Northern Ballet

May 1, 1999

Fiona Wallis as the tragic Miss Havisham in Northern Ballet Theatre’s
Great Expectations.
Photo by Hanson courtesy of Northern Ballet Theatre

Reviewed by Margaret Willis

Northern Ballet Theatre’s new director, Stefano Giannetti, set himself an awesome task for his first production for the company, that of adapting and condensing Charles Dickens’s much-loved and very long literary work, Great Expectations, into a ninety-minute, two-act ballet. The choreographer’s judicious choice of music from the works of that quintessentially English composer, Edward Elgar, guaranteed acceptance and warmth from its audiences. The work caught the imagination, thanks mainly to the excellent dancing of the company, and followed the NBT tradition in producing dramatic narrative works. And while the corps scenes were somewhat lacking in fire, Giannetti showed a talent for creating warm and intimate pas de deux.

Northern Ballet Theatre, based in Manchester in the British Midlands, was created in 1969. In 1987, Christopher Gable, the renowned Royal Ballet dancer and film and theater actor, took over the company, filling its ranks with talented dancers from London’s Central Ballet School. With his artistically rich background, he filled the repertory with a more theatrical, though still classical, style that was visually exciting and included plenty of storytelling. The company thrived under his eleven-year guardianship. His death from cancer in 1998 was a severe blow.

Giannetti, the company’s new Italian-born director, is known to British audiences for his fine dancing with the London Festival Ballet and, when it was renamed, with the English National Ballet. He has also danced with many European companies, and his choreography earned him the Bordighera Award in 1981 and the Leonide Massine Prize in Positano, Italy, in 1992. He was appointed director of Northern Ballet Theatre in May 1999.

Dickens’s great work was first published in installments in the weekly magazine All the Year Round, which is how NBT relates the story�in numerous short scenes. It was vitally important to read the synopsis in the program beforehand since there were many flashbacks, but Giannetti managed to capture the essence of the book by focusing only on its main characters and story line. However, Dickens’s command of language often proved a challenge to translate into choreographic terms, and too often, in order to fill musical passages, the dancing lost impact by being overlong and repetitive.

The central figure throughout the ballet was that of Miss Havisham. Jilted in love on her wedding day, she has taught her young charge Estella, the object of Pip’s affections, to be cruel to men, to lead them on and then spurn them. The ballet opens with Miss Havisham still in her white, now fusty and cobwebbed, wedding attire, encased high in a whelk-shaped tower watching for some man to ensnare. Her presence pervades every aspect of Pip’s world: At the ball she weaves in and out of the dancing as he searches for Estella, and even after her death by fire, her spirit lives on in her young charge.

In the role, Fiona Wallis was convincingly caustic, her movements embodying Miss Havisham’s twisted and avaricious nature with deep lunges and angular arms. Pippa Moore, making her debut as Estella, clearly expressed the young girl’s contempt for all men, and she brought credibility and poignancy to the last scene where she finally decides to go forward with Pip.

The boy-hero in cut-off shorts and suspenders who zipped across the stage in acrobatic barrel-turning dances was Simon Kidd, while Darren Goldsmith took the role of Pip as a young gentleman who faced struggles and sacrifices while pursuing his ideal and all-consuming love. Very tall and thin (and looking more so in his green tailcoat and top hat), Goldsmith demonstrated solid, neat technique and good partnering.

Giannetti’s choreography showed clearly the changing fortunes of Pip through contrasting elements of folk dances and the elegant ballroom scene�which included a charming gavotte for three couples�from the country-bumpkin lifestyle of his childhood to his snobbish desire for acceptance in fashionable London. The company danced enthusiastically and energetically, especially in the “In London Town” scene. Here, all dressed in black with their numbers swelled by full-sized cutout silhouettes, they danced a merry jig that had aspects of My Fair Lady and Eliza Doolittle.

The designs by Benita Roth were mystifying, for they combined late nineteenth-century costumes�some overly detailed, as with the soldiers�with minimalist sets that offered the oddly angled table at Pip’s home, a solitary rock in the graveyard, and only an anvil for Joe’s smithy. However, the biggest shock was the Busby Berkeley-style ballroom with its swath of half-crescent white that swept up the black backcloth like a staircase and was lined by huge aluminum canisters with flickering candles�not at all Dickensian!

However, all was soon forgotten when, in the final moments of the ballet, Pip took off Estella’s shoes in a last symbolic effort to shed the past, while the strains of Elgar’s Nimrod from Enigma Variations swelled the scene�and each patriotic British heart.