Leeds united: the plot of the North Ballet is preparing for the 50th anniversary

‘Years ago, when I danced, you did what you were told,” says Northern Ballet’s artistic director, David Nixon. “If you had an idea, they didn’t want to know about it.” In his office at the company’s Leeds HQ, the Canadian-born choreographer and former principal is reflecting on how ballet is shrugging off its autocratic style and becoming more collaborative. Nixon is fast approaching his 20th anniversary in Leeds and the company – originally based in a former church hall in Manchester’s Moss Side – celebrates its 50th birthday this month. The sense of rehearsal-room democracy is, he believes, one of its defining features. Today’s dancers “have a lot that they can personally contribute”, says Nixon. “They are a part of, rather than serving, the art form.”

We meet on a busy morning at Northern Ballet’s purpose-built, six-storey base in the cultural quarter of Quarry Hill. On the ground floor, children fill up the foyer awaiting a performance of Little Red Riding Hood, a sweet introduction to ballet with a colourful design, sprightly live music and a rather soppy wolf. On the floors above, dancers are taking morning class and Nixon has been viewing test footage for the company’s first live broadcast of Dracula, staged at the newly reopened Leeds Playhouse up the road. The camera’s close-ups show off the dancers’ dramatic skills, he enthuses, but the trick is to avoid spoiling the production’s illusions.

These are hectic times for the touring company. “We did Cinderella two weeks ago, had one week back at base to prepare the mixed bill for the Linbury [in London], then in between we’re doing Dracula,” Nixon explains. Juggling this sort of workload means the dancers have to keep several contrasting performances “in their veins” he says, then grins. “That’s a bad choice of words!” His version of Bram Stoker’s novel, with its bloodsucker in a bat-shaped cloak, is a crowd-pleaser that vamps up the gothic and erotic, yet has hauntingly anguished encounters such as Dracula and Mina’s bedroom pas de deux danced to Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel. “Oddly enough, sometimes people come to the ballet thinking everything’s going to be Swan Lake,” observes Nixon. “That Dracula will be Swan Lake with fangs. Well, no, Dracula will be Dracula.”

The company is known for these full-length narrative dances, dating back to founder Laverne Meyer’s Aladdin in 1974, and continuing with Gillian Lynne’s A Simple Man (about LS Lowry), a highlight of the transformative artistic directorship of Christopher Gable, and on to Nixon’s own versions of Madame Butterfly, Dangerous Liaisons and Cleopatra. “The stories give us a clear identity,” says Nixon. “Whether you like Northern Ballet or not, you would be able to say what the company is … Sometimes today, in ballet companies, their identity is very similar to another five or six ballet companies. The same rep, pretty much the same way of approaching it. I like to think that when we take on even abstract work [such as in the mixed bill that toured to the Linbury] we take it on in a Northern Ballet way.”

Stories are central to the three world premieres that Nixon is unveiling for the 2020 season: Geisha, Merlin and a yet-to-be-named children’s ballet (the latest in a successful line for junior audiences that have had popular CBeebies broadcasts). Geisha and Merlin, he says, are essentially “both original stories. So often we’re doing adaptations but my whole thing has been: can we get to a point where we are creating the stories?” Drew McOnie, the livewire theatre choreographer of King Kong, In the Heights and Jesus Christ Superstar, was commissioned to work his magic on the legendary wizard and the result is “not Merlin as you would have foreseen it” says Nixon. The show will explore how the wizard got his powers and his struggle to determine how to use his magic for good. McOnie has said that he greeted an email from Nixon inviting him for a coffee, years ago, as if it were a marriage proposal. Merlin will be his first professional ballet creation: “The opportunity for a theatre choreographer to be welcomed into a space like this and into a company is incredibly rare,” McOnie acknowledges.

Geisha is Northern Ballet’s second full-length commission for choreographer Kenneth Tindall, who started out as a child dancer with the company, and whose Casanova premiered in 2017. The anniversary celebrations include further tour dates for The Great Gatsby and Little Red Riding Hood, and the launch of a digital archive, to be gradually expanded. Archive manager Hari Jonkers has been steadily sorting through boxes of material charting the company’s history. In original proposal documents, founder Laverne Meyer (like Nixon, a Canadian former dancer), writes: “For too long, areas outside London have been served by touring companies which, although they often inspire great enthusiasm during their visits, can only be present in each centre for a short time. Such visits can only impinge briefly on local life and cannot hope to develop regular audiences.”

The archive has handwritten logbooks of visits to the various theatres and school halls where Northern Dance Theatre, as it was first known, performed. There is promotional material trumpeting “the north’s own ballet company” which comprised 11 dancers – seven women, four men – and now has four times that number. There are glamorous shots of Northern’s illustrious artist laureate, Rudolf Nureyev, in 1986 and desperate campaigning letters from that decade, railing against proposed Arts Council cuts. A look through the company’s posters reveals a striking consistency of vision: the same company that staged dance-drama The Brontës in 1995 went on to perform Nixon’s version of Wuthering Heights in 2003 and recently enjoyed one of its biggest hits with another prestigious literary adaptation, Cathy Marston’s Jane Eyre.

From the start, Meyer’s policy for the company stressed the importance of their work being seen on television as well as in theatres and schools. These days, that has expanded to include the cinema, which helps dance reach new audiences but has its own limitations. It’s difficult for dancers to see themselves on screen, says Nixon. “The only way we can [do so] is through looking at a video. But a video is dead compared with a performance. It’s never what the performance was.”

Among its further plans to put performance online and push the art form forward, while also perhaps recognising the habits of its future audiences, the company has commissioned Tindall to choreograph a “direct to digital” creation. Filmed this month, with a working title of Ego, it will premiere online on Northern Ballet’s Digital Dance website and is not designed to be performed in theatres.

On the 50th anniversary of their first official performance, 28 November, the company will, fittingly, be on the road, performing Cinderella in Norwich. “The human exchange is what’s wonderful,” says Nixon. “You’re sitting with other humans and watching other humans and it’s an energy that comes across between you.”