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The Fascinating Story Behind Northern Ballet’s Casanova

· Ali Turner · Culture

Casanova is not the man you think he is and Northern Ballet are going to set the record straight.

Northern Ballet's Casanova

Don’t miss the world premiere of Northern Ballet’s Casanova – a true story so sensational you won’t believe it’s real. You'll soon see that Casanova is more than the infamous lover we all know. Book now.

How can you dispel the myth of the world’s greatest lover without a single word? We caught up with Northern Ballet to find out…

Casanova’s reputation precedes him. He’s the world’s greatest lover, the man who laid with around 130 partners. But this spring, Northern Ballet will reveal the truth, in a tale so sensational you won’t believe it’s true. It’s not just Casanova’s story that has us intrigued though, the story of how they’ve turned his life into ballet is just as fascinating, so join us as we go behind the scenes to find out how they’ve done it.

The man behind the legend

Northern Ballet's Casanova

Credit: Justin Slee

Casanova’s love life isn’t exaggerated – he lost his virginity to two sisters, slept with a nun and totted up about 130 conquests. But while he may be the world’s greatest lover, that’s just one part of his incredible story. In fact, his life was so eventful that you’ll wonder why you’ve never heard the truth of it before.

For example, did you know he started the state lottery in France, collaborated on the libretto for Mozart’s Don Giovanni and escaped an inescapable prison? Or that during his lifetime, he was a priest, a mathematician, a musician, a dancer, a soldier and even a spy? He was also incredibly intelligent – though he didn’t talk until he was five, he’d learnt Greek and Latin by the time he was ten, and he went on to learn a total of six languages, travelling all over the world.

“He did have the most fabulously adventurous life, and the most incredible energy,” Ian Kelly told us – and he should know. Not only did he write the ballet with Choreographer Kenneth Tindall, but he also wrote Casanova’s biography, pouring over his memoirs to reveal the truth behind this great man. “The sex, the love affairs, that’s only a very small part really of what he’s writing about. He had immense intellectual energy and curiosity and he met everybody and he went everywhere, so yes, it’s an amazing story.”

Telling his truth, through dance

Northern Ballet's Casanova

Credit: Justin Slee

It was this untold story that drew Tindall to Casanova in the first place. “I wanted to do a fresh perspective on Casanova, to tell a story that maybe people didn’t know, the things about him that they would be surprised to learn. He’s really just synonymous with being a womaniser and a Libertine, which is strange when you think he’s written a memoir and that’s all that’s been taken from it,” he told us.

Northern Ballet’s Artistic Director, David Nixon OBE, took to the idea instantly, and soon Tindall had the go ahead to pull a team together, but here too he wanted to take a fresh approach, bringing in talent from outside the ballet world to make his first production for Northern Ballet different to anything that has come before.

“It was really important to me to work with people who weren’t already involved in the ballet world, because in order to have a fresh perspective, I think you need a new perspective. So instead of having the same people who work in ballet all the time, and have history with it and an experience with it, I actually wanted something completely new,” he explained.

Northern Ballet's Casanova

Credit: Justin Slee

Kelly was the first person to come on board. As a verified Casanova expert, his name just kept popping up, but that wasn’t the only reason to get him on board. You see, Kelly is a writer and an actor, which gives him a unique insight into the world of theatre and performance. They met after Kelly’s play, Mr Foote’s Other Leg, in the very same bar where Casanova had met Samuel Foote in 1763 – and Kelly said yes on the spot.

The next step was a sleepover, of sorts – Tindall stayed at Kelly’s house for a fortnight. Every day they discussed Casanova’s writings and debated the art, music and ideas of the 18th century. The more they talked, the more the ballet came together. “Little by little, a story emerged, and the characters, of course, I knew well already. I wrote the scenario, and then we winged it back and forth by email from Leeds to Suffolk to London until we were happy, and every character had a journey that added to the whole,” Kelly explained.

A series of unconventional collaborations

Northern Ballet's Casanova

Credit: Pea and the Big Head

But the scenario wasn’t the only thing that was coming together. Tindall was also meeting set and costume designers, trying to find the one – Tony and Olivier award-winner Christopher Oram was that man. Like Kelly, he comes from the world of the theatre. In fact, he’s just secured one of the most coveted jobs in the industry – he’s the man responsible for creating Elsa’s magical world in the Broadway production of Frozen. But first, he met Tindall to discuss Casanova – and the two of them just clicked.

