Northern Ballet Theatre, Sadler's Wells, London

NBT now stands for New Boss Triumphs
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The Independent Culture

Northern Ballet Theatre has never been terribly interested in pushing the technical frontiers of dance. But it has always been keen – evangelically keen – on dispelling the idea of ballet as a stuffy or difficult art form, promoting instead the notion of dance as a narrative vehicle. The company has had a rough ride in recent years, getting through artistic directors faster than dancers get through Arrid Extra Dry, but with new boss David Nixon, it looks to be back on track. His two-act Madame Butterfly, which he brought with him from Canada, expanded and reworked for NBT, is only the first of three Nixon-choreographed touring programmes planned this year, but one can believe he got the job on the strength of it.

In best NBT fashion, Madame Butterfly tells a good story simply and well. You may argue that it's a story we know, but Nixon's ballet goes beyond straight recycling of Puccini's opera. In relaying the narrative purely through dance and dancers – rather than the dumb-show musicals acting that some NBT shows have resorted to – it lights on new aspects of Butterfly's tragedy and delivers the experience afresh. Who, seeing the opera, can ever truly believe in the geisha's fragility and innocence when faced with a hefty soprano who, while oriental in appearance, is certainly no girl? NBT's Butterfly, tiny Chiaki Nagao, has an immediate expressive advantage in that she lives up to her name, flitting and floating in Nixon's generous and fluent choreography just as if she had emerged from a chrysalis that morning. We not only believe in, but feel her vulnerability. Nixon also thinks to add a sharply etched prologue showing Butterfly's disgraced father (an impressive Hironao Takahashi) selling his daughter to a marriage broker before committing Hari Kari. Set to kabuki music, this little scene establishes the austere realities of the girl's background, touching base with the real Japan before Puccini's sugary excesses sweep us away, and an American's false promises sweep her from her moorings too.

In naval whites that crisply accommodate his long, elegant leap, Neil Westmoreland as Pinkerton recalls Gene Kelly and chums in On The Town: brash, heedless, looking for action. In a dream sequence Butterfly imagines plush debutantes flirting with Pinkerton in American drawing rooms, a cultural chasm she knows she cannot cross.

Designers Peter Mumford and Ali Allen evoke light and location with Zen-like simplicity and subtlety. NBT's house orchestra does a good job with John Longstaff's scaled-down score, but the evening's greatest coup is Nixon's kabuki-style denouement. In her scarlet wedding kimono, Butterfly dances out her grief and finds release in death.

j.gilbert@independent.co.uk

Sadler's Wells, London EC1 (020 7863 8000), to Saturday, then touring

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