As a novel Wuthering Heights is baffling and fascinating in equal measure: it is a great love story, a tragedy of hatred and false consciousness, a promise of spirutual sublimity, an intriguing textual puzzle, a powerful expose of C19 inheritance laws and class hatred, a feminist protest, a gothic horror story and a cultural icon. It is a story which touches on core human experiences, a story about the power of erotic love.David Nixon’s balletic interpretation pares the story down to something much simpler and more immediate in narrative terms. Indeed, had this ballet been titled Heathcliff instead of Wuthering Heights that might have been closer to the mark, since the references to the Heights are all but excised from the story, and what is given focus and pre-eminence is the passionate and doomed affair between Cathy and Heathcliff, the everything and nothing of their bodies. As a metaphor for the transporting nature of erotic love which is both of the body and superior to it, ballet articulates those principles more economically and powerfully than any other art form.
The ballet commences with the anguished Heathcliff, haunted by Cathy, lamenting upon the moor. As he grieves the emotion is translated into reminiscence as Ben Mitchell and Ayana Kanda representing the younger incarnations of Cathy and Heathcliff take the stage with a playful and intense duet. Nixon’s choreography, encompassing both the contemporary and the high-church balletic vocabularies, strives for passion and despair in equal measure, a wild individuality undercutting and outlining the sweeping romantic expressions.
That it doesn’t always come off is in part due to the lack of story, but also owes something to the emotional register of Kenneth Tindall’s (Heathcliff) dramatic expression: he is too given to melodrama for the power of his emotional journey to be conveyed. The staging was somewhat monochromatic in its emotional variety. Heathcliff lacked emotional credibility: we never quite believe in his despair, or his cruelty to Isabella, sweetly played by Pippa Moore who brings a doll-like fragility to her role. In the novel Heathcliff retains our sympathy because his revenge is not merely neurotic, it has a moral force. The weapons he uses against the Earnshaws and the Lintons are their own weapons of money and arranged marriages. Here the story is so pared down that it loses much of its subtlety and magic and the dance manoeuvres are left isolated and repetitive without the anchor of good storytelling.
That said, there are moments when the dancing does elegantly and vigorously convey the different ways in which love is experienced. Heathcliff and Cathy’s pas de deux for example are passionate and almost feral in their intensity: wild, romantic and edgily unrestrained. In contrast, Edgar and Cathy’s relationship is much more formal, they touch only barely, when convention requires it, for grace, and decorum and the completion of social expectation, Amemori successfully conveying the minute adjustments she has to make in dancing style when dancing with her legitimate husband and her authentic lover.
To his credit Nixon has retained some of the wild, harshness of spirit that we associate with Bronte, but stripped of context the gesture occasionally falters and gets lost. However this was a thought-provoking and complex ballet which aspires to retell the story of passionate romantic love in a new form. It is to be commended for its ambition and with a little dramatic tweaking could make something memorably resonant of this tale of transcendent love.
Review by Claire Steele
Director, Choreographer and Costume Designer: David Nixon
Music by Claude Michel Schonberg, performed by Northern Ballet Theatre Orchestra
Conductor: John Pryce-Jones
Set Design Ali Allen
Starring Kenneth Tindall as Heathcliff; Keiko Amemori as Cathy; Ben Mitchell as young Heathcliff; Ayana Kanda as young Cathy; Ashley Dixon as Edgar; Pippa Moore as Isabella; Victoria Sibson as Ellen
Corps du ballet: Christie Duncan, Jessica Morgan, Lori Gilchrist, Thomas Aragones, Graham Kotowich, Yi Song, Brice Asnar, James pickup, Dianne Gray, Dreda Blow, Isabella Gasparini, Sebastian Loe, Antoinette Brooks-Daw, Lori Gilchrist, Rachel Gillespie, Michael Berkin, Yoshihisa Arai, Graham Kotowich, Martin Bell, Giuliano Contadini