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Beauty, Tragedy and the Afterlife – This New Ballet Tells the Story of Geisha Like Never Before

· Ali Turner · Culture

This tragic tale goes beyond death.

Northern Ballet Geisha

From the creator of Northern Ballet’s acclaimed Casanova comes a brand new production based on the true story of one of Japan’s most famous geishas. Caught in a collision between East and West, her life is torn apart before your eyes. Book now.

Geisha is a beautiful but heartbreaking tale of love, loss and sisterhood in 19th Century Japan…

Geisha is an all-new ballet from Kenneth Tindall, the man who brought us the ever-seductive Casanova, and it’s like nothing you’ve seen before. They’ve taken the legend of Okichi, the most famous geisha in Shimoda, and asked ‘what if?’ What if she fell in love? What if she came back from the dead? What if she took revenge? The result is a heartbreaking ballet that will keep you on the edge of your seat, even as you enter the afterlife…

It’s based on true events

Northern Ballet Geisha

Credit: Emily Nuttall

Okichi really did exist. Her legend has been passed down through the generations and a statue stands in her honour at the temple in Shimoda, where she was one of the most coveted geisha in the land.

This was 1854. Japan had effectively isolated itself from the rest of the world, but America was preparing to shoulder its way in, and when they did, Okichi’s life took a fateful twist. Townsend Harris arrived in Shimoda in 1856 to negotiate a trade treaty. As the first US Consul-General to Japan, he was a man of power and the mayor was keen to please him, so he sent Okichi to work for him – but Harris rejected her and threw her out on the streets. Her honour was irretrievably tarnished and she eventually took her own life.

Reality and fantasy collide

Northern Ballet Geisha

Credit: Lauren Godfrey

Up until this point, the only foreigners allowed into Japan were the 20 Dutch merchants who lived on a manmade island just off Nagasaki, so the only language the Japanese could speak beyond their own was Dutch. Townsend needed an interpreter and he chose Henry Heusken. Like Townsend, Henry was sent a geisha, but her story has disappeared from history. No one knows what happened to her, but it sparked an idea. What if Okichi and her sister geisha were friends? What if they were both thrown into this new world, but one was embraced and the other was rejected? That became the premise of Geisha.

“Okichi’s legend is shrouded in mystery, so there aren’t many hard and fast facts. The absolute key moments we follow, but we’ve used artistic licence,” Kenneth Tindall, Choreographer of Geisha, explained. “That’s what I love about legends, they have room to imagine and to play.”

The story continues after Okichi’s death

Northern Ballet's Geisha

Credit: Guy Farrow

In the world of ballet, it’s not unusual for the heroine to die, but they rarely return from the dead – which is what makes Geisha so intriguing. The first act ends with Okichi’s tragic death, leaving the second half to explore what would happen if she came back as a Yūrei ghost – would she seek out her lost sister Aiko or take revenge on those who wronged her?

In Japan, there’s a festival called Obon Festival. For three days, they light paper lanterns to guide the spirits of their ancestors home and dance to celebrate their return. It’s said that during Obon, the veil between our world and the afterworld is lifted – and that’s how Okichi comes back. It’s both beautiful and terrifying, with a nod to the ghost stories that Japan has become so famous for.

Geisha aren’t what you think they are

Northern Ballet Geisha

Credit: Emma Nuttall

In the western world, geisha are often thought to be prostitutes, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. They’re witty conversationalists, talented dancers and accomplished musicians who train for years to earn the honour of becoming a geisha. It’s a respected profession that’s more akin to an artist than a concubine, and while they can choose to sleep with the men who pursue them, they often don’t – just like any other woman in the world.

In their heyday, geisha were celebrities, revered and adored. But beneath the make-up and the kimonos, behind the beauty and the formality, there’s a real person with the same feelings and emotions as everyone else. It’s this human side to them that intrigued Tindall, so he wanted to get to the heart of who Okichi was and why she did what she did.

Every plié tells a story

When it comes to collaborators, Tindall often looks beyond the world of ballet, and Geisha is no different. Screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes helped him unravel Okichi’s story and BAFTA Cymru award-winning composer Alexandra Harwood wrote the original score. They’ve all worked closely with Lesley Downer, their historical consultant. She spent six months living among the geisha in Kyoto, researching every aspect of their lives and their history for her book, so she has a unique understanding of geisha.

They may come from different worlds, but they all have one thing in common – they’re all storytellers. “When we met, I think we felt such affinity with each other because all of us had this sense of the importance of the storytelling,” Harwood explained. “We really wanted the story to be as clear as it could be, because in ballet, that’s so important.”

It’s a homage, not a replica

Northern Ballet Geisha

Credit: Justin Slee

Like Northern Ballet’s dancers, geisha spend years training and they have a unique style that can’t be replicated. Instead, Tindall has taken inspiration from it, colouring his choreography with subtle references that will glimpse into their world.

And the same is true of the music. It’s not traditionally Japanese, it’s classical in style and played live by the Northern Ballet Sinfonia, but because it has samples of exotic instruments like the shamisen and the koto, it always has a sense of place. They don’t have these instruments in the orchestra, so they had to record them in advance to play on the night.

You’ll be amazed by the kimonos

Geisha Kimonos

Credit: Emily Nutall, taken at the V&A Museum

After the raging success of Casanova, Christopher Oram is back for a second collaboration with Tindall. Their stunning take on Shimoda has taken a whopping 2,200 hours to build, but it’s the costumes that will really blow you away.

The kimonos are a feat of engineering – they look heavy, but they’re actually really light, and they have long splits, so you can see the dancers every move. The fabric has been hand-drawn and printed especially for Northern Ballet and it’s so intricate that you won’t be able to take your eyes off it. Each kimono is handmade by their costume department – and there are 64 of them in total, so they’ve been very busy indeed.

See if for yourself

Geisha

Credit: Guy Farrow

Geisha will premiere at Leeds Grand Theatre from Saturday 14th to Saturday 21st March 2020, so you can be one of the first people to see it. Even better, tickets start from just £20, so what are you waiting for? Book now and see the start unfold before your eyes.