“Chris came on board and immediately he understood what I wanted to do,” Tindall told us. “We had a talk about whether we wanted to be correct about it, like every other version of 18th century ballet, or if we wanted to try do something a bit new and deconstruct it, so that it would appeal to everyone. That’s exactly where we started the process, when Chris first started designing the outfits he began with correct 18th century period cuts, we began to strip that back further and further. You clearly need to see a dancer’s bodyline, it’s an aesthetic thing. I wanted it to be sexy, cool and really practical for dance, which he’s achieved in stunning fashion.”

Northern Ballet Casanova  Costumes

Credit: Christopher Oram

As you’ve probably gathered, there was still one thing missing – the music. And with just ten months until the world premiere, Tindall needed to work fast. That’s not very long to compose 100 minutes of music from scratch, and he had something very specific in mind for it, something that would ultimately lead to the most unlikely collaboration. You see, he approached Kerry Muzzey – a man who’s never worked on a ballet before, never even worked in theatre before, and who lives 5,000 miles away.

It was as much of a surprise to Muzzey as it was everyone else, “I was in London for a few days and Kenny emailed asking if I could meet because he wanted to talk to me about something. That something turned out to be Casanova! He had an iPad full of ideas. Costumes, set, lighting… and he asked if I would consider composing the ballet. I remember my first response being ‘But I’ve never made a ballet before…’ and he said, ‘Neither have I! Won’t it be fun?’ That upbeat, can-do attitude and sense of excitement is how we kicked off our collaboration.”

Northern Ballet's Casanova

Credit: Justin Slee

Muzzey said yes there and then, and they sealed the deal with a high five. But after their meeting, he flew home to Los Angeles, so they had to build the entire ballet over Skype. It’s an unconventional way of working, it might even be the first ballet ever written over video-conferencing, but Tindall couldn’t have chosen a better composer – because unbeknownst to him at the time, Muzzey is obsessed with Venice.

“Kenny had me at ‘It’s set in 18th-century Venice.’ He asked if I had ever been there and I actually laughed – I’d just returned from my 14th visit to Venice (or was it 15th? I’ve lost count). It’s my favourite place in the world, it’s absolutely magical,” Muzzey explained. “He described his idea for the score, which was something more akin to a film score than to a traditional classical work – we have similar musical tastes, so I knew what he was aiming for. I was excited to try something that wasn’t a film or TV show – it was a chance to dust off my classical chops and create a full-length orchestral work. There was no way I could pass up the opportunity. I was going to spend a year of my life scoring Baroque-era Venice and I couldn’t wait to dive in.”

Soundtracking Casanova’s life

Northern Ballet's Casanova

Credit: Justin Slee

How do you write the music for a ballet, before a single step has been choreographed? It starts with the story – Tindall and Muzzey sat down in their respective cities, with eight time zones between them, and broke down each scene, so they knew what was happening, how long it needed to be, how we enter the scene and how we leave. It’s a tricky job for a composer, trying to write music for dancers without knowing what they’ll be doing (Tindall wouldn’t start the choreography until after the score was complete), but nine out of ten times he got it spot on.

That’s not to say it was easy, mind you. “Inspiration is a tricky thing,” Muzzey told us. “There were spots in this ballet where I spent three or four very long days working on ideas that just never materialised, but then I’d suddenly come up with an idea that only could’ve happened because I had worked my way to it. And when you land on that idea it’s like you’ve opened a vein: the rest of it just spills out.”

Northern Ballet's Casanova

Credit: Justin Slee

Muzzey is more accustomed to writing for TV and film, where you have a lot of electronic and synth elements, like pulses, drones, heavy percussion and instruments that are run through effect processors, but here he had to go back to basics, reacquainting himself with the orchestra and the instruments at their disposal. When it premieres, the music will be played live by Northern Ballet Sinfonia, and Muzzey has used them as a tool to draw the audience in.

