David Nixon’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, NBT’s comic ballet about … a small touring ballet company
Hard-working and plain-speaking, this indomitable troupe may not be as posh as the larger, well-heeled ballet companies that hog the limelight, but their trademark story ballets have attracted a devoted following.
Northern Ballet Theatre was founded with just 11 dancers in Manchester in 1969 by a Canadian, Laverne Meyer. An associate director of Western Theatre Ballet, a Bristol-based touring company, Meyer aimed to establish a similar regional company in the north. Initially called Northern Dance Theatre, the company was renamed Northern Ballet Theatre in 1975 by its subsequent director Robert de Warren. Under De Warren, the company doubled in size, began touring more extensively with a programme of small-scale classics and new works, and attracted a high-profile patron in Rudolf Nureyev, who sometimes performed as a guest artist.
The company’s current incarnation can be traced back to another star, Christopher Gable. An outstanding dancer with the Royal Ballet in the 1960s, Gable forged a successful career as an actor, but in 1987 Gillian Lynne (Cats, Phantom of the Opera) persuaded him to return to the dance stage for her NBT commission A Simple Man. The same year, De Warren left for La Scala, Milan, and Gable was the popular choice to take over. He brought his theatre experience to bear on the house style, emphasising acting skills, interpretation and plot-driven drama, thus establishing the company’s distinctive identity.
NBT moved to Halifax in 1990, then Leeds in 1996. After Gable’s early death from cancer in 1998, former English National Ballet dancer Stefano Gianetti took the helm, but left after only a year due to “creative differences”. Since 2001, NBT has been led by another Canadian, David Nixon, who has stayed true to Gable’s “ballet theatre” vision, while raising the company’s technical standards – and touring new productions as widely and as frequently as ever.
Watching Northern Ballet Theatre
Occasionally NBT presents semi-abstract pieces and triple bills, but mostly they stick to full-length story ballets – although not the versions you find in large opera houses. Instead, they are accessible, home-grown productions of familiar tales such as Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake and A Christmas Carol – often with a northern connection, such as Wuthering Heights, Dracula or NBT’s shorter signature piece A Simple Man, which is based on the life of Salford painter LS Lowry. Sometimes they’re given an unusual slant – a Nazi Hamlet, a science-fiction Sleeping Beauty – but all aim for a legible plot so that the dancing can deliver the drama. Critics are sometimes sniffy about NBT’s aspirations; audiences clearly find that it hits the spot.
Christopher Gable is the name most closely linked with NBT; although he neither founded nor named the company, he gave Northern Ballet Theatre its identity. Top-notch set designer Lez Brotherston forged his early dance career with NBT, designing many of their works. More of an ensemble troupe than a hierarchical one, NBT has nevertheless featured some standout dancers, including Jayne Regan during the 1990s.
Kathy Staff, aka Nora Batty from Last of the Summer Wine, had always wanted to be a dancer, and Northern Ballet Theatre helped her live the dream, presenting her in acting roles in Giselle and A Simple Man.
In their own words
“What has made for NBT’s success is the clarity of the narrative line. If people are exposed to too much pure dance they can get lost.” – Christopher Gable, Independent, 1997
“I do a lot of work on a lot of different levels, more than I’ve ever had to do before, yet I have the least money, the most shows to produce and the most criticism. I feel a little beaten up at times.” – David Nixon, ballet.co.uk, 2006
“It’s not a star-based company, it’s an ensemble company and it’s about a team of dancers executing at a high level.” – David Nixon, Yorkshire Post, 2009
In other words
“NBT is one of the most visible and popular classical troupes in the UK.” – Donald Hutera, Times, 2008
“During the 11 years in which Christopher Gable directed Northern Ballet Theatre, he recreated the company in his own flamboyantly populist image.” – Judith Mackrell, Guardian, 2000
“Northern Ballet Theatre have found in David Nixon the right director-choreographer for what they and their audiences want: narrative-led costume dramas.” – Jann Parry, Observer, 2002
“Tell us a story.”
“I want tutus, I want tiaras, I want stars.”
Scottish Ballet, another company that evolved from Western Theatre Ballet, although in a very different direction.
Now watch this
Where to see them next
See the Northern Ballet website for performance dates.