Rediscovering the Queen of the Nile
QUEEN, lover, mother, villain or victim...who was the real Cleopatra?
The story of the last Queen of Egypt, her extraordinary power struggles and her doomed relationships with two of the mostpowerful men in the ancient world, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, has endured throughout the centuries.
She inspired both Shakespeare and Shaw, fired the imaginations of great artists and authors and was immortalized on screen in a series of epic movies.
Perhaps it was inevitable then that her story would eventually also be translated into dance as Northern Ballet artistic director David Nixon presents a new interpretation of one of the world's most famous stories, a compelling blend of politics and passion set against the might of Rome and the decadence of a crumbling Egyptian empire.
For all that Cleopatra's story has inspired generations of artists, though, David insists he actually know very little about the Queen of the Nile until he started to work on Northern Ballet's latest dance drama.
'I think I became interested about 12 years ago when I was still at Ballet Met at Columbus, Ohio,' he admits.
'I just knew that as a title, Cleopatra's name would capture the imagination of the audience and I've been proved right because this is the best February season we have ever had!'
David knew the basics of the story - the men she loved and the final tragedy - but says he had never really encountered any of the most famous versions of Cleopatra's life.
'I don't know the Shakespeare play that well,' he says. 'It's not one of the plays I'm familiar with.
'And I'm sure I saw the Elizabeth Taylor film but it must be so long ago that I don't really remember anything about it.'
'You have images in your mind of Taylor and Richard Burton but as far as the treatment of the story goes, I didn't have very much to go on so I came to it clean and did it all through research, reading about her life and the lives of the men she became involved with.'
And the more he studied, the more he found that he was fascinated by the story which he tells in flashback, starting as she prepares for her death by snake bite.
'I think she is one of those people in history who is truly larger than life,' he says.
'Intellectually, she rules in a man's world and she is able to dominate men.'
'She can be the seductress but she also has the capacity for love and not just the men in her life - she loves her children and she loves her country.
'In fact, most of what she does is inspired by her love for her country, the desire to retain the Egyptian empire and throne for her family and for the generations to come.'
The story might never have reached the stage, however, without the contribution of Claude Michel Schonberg, the composer of hit musical Les Miserables and a previous Northern Ballet collaborator for the company's acclaimed version of Wuthering Heights.
'Claude Michel was really a catalyst for the piece,' David says. 'We got together for a revival of Wuthering Heights and knew we really needed to work together again.'
'I'd mentioned the Cleopatra idea to him seven years earlier but he'd not taken it up but this time when I suggested t again he went away and created his own scenario then wrote some music and asked me to listen.'
From that began the collaborative process that would lead to one of the year's most eagerly anticipated dance events.
'It was something a little bit different for both of us and we made a pact that, if nothing else, we would do this as a project just for us,' he says.
This was one idea, though, that simply seemed to take on a life of its own, especially when award-winning dancer Martha Leebolt was cast in the central role.
'Martha was ideal for the part,' David insists. 'With her as Cleopatra I didn't have to search for the character's identity. She brings so much to the part.'
'And it is a great part, the story of a women who really has become immortal, who is as famous today as she was 2,000 years ago.'
Northern Ballet's Cleopatra runs at Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield from March 22 to 26.