First things first. There are no dancing tea sets, not one appearance by a French-speaking candlestick and at no point does the cast break into a rendition of the impossibly catchy Be Our Guest. This is Beauty and the Beast, but not as many of the audience will know it, admits Northern Ballet’s Ashley Dixon. “It’s definitely much darker than the Disney version, but still I hope very much for families,” says the dancer who is now in his 12th year with the Leeds-based company.
“In this version, Beauty has two sisters who are basically intent on spending all their father’s money. They are socialites, whose appetite for the latest fashions is never satisfied. Eventually he is declared bankrupt and as they lose their home and as their material possessions are stripped away, we see their true characters.
“It is a story which has a really strong moral compass. It’s about how the superficial things in life don’t matter at all, it’s how you live your life and how you treat other people which counts. I think that is a really strong message for any audience, but particular for kids growing up in today’s world which is so fixated on the way you look.”
Ashley joined Northern Ballet in 2004 after learning his trade at the Central School of Ballet, but it was growing up in Hull where he first got switched on to dance.
“Like a lot of boys, I got into ballet because I got dragged along to my sister’s classes. For a while I sat and watched, but quite quickly I got bored and thought if I’m going to have to spend an hour here I might as well give it a go myself. She eventually gave it up, but I kept going.”
Ashley says that he was 14 when he decided that he wanted dance to be a career rather than just a hobby and a couple of years later he headed down to London to train.
“It was funny but it was only when I was looking for what to do afterwards that I came across Northern Ballet. At the time the company was based at West Park and when I joined its home was a draughty old building where the roof leaked and where it was freezing in the winter. But you know what, it did have character. It was a dump, but it was our dump.”
The company moved to its purpose-built studio, next to the West Yorkshire Playhouse and Leeds College of Music in 2010 and Ashley says the change was instantaneous.
“When we moved here it was still the same company and we were still doing exactly what we had before, but overnight our profile went through the roof. Before that I would meet people and when I told them I danced for Northern Ballet they often didn’t even know it was based in Leeds. Now everyone knows. They see this building from the train or the bus and it has put us on the city’s map.”
It was the following year that Ashley first got to play the Beast in a brand new production of the fairytale. “That was really special as it was the first time that a role had been created for me and it did feel like a bit of a career landmark.
“Five years on it is very different coming back to the piece. When I was younger I would really go for every single move, but as you get older and more experienced you learn that less is sometimes more. This time I think we all wanted to take a different approach and part of that has been about making the Beast look more animalistic.
“That’s not easy because you have to find a way of moving which not only looks natural, but which you can sustain for two hours. I think we have nailed it and it feels like a very different show, but physically it’s a very demanding piece.”
What hasn’t changed is the make-up. It takes around 45 minutes to transform Ashley into the Beast. “The one thing I have to remember is not to touch my face during a production, which isn’t that easy because whatever it looks like from the auditorium we do get very sweaty. It is hot under all that make-up but you get used to it.
“We rotate the part, so sometimes I’ll play the Prince, sometimes the Beast and sometimes the father. Over a week of performances I go from young to old.”
Ashley is now 31 and while he isn’t exactly close to retirement he is one of the oldest members of the company. “I have had some pretty serious injuries over the years,” he says. “The worst was probably when I tore a tendon in my biceps during a performance. We did a pull away and I just heard it snap. I carried on until I could get off stage, but everyone knew by the look on my face that something was really wrong.
“I was back training five days later with my arm in a sling – I could at least still use my legs – but it was three months until I was properly recovered. That’s the thing about dance, you know that you are always just one rehearsal or one performance away from a career-ending injury, but there is no point worrying about it until it happens. I hope that I have a few years left yet and after that, who knows? I have half a thought that I might like to work as a ballet master, but those kind of decisions are for another day.”
• Beauty and the Beast, Leeds Grand Theatre, to January 7. 0844 848 2700, northernballet.com