Is this the future of dance?

Ballet not danced on pointe and directed like a play? Christopher Gable, director of the Northern Ballet Theatre, died last year but his radical vision lives on in the company's new production of Carmen.
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Exactly 50 years ago yesterday, a London audience accustomed to ballet as enchanted swans and sleeping beauties was startled out of its seats by the premiere of Roland Petit's ballet Carmen starring the voluptuous Zizi Jeanmaire. But half-a-century later, Tchaikovsky and toe- shoes still dominate. And so it is that the Northern Ballet Theatre hopes to repeat the shock with another Carmen premiering in Leeds tonight.

The man who conceived it will not be there. Christopher Gable, the NBT's director for 10 years, died last October, but he had already set the new work on its way as the last of 10 big, bold productions with which he transformed the expectations of his dancers and their audiences. Gable, a former Royal Ballet star and later a straight actor, was as much interested in theatre as in ballet, and the best of his work always packed a strong punch. Everyone connected with the new Carmen says his spirit lives on in it.

It took Gable nearly four years after joining the NBT to get the company going as he wanted. The first of their big hits was a radical version of Romeo and Juliet, acclaimed both on tour and on television. With that, the pattern was set for a series of large-scale dramatic ballets (notably A Christmas Carol, Dracula and The Hunchback of Notre Dame) in which a familiar story was treated not only by the usual team of choreographer, musician and designer, but a director too, and the dancers were also encouraged to bring their own thoughts into the rehearsal studios. Gable insisted that this process was not just cosmetic; if a new dancer in the corps de ballet came up with an idea that was better than his own, "we'll embrace it instantly".

For Carmen he chose Didy Veldman as choreographer - best known here as a dancer and choreographer with the Rambert Dance Company. Born in Holland, she began dancing there with the Scapino Ballet, which was then building a new image with mainly modern works based on classical ballet technique. She began making her own ballets too, starting with a workshop piece which won a prize for young choreographers, and which the Scapino management liked enough to take into the repertoire. "I was encouraged after that to take every opportunity," she said.

Then came four years with the Geneva Ballet, dancing a repertoire by such noted choreographers as Jiri Kylian and Christopher Bruce. In Switzerland, she also started her own group before joining Bruce's new-look Rambert Company. Gable saw her ballet Kol Simcha, and commissioned two pieces from her for the students of his Central Ballet School.

That led to discussions between the thoughtful, eager Gable, and Veldman, about choreography. Then suddenly a phone call: would she create Carmen for the NBT? He knew this was the ballet he wanted, but his thoughts, to her delight, were not far advanced, as he had found from previous collaborations that it was important to involve the choreographer from the beginning.

So they started working on the storyline, initially with the idea of following Merimee's novel but, wanting to use Bizet's music, they found themselves drawn by that towards the plot of the opera. However, they wanted to find a modern situation because, Veldman says: "I don't see the need of making a ballet that looks like an opera of 100 years ago, and it's easier for the audience to relate to the story if it's set in their own time." Gable and Veldman wanted a location where it was hot, and where you could have a cigarette factory with police guarding it; the solution was South America, which Veldman knew well enough to have a feeling for it.

One thing she insisted on was that the ballet would not be danced on pointe. Gable took some persuading over this but Veldman argued that she "wanted to talk about real people. Carmen is a woman in contact with the earth, and I wanted it more naturalistic". So the dancers will wear the ordinary footwear of today, or even be barefoot. And the designer Lez Botherston ended up buying most of the costumes in shops. "The dancers feel really comfortable in them; they are clothes you'd like to take home with you," says Veldman.

Her other design stipulation was to ask Brotherston for as much space as possible. This is because "I'm trying to use movement to tell the story, not mime or acting. I'm trying to make everything physical". This is her first experience of making a story-ballet, and with a note of surprise in her voice, she says she found it "good, actually; I really enjoyed it".

Contrary to the usual ballet practice of working primarily with one "first cast" while the dancers who will alternate in the roles mark them from behind, Veldman has been working with three casts all together. She is convinced that "the more minds we have working and thinking, the more interesting it will be. Because it's story-telling, I can indicate what I want, let them try, then decide `That's the clearest'. If I see one couple do something interesting, we adopt that version".

The dancers, thanks to the way Gable developed them, "are imaginative, willing to improvise, and not afraid to give everything in rehearsal. In modern dance, we tend to concentrate on the movement in rehearsal, and say the expression will come once we get on stage".

Having expected to work on the choreography with Gable present and active like the director of a play, she found it daunting to arrive for rehearsals just after his death. She imagined the dancers might be thinking "Who is this woman?". But it helped that she had the co-operation of Patricia Doyle, an actress and director who had collaborated with Gable as drama consultant and acting coach on his last three productions. The dancers already knew her, and Veldman found her theatrical background invaluable for "keeping me on the right track. She would tell me `that works' or `that doesn't'."

What Veldman also found was a company where everybody felt involved; where the technical staff sat in rehearsals and acted to meet every new need straight away; where the publicity people took a real interest; where she had a six-week rehearsal period from 12 to 6.30pm every day (something she had never experienced before) and weekly production meetings with everybody concerned.

The question now is whether NBT can find itself a new artistic director able to take over where Gable left off. Gable's ballets did not always meet with critical approval - something he came to disregard, although he did change or withdraw works if he found they were not getting through to audiences. But he built a great spirit within the company and developed strong public support. Everyone knows that he had rare qualities, not easily replaced; and to complicate the issue, Scottish Ballet is simultaneously looking for a new director. Filling these gaps with the right people is going to be far from easy. Just as well for NBT that Gable's ghost is still so active among them.

Grand Theatre, Leeds box office: 0113 2226222. Further information on www.nbt.co.uk

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