Kenneth Tindall’s Geisha for Northern Ballet echoes the arc of Giselle – a young woman is undone through her dealings with a man, dies and returns as a ghost – but the social divide that drives Giselle is transposed to a cultural one here, between Japan and America, and the central love to be redeemed is not romantic, but sisterly. Aptly, the ballet achieves a potent fusion of two genres: the 19th-century ballet blanc, with its moonlit female apparitions; and Japanese horror cinema, with its lank-haired dead women bringing their unresolved issues to mess with the lives of the living.
It doesn’t hit that spot, though, until the second act. The first takes on rather more than it can manage. The story tells of geishas Okichi (Minju Kang) and her protegée Aiko (Sarah Chun), bonded within a patriarchal world. Both take lovers: Okichi the young samurai Takeda (Riku Ito), and Aiko a young American official, Henry (Joseph Taylor). But as geishas they are also subject to other encounters, Aiko to a ceremonial deflowering by the Mayor, and Okichi to first rejection then rape by the American consul-general – the former scene, with its dissociated, symbolic style, is much better handled than the more literal latter. There’s more exposition than inspiration, motivations are murky, and having the American marines bouncing around looking like drum majorettes does not add to credibility.
What a difference an interval makes. Ghastly effigies arise, the stage fills with string-haired, smudge-eyed ghosts and Alexandra Harwood’s score begins to relish its cinematic effects of woozy strings and deadbeat thumps. It’s a lavish production throughout, but now the designs serve rather than illustrate the drama, its lanterns and shadows amplifying the emotional heat and chills. If Kang’s performance, even as demonic avenger, remains on the demure side, the choreography shifts from dancing out the story to embodying its action – in a terrific duet, for example, where Okichi discovers her beyond-the-grave power to puppeteer Takeda’s body, a waft of her arms making him spin like a maniac.
Tindall’s choreography always rises to its challenges even if it does not always meet them; but this is very much a team piece, with Act 2 as the crucible that alchemises design, story, music and dance into high drama.