“100% of the score had to be performed by live musicians. No special effects, no filling up space with synth sounds or electronic trickery: just a traditional orchestra,” he explained. “The over-arching challenge, though, was making something that an audience would love from the first moment the orchestra started playing. I wanted something that people would love listening to. I treated Casanova more like a film score than like a formal ballet. If the language of the music is instantly understandable and has a melody or a drive, people will tune in. I guess it’s similar to a musical in that way – you want to leave the theatre humming a melody. I want our audiences to get caught up in the music and to feel like they’ve been swept away to and immersed in 18th century Venice.”

Putting it all together in the rehearsal room

Northern Ballet's Casanova

Credit: Justin Slee

With the scenario written, the music complete, and the sets and costumes coming along nicely, it’s time to step into the rehearsal room – and that’s where Tindall really comes into his own. He thinks on his feet, creating, adapting and perfecting the moves with the dancers.

The end result is a real collaboration – but one that’s incredibly demanding, as Hannah Bateman, the Leading Soloist who’ll be playing Henriette told us, “The speed at which Kenny works is very fast, so it’s been a case of getting used to adapting to the sheer volume of ideas he’s able to produce at any one time! Having Ian Kelly in rehearsals has been great – he’s a human encyclopaedia on all things Casanova and the 18th century. The amount of energy and passion that Kenny and Ian have between them is impressive.”

Northern Ballet's Casanova

Credit: Justin Slee

Kelly has been on-hand in rehearsals, watching it all come together, while helping the dancers get their heads around 18th century Venice and the characters they’re portraying. It’s been a bit of a role reversal for him – he is, after all, used to jumping on stage and doing it himself, but here he’s working in more of an advisory role. He’s been holding workshops with the dancers on everything from importance of eye contact at the masquerade to the intricacies of the Venetian world.

Their very first workshop tackled a topic that can be tricky for dancers, and one that’s absolutely rife in Casanova – love scenes. Although they’re showing another side of Casanova, they haven’t skirted over his conquests, so Tindall wanted them to be comfortable with each other, right from the start. Inhibitions aren’t really something you can indulge in as a ballet dancer, as Junior Soloist, Kevin Poeung, confessed, “In David Nixon’s Cleopatra there was an orgy scene, and I remember how that felt. At first you really feel like you won’t be able to do it, but the more you are thrown into doing things you aren’t very comfortable with, the more able you’re to leave your insecurities behind you. The choreographer has to get what he wants!”

Northern Ballet's Casanova

Credit: Justin Slee

Of course, it’s not just the intimacy that’s proved challenging, they’ve encountered many a hiccup along the way. There are 108 characters in Casanova, but only around 30 dancers, which means they have to switch from one role, and one mode of dancing, to another. The costume changes are fast and complicated, which can be a challenge – and sometimes the costumes themselves can be troublesome.

“In one of the casts I play a violinist and we have real bows to dance with,” Coryphée Sean Bates told us. “As you can imagine, they double the length of our arms, so suddenly people that seem far enough away become victims of bow attacks! The bows themselves have also suffered a little bit from the knocks and bumps – we will definitely need some new ones when it comes to performance time.”

Northern Ballet's Casanova

Credit: Justin Slee

They’ll have plenty of hurdles to jump along the way, but that’s not always a bad thing. In fact, sometimes it’s when things go wrong that the magic happens – it’s the job of the choreographer, not just to create the vision he has in his head, but to embrace the dancer’s suggestions and even their slip-ups, to make it even better. In that respect, the process is very much like Casanova himself. He threw himself into life, trying everything, making mistakes and turning them into adventures. It’s what makes him such a great topic for a ballet.

Casanova would love the ballet, just like Kelly does, “It took my breath away when I first saw the masquerade scene, and for that matter also the young priests dancing, there’s something very ‘tidal’ that Kenny has created, that is both sexy and powerful but also very Venetian,” he told us. “The dancers instinctively ‘get’ Casanova and his women. They are working in a strict art form, but expressing their sensuality, despite or because of the strictures involved… it’s very 18th century, very Casanova.”

Northern Ballet’s Casanova will premiere at Leeds Grand Theatre on Saturday 11th March 2017 and run until Saturday 18th March 2017. If you’re quick, you can bag tickets for just £21 with a free glass of prosecco and 50% off at The Liquorist.

Cover image credit: Justin Slee. Photos throughout: Northern Ballet dancers.