In January, such luminaries as the Royal Ballet, English National Ballet and the Joffrey Ballet were among those that took part in a one-off gala performance at Leeds Grand Theatre to celebrate its 50th anniversary. Together, these leading lights of the dance world produced a series of beautiful and utterly compelling pas de deux from some of Northern Ballet’s most iconic works including Romeo & Juliet, Dracula, 1984, Jane Eyre and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.
It was a mesmerising evening that illustrated the high esteem in which the Leeds-based company is held by its peers.
A cutting-edge approach to storytelling through dance has always been at the heart of Northern Ballet’s ethos, and this continues with its latest production, Geisha, which premieres tonight at Leeds Grand.
I say “daring” because it’s set in the unfamiliar world of Japanese geishas (female entertainers) and the spirit world.
The story is based on real people and revolves around two young women, Aiko and Okichi, whose lives are wrenched apart. The pair are inseparable until the arrival of two Americans when events begin to unravel. Bound to be hospitable to their Western visitors, the two young geishas find themselves drawn down irrevocably different paths.
It’s a poignant tale of love and honour, despair and redemption, and one that will pull audiences through the emotional wringer.
First soloist Minju Kang, now in her fourth season at Northern Ballet, plays Okichi.
“This is my first big role that has been created for me. Usually we do ballets that have already been performed but this is a brand new one, which is super exciting and also a big responsibility because you want to do really well,” she says.
Kang was born and raised in Seoul, in South Korea, and started dancing aged just four. “My mum was a ballet dancer and she had her own ballet academy, which is where I started.”
She says her background has helped with her latest role. “In Korea, although there is a different culture, some things are similar, we have a kisaeng which is similar to a geisha, so I had a little knowledge of this world.
“I also realised that geishas are similar to dancers – we both practise our skills, you learn to control your emotions and to put your mask on, so that we can entertain. So this helped me to understand the role as well.”
It’s a role that not only requires great dance technique but acting skills, too, something Kang relishes. “As a dancer, you have to create this emotion that you have never felt, so you are acting as well as dancing. And that’s one of the amazing things with this job, you can create another version of yourself.”
Kang joined Northern Ballet four years ago and she’s been impressed by the breadth of work it produces. “It’s such a special company and I really admire the work here. I don’t know if there is anywhere else like it. I’m very grateful to be here because you see how hard people work to make this company what it is today.”
Geisha’s choreographer and director is Kenneth Tindall, whose links to Northern Ballet stretch back 20 years. “For an arts organisation, particularly outside of London, to be going 50 years is incredible, and to be brought in to do one of the new works is a bit overwhelming,” he says.
Geisha is his second full-length ballet for Northern Ballet having garnered widespread acclaim for Casanova in 2017. “I really want to create new stories from scratch,” he says. “I want them to be original and based on real people. But I didn’t want to do another Madame Butterfly, I wanted to go in a completely new direction,” says Tindall.
“The worlds of geisha and samurai have always fascinated me and from a creative point of view they give you a great canvas to work with because they have so much history and mystery.”
It’s a ballet that takes something traditional and adds a modern twist. In this instance the twist takes the shape of the Obon Festival, or the festival of the dead, an annual three-day event every August in Japan when people commemorate their ancestors. “The idea is you can move between the real world and the spirit world and that’s how we tied this in with universal themes like life and death, and love and redemption, which anyone can relate to,” adds Tindall.
Having lived and worked in Japan for a year, he was able to draw on his own experiences. “Japan is like nowhere else in the world and their culture couldn’t be more polar opposite to ours, the sense of honour, the time they take to communicate with each other and the rules.” This even extends to the way the Japanese bow, he says. “The variation of bows and what that signifies is astonishing. Initially I just thought they bowed a lot but I learned that for every situation there is a bow that means something different.
“But also what I found interesting was to understand Japanese culture you have to delve into their stories, as it’s these that shape their outlook on life in many ways.”
For the choreography, he wanted to create something a bit different. “We had a really interesting conversation around what language we use to tell this story, because I didn’t want to use stereotypical choreography. So I challenged myself to use my dance ‘language’ to identify the different characters, rather than using a more conventional language that the audience would recognise straight away.”
Tindall has forged a close professional relationship with Northern Ballet’s artistic director David Nixon and is in tune with his bold, pioneering approach to dance.
“When an organisation is so dependent on the box office you can understand why the big family ballets are so popular, because they keep you alive. But on top of that you want to be pushing the boundaries because that’s what keeps an arts organisation growing,” he adds.
“We need to find new ways of moving our art form forward and one of the things I love about Northern Ballet is it commissions so much new work and in today’s climate that’s a brave thing to do. It shows it’s willing to take risks and that’s important because without taking risks you can’t really move forward.
“Even if you take a risk and it fails, it’s not really a failure because you learn from it. If you just keep doing Swan Lake and The Nutcracker where will ballet be in another ten years?”
It’s not about alienating your audience, he says, but showing them something different. “I’m a bit nervous taking a title that nobody knows and a culture most people know little about, but at the same time isn’t that a great way of exploring what ballet can be? Just as long as it’s done sensitively with the right creative team.”
For Tindall, Geisha has an added personal resonance. “My dad passed away a year ago and while I was writing the scenario for Geisha I was really trying to make something heartfelt, because the work came out of a place where I was trying to process my grief. So a big reason why I brought in the spirit world was to tap into ideas of life and death and that notion of trying to reconnect with your memories. And I think that’s something powerful we can all understand.”
Geisha runs at Leeds Grand Theatre from today until March 21, and Sheffield’s Lyceum Theatre, from March 24 to 28. www.northernballet.com/