes to her deathbed. The significance of the journals is effectively established, and the past begins to unfold.
Act One concentrates on Victoria’s mourning for Albert; her later infatuation with her attendant, John Brown; and her resistance when Beatrice wants to marry dashing soldier Liko. Act Two goes back further, recalling Victoria’s coronation; her relationship with Albert and her discordant responsibilities as a monarch and mother.
Due to its episodic nature, the structure jumps about a bit. Marston’s nuanced movement, combined with the dancers’ artistry, makes sure we can follow the big picture, but reading the synopsis is a must to fully appreciate the performance. That said, avoid getting bogged down in detail. You do not need to recognise that ministers are engaged in “the dirty politics of the opium trade” or know the names of Victoria’s children’s spouses to be moved by this ballet!
The choreography is beautiful. A whirlwind of vibrant, varied, fluid movement; it conveys regal grandness and emotional depth in equal measure.
The corps dancers are archivists, dressed in red to match the covers of the journals. As an ensemble, they fan out across the stage, with female dancers in soft ballet slippers respectfully carrying journals to Beatrice. Marston’s choreography for the corps echoes the movements and the moods of the central characters. For instance, fury from the corps dancers magnifies Beatrice’s anger at the end of Act One and anticipation ripples around Victoria during her coronation in Act Two. This builds momentum, breathing life into the fluttering handwritten pages that Beatrice is leafing through.
Two dancers portray Beatrice. Older Beatrice is a spectator who has a constant presence on the stage, while Young Beatrice features intermittently to illustrate the past. In the first cast, Pippa Moore, who retires at the end of this season after 23 years with Northern Ballet, is eloquently expressive as Older Beatrice. It is difficult to take your eyes off her, even when she is in the background, as she subtly reacts to every memory.
Marston incorporates many romantic duets, which often develop with ghostly intervention from Older Beatrice. A highlight is the tender trio between Older Beatrice, Young Beatrice and Liko. Miki Akuta is light on her feet as Young Beatrice, playfully performing bursts of high intensity, precise movement. Sean Bates is boyishly gallant as Liko (officially Prince Henry of Battenberg). The trio they perform with Moore is a triumphant test of technique, timing and trust.
Northern Ballet’s Victoria reveals several versions of Victoria – all somewhere between the stubborn, distraught widow and the passionate princess making her way as a respected ruler. While Beatrice is played by two dancers, Victoria is portrayed by one. In the first cast, Abigail Prudames is convincingly commanding dancing as Victoria at all stages of her life.
Victoria has a recurrent motif: standing en pointe with legs and arms stretching wide. This bold shape seems to symbolise her power and is referenced repeatedly. As an elderly empress, she sits with her legs in a wide stance. As a newly-crowned young queen, she is held aloft in the dynamic pose. Marston also has Victoria twiddle her thumbs, seemingly to represent the passing of time and her uncertainty as she is thrust into new situations.
In its entirety, this ballet is articulately pieced together and balances thoughtful reflection with humour. An explicitly erotic scene horrifies Older Beatrice when she reads about her mother’s intimacy with Albert and she primly rips pages out of the journal she is holding. Later, a repeated births sequence – set against the recurring appearance of ministerial paperwork for Victoria to sign – entertainingly depicts the deliveries of her nine children.
Victoria really is a ballet fit for a queen.
Marston’s readiness to delve into history, and her skill in creating a new perspective on a real-life individual, is commendable. Steffen Aarfing’s set and costume designs are sumptuous yet simple (the setting is a library that comprises a raised platform with stairs, an armchair and a bust of Albert). Philip Feeney’s original score, played live by Northern Ballet Sinfonia, provides a cinematic soundscape. The accomplished artists of Northern Ballet dance from the heart.
This is a ballet that will stand up to repeat viewings. There are so many details in the choreography, and numerous historic references to get to grips with. I am already planning to make another royal appointment with the company when the ballet is broadcast in cinemas on 25 June.
Long may Victoria reign in Northern Ballet’s repertoire!
* Production photography by Emma Kauldhar.
Photography shows Abigail Prudames (as Victoria), Pippa Moore (as Older Beatrice), Joseph Taylor (as Albert), Miki Akuta (as Young Beatrice), Sean Bates (as Liko) in Northern Ballet’s Victoria.
Northern Ballet’s Victoria continues at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 4 May 2019.
The production is being broadcast in cinemas nationwide on Tuesday 25 June 2019.
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.