Dancing queen of the Nile

Beautiful, sensual and mysterious, Cleopatra is an icon who has endured. Now the femme fatale of the anicent world has inspired a striking new production from Norther Ballet. SIMON PARKIN finds out more from artistic director David Nixon.

In a world ruled by men, the Egyptian queen Cleopatra, courageous and compulsive, overturn the course of history.

Still an enduring icon of the ancient world and the ultimate modern woman, Cleopatra's legend has captivated generations. She is still inspiring artists, designers and stylists today.

The latest is Northern Ballet's stunning production Cleopatra a labour of love for choreographer David Nixon and celebrated composer Claude-Michel Sch�nberg, best known for Les Mis�rables and Miss Saigon, and with staging and costume by Christopher Giles.

Sidestepping Shakespeare, who made Mark Anthony and Cleopatra theatre's most extravagantly poetic lovers, and the 1963 Hollywood film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, which brought Cleopatra fresh mass popu-lar appeal, the ballet explores the life of arguably this remarkable woman and her passionate love affairs.

Not just concentration on her relationship with Antony, the production widens out the story to include Cleopatra's life with Ptolemy and Julius Caesar, and adds more political background as the action shuttles between Egypt and Rome.

Northern Ballet is one of the UK's foremost dance companies, and is renowned for bringing the dramatic and the classical.

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David Nixon and Claude-Michel Sch�nberg first thought of the idea of a ballet based on the life of Cleopatra while working together on the 2008 hit Wuthering Heights – which won critical acclaim throughout its UK tour.

The creative duo are keen for the audiences to see Cleopatra as a woman, queen, mother and lover, as David Nixon explains…

Why did you choose to make a ballet of Cleopatra?

I've been interested in Cleopatra and that period for a long time. Two-thousand years later she is as popular as she ever was, in fact more so. I think the legend and the mystery of the woman grows rather than lessens. When you're creating dance you have to find a reason why a story will work in dance as opposed to just any other medium. Cleopatra is about sensuality and relationships, manipulation and political manoeuvring and these are all things that dance can portray very well.

What is the inspiration behind it?

The inspiration, oddly enough, was the revival of Wuthering Heights in 2009, because Claude Michel and I decided that we needed an extra scene in the ballet for Heathcliff. With re-writing part of the music and the new cast and the way the company is now six years later, the ballet took off far more intensely and powerfully than it had the first time. Claude Michel was very inspired by this, and so immediately we started talking about the next pro-ject and I said, you know, Cleopatra's still there. Two weeks later I got a phone call saying 'Could you please come over and listen to some music I've written?' It was incredible. It was imaginative and sensual and moving and captured the humanity of the characters. Sometimes with people like Cleopatra and Alexander the Great, or any of these phenomenal people, we forget that they are also human and are capable of emotions. I felt in the mu-sic he wrote even the naivety of Cleopatra.

What can you tell us about the setting?

What we want to do is capture the feeling of the time but give it more the sense of the contemporary point of view and the contemporary taste. So it's about creating an atmosphere in which people can imagine the times, but they can be relevant to the time.

Other than Cleopatra, who are the central characters?

There are four main male roles which are Julius Cesar, Mark Anthony, Wajette [the Egyptian God who is the protector of the Pharaohs], and Ptolemy. But then on top of that there is Octavian. I decided that we would expand the role of Octavian and strengthen that, and then even the two handmaidens – Iris and Charmagne – in helping to flesh out so that the women at least have a bit more food on their plates than what can originally be found in the Cleopatra story.

Is there a lot of pressure for the leading female?

Yes. She's on stage quite a bit. There are, of course, some scenes without her but at the end she has quite a long duet that goes into a solo section, so it is sixteen minutes non-stop. But it is Cleopatra. It's not Mark Anthony's story, it's not Julius Cesar's story.

Many people will have a preconceived idea of the story. What is the story you're ballet is trying to tell?

It would be interesting to sit down and find out what peoples preconceived ideas are of Cleopatra, because every single movie that bears any reference to Cleopatra portrays her in a completely different way. I'm portraying her as a woman, a queen, a mother, a lover. I want the audience to understand her as a human as much as someone going to lead a country. She possessed a quality that could engage men and hold them, and I'm hoping to somehow create that kind of charisma, and at the same time let the audience know this was a woman who had children, who was trying to protect them. This was a woman who thought several times in her life that she had achieved her goal only to be left running for her life. There's an incredible woman in there. The other thing the ballet centres around is that Cleopatra seems to be connected to chaos. At all moments of her life, some sort of chaos takes place.

Is the choreography more contemporary than usual?

No, it is very classical choreography. It's a contemporary approach; it's a contemporary aesthetic, but the duet is all on point, it's pirouettes, it's lifts, it's all the shapes and the lines of classical dance. Classical dance used to be very much about to show the step and the execution of that step. Now the steps have become an expression. You're looking at the expression of emotion through the step rather than the step itself.

What do you think audiences will enjoy specifically about the production?

The power of dance and the music. The music is wonderful. I think Claude Michel writes music that people listen to easily and dancers dance to easily. And I think our dancers are emotional artists. They're able to show you kind of physical passion that turns into absolute intimacy. It has romance, it has intrigue, it has fighting, it has sex. Power was as much in the bedroom as anywhere else, and women used that to manipulate the course of action. And I think that's something that's never changed. It's always relevant. We're really back into a kind of Roman time. So many things are being done in reference to this period in history. So obviously, we're attracted to it, we haven't lost the imagination about it.

? Cleopatra is at Norwich Theatre Royal from October 11-15, �34-�6.50, 01603 630000, www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk