14 MARCH 1998, Page 45


The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Northern Ballet Theatre, Theatre Royal, Nottingham)

Novel approach

Giannandrea Poesio

The idea of deriving a three-act ballet from Victor Hugo's Notre Dame de Paris might sound rather peculiar, for it is hard to believe in the drama of a pirouetting Quasimodo. Fortunately, in the Northern Ballet Theatre's new choreographic adap- tation of the popular novel, the Hunchback does not perform dramatically unsuitable ballet steps, nor is he engaged in prissy dances with the gargoyles as in Walt Dis- ney's recent cartoon.

Michael Pink's calibrated choreographic solutions make the 'good monster' move in keeping with his deformity; even when he expresses his uncontainable joy for having being kissed, the leaps and turns he exe- cutes are only vaguely reminiscent of the pure conventions of classical theatrical dancing. This particular choice of subject, moreover, should not be much of a surprise to the well-informed ballet-goer. New as it might look, the work has two illustrious antecedents: Jules Perrot's 1844 ballet La Esmeralda, which had its premiere in Lon- don and was destined to become a favourite of the 19th-century repertoire, and Roland Petit's much acclaimed Notre Dame de Paris, created for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1965, with costumes by Yves Saint Laurent.

Not unlike these two previous creations, Northern Ballet Theatre's The Hunchback of Notre Dame owes much of its success to both the dramatic malleability and the choreographic adaptability of the literary text. There is little doubt that Hugo's story has provided and still provides dance-mak- ers — and not just dance-makers, for a new musical will soon open in Paris with an ideal ready-made ballet scenario that comes with a pre-defined division of choral scenes, duets, trios and solos. As one of Roland Petit's detractors once claimed, all that remains to be done is to select what has to be maintained or pruned, what has to be elaborated and what kind of reading is to be conferred on the choreography. Once these choices have been made, simply add the steps. Although in each of the three ballets the work of the creators went far beyond this simplistic formula, the Northern Ballet Theatre's production is the one that remains most faithful to Hugo's story.

The ballet, therefore, does not focus exclusively on the central love story between Esmeralda and Phoebus, as hap- pened in the 1844 work, which concluded with an improbable happy ending, nor does it highlight the political undertones of the story, as in the Petit version, which, for that reason, became a popular item in the Soviet repertoire. The almost straight- forward transposition of the novel into ballet that characterises the new creation, however, is not vitiated by excessive litera- cy — as is often the case with contempo- rary story-telling dance works. On the contrary, Christopher Gable, the artistic director of the company responsible for the adaptation, and Michael Pink, the choreographer, have managed to create a series of expressive dance numbers that never indulge in a wearily pantomimic nar- ration of the events — even though some sections could benefit from some editing and some solutions are slightly naive.

The result is a pleasantly spectacular, eye-catching, fast-moving performance that combines both low and high art. On the one hand, the breathtaking and splen- didly functional sets by Lez Brotherston, the clever score by Philip Feeney, and some of Pink's choreographic solutions refer to and develop from the well-estab- lished forms of some West-End long-run- ning shows, thus securing immediacy and accessibility even to a non-dance audience. An analysis of the structure of the entire work reveals, on the other hand, an intriguing adherence to the strictest princi- ples of ballet composition. Although Esmeralda does not perform bravura pieces, such as the 'tambourine' variation from the 1844 ballet, her first, effective appearance — behind real flames — is in line with 19th-century canons, which pre- scribed the use of theatrical and choreographic devices to converge the public's attention on the principal female dancer.

Similarly, other choreographic key-sec- tions refer to a well-established tradition, thus showing that it is still possible to use this set of rules in a contemporary way. Even the evil Frollo is portrayed in a way that encompasses the standard characteri- sation of most 19th-century balletic arch- villains, mixing it with a more 'modern' although not entirely successful — psycho- logical introspection of the role.

Indeed, the technically strong company is also to be praised for interpretative intensi- ty with which each dancer, from the princi- pal ones to those of the corps de ballet, approaches this narrative work that could easily slip into a ridiculous hotchpotch of techniques and dramatic solutions, but never does.