American import Martha Leebolt is a dancer going places. Arts reporter Rod McPhee met her as she prepares for her new lead in Ondine.
TAKING the lead in a string of Northern Ballet productions ranging from Cleopatra to next month’s Ondine, may have seen Martha Leebolt’s profile soar in recent years, but she’s been far from an overnight success.
“You definitely have to earn your stripes,” says the 30-year-old Californian, who joined the company when she was 19 and worked her way up to become their premier dancer, “especially when you do join somewhere at such a young age – it’s not like you’re transferring from another company and come in at a higher level.
“My first ballet was A Streetcar Named Desire and I had the smallest part. But what’s great is that I feel I’ve actually grown with the company, especially since I came to Leeds when we were up at the old school in West Park and now, here we are, based in our fantastic new headquarters on Quarry Hill.”
The fledgling dancer crossed the Atlantic from Ohio where she had been a student at BalletMet, a company which was then run by David Nixon and his wife, Yoko Ichino, who trained Leebolt. When, in 2001, Nixon and Ichino came to the UK to head Northern Ballet, as artistic director and ballet mistress respectively, they brought their protégé with them to Leeds.
Which, to most of us, would have been a galling move, given that she swapped the sunshine of her San Diego home for the not-so-sunny environment of West Yorkshire. But Leebolt was thrilled.
“I was so excited,” she says. “I was so young and I got the opportunity to dance in Europe with a 52-week contract. Being able to travel around the world so easily, well, I didn’t think twice. Plus, the opportunity of getting any kind of job is rare in the dance world, so you’ve got to jump at opportunities and mine was a wonderful one.
“I just couldn’t say no. It was a whole new adventure for me because before that I was just in high school, and I was really sheltered. So, this was kind of my growing up period here.”
Not only has she become used to the weather, she’s actually settled in Leeds, with her own flat in the city centre and no husband or kids getting in the way of the constant touring conducted with Northern Ballet.
Still, somehow it remains something of a surprise to learn that such a star doesn’t merely view the company, or the city, as a stepping stone to bigger things.
“Why wouldn’t I stay a long time?” she says. “There’s no reason for me to just come for a couple of years then leave. If you find a company that works for you the way Northern Ballet does for me, then why move on? I feel like Leeds is my home now, I’ve been here so long and become familiar with the culture.
“Sure, in different fields of the arts you do move on more quickly, but there are many dancers that tend to stay with their own company. Besides, while I have been here the opportunities have just kept on coming for me.”
The latest is her lead role in Ondine, which was originally adapted by Nixon for the Ballet du Rhin seven years ago and represents a rare treat for classical ballet fans since the piece is seldom performed outside of the capital.
The ballet, with Hans Werner Henze’s score played by the Northern Ballet Sinfonia, tells the story of a romance between a beautiful water nymph and a handsome nobleman which ends in tragedy when she is transformed into a human only to be shunned by him.
It is classic fairytale material and a continuation of the mystical themes of traditional ballet recently brought to us by Northern Ballet in the form of Swan Lake and Giselle.
But although it has a distinct thread of the fantastic, it also has elements of the unconventional which has become the hallmark of Nixon’s adaptations.
Leebolt says: “It is a very traditional ballet, it was originally done by Margot Fonteyn and the Royal Ballet – but it’s not ‘tights and tutus’ traditional. It hasn’t been done a lot either so it is an interesting one to be performing.
“And in David’s version there is so much classical ballet and quite a bit of contemporary too, so it’s a fulfilling evening no matter what your preference is.
“Also it’s performed to the original music and the story hasn’t been altered at all, but it’s certainly David’s choreography.”
But the biggest change for Leebolt – the latest in her long evolution with Northern Ballet – is in the style of dancing required for Ondine.
“In David’s version she is in flat shoes,” says Leebolt. “She’s really quite contemporary and getting the real contemporary style was difficult for me as I’m used to being up on pointe. So I’ve had to learn to make myself more free with my upper body which has been a real challenge as I haven’t done an awful lot of contemporary dance in the past.
“It has been something I’ve had to work at for Ondine. Am I any good at it? I’ll let the audience decide that one.”
September 8 to 15, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Quarry Hill, Leeds, 7.30pm. To book call 0113 213 7700 or online at www.wyp.org.uk
The life and times of Ondine
Ondine was originally created for the Royal Ballet in 1958 with choreography by Sir Frederick Ashton and an acclaimed score from Hans Werner Henze. The piece was essentially created for the Royal Ballet’s Prima Ballerina, Margot Fonteyn, with the title role choreographed especially for her. Over the years the story has inevitably drawn parallels between other works such The Little Mermaid and Dvorak’s opera, Rusalka. From its premiere to its revivals in 1988 and 2000, the ballet tends to receive a mixed reception from critics.