Northern Ballet Theatre
at the Grand Theatre, Leeds, and touring
Not a goat in sight but Northern Ballet Theatre's Hunchback of Notre Dame has omitted very little else from Hugo's epic tale of love, lust and flying buttresses. The novel's mixture of romantic love and local colour made it an ideal ballet d'action and the first of many dance versions was made by Jules Perrot in 1844.
Christopher Gable, celebrating his 10th year as artistic director of Northern Ballet, has already enjoyed success with such audience-magnets as A Christmas Carol and Dracula. Now he has decided to dust off the old war-horse with the help of Halifax Building Society, which is sponsoring the production. And very lovely it looks. The sets are by the consistently effective Lez Brotherston, whose designs for Adventures in Motion Pictures' wartime Cinderella have just won the Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Dance. Brotherston's sets for NBT suggest the lacy stonework of the cathedral architecture in tones that echo the clean monochrome tones of William Dieterle's 1939 film. The costumes, from Quasimodo's mailsack and tights to the stylish velvet kirtles of the aristocracy, evoke the period without fuss in a high-class Osborne and Little palette of greens, wines and greys.
In this version of the story, four men (a playwright, a captain of the King's guard, an uptight archdeacon and a spinally challenged campanologist) are captivated by a beautiful gypsy. She loves the captain but the jealous priest murders him and lets Esmeralda take the blame. Quasimodo whisks her off for a spot of sanctuary in his lovely Parisian penthouse before she is finally hanged in the Place de Greve. The tragic ending will come as a bit of a disappointment to any children suckered in by the thought of Disney on pointe (you've bought the lunchbox: now see the ballet).
Having decided to tinker with the scenario, it is surprising that Gable and his choreographer Michael Pink didn't take further liberties and streamline the narrative a little to focus on the central lusts and jealousies. There is more to successful storytelling than a witness statement timetabling the tragic events. Too much good dancing time is wasted providing opportunities for the corps de ballet, a multi-purpose peasantry who specialise in synchronised high-kicking and rhythmic cabbage-throwing.
I would have liked more of the central characters. They were smoothly danced and sincerely acted but they needed more time to establish their roles. Amaya Iglesias was a pretty and supple temptress as Esmeralda. Luc Jacobs managed to pull off Charles Laughton's trick of being both disabled and acrobatic and conveyed the Hunchback's sweetness and self- loathing with total conviction. Handsome Omar Gordon was perhaps a little young to convey the torments endured by the venal cleric whose faith collapses in the face of temptation. Denis Malinkine, star of NBT's Dracula, was randily insincere as the handsome captain after a bit on the side.
Their big scenes could have been given a bit more help by the music. Philip Feeney's otherwise attractive score was a bit restrained in places for the purposes of melodrama. Quasimodo's first appearance at the Ugly contest should come as a terrible shock but the medieval muzak crumhorns by as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened and Esmeralda's agonised dance for her rival's amusement was similarly anonymous. This and the slightly plot-heavy scenario meant that, although the ending was unhappy, it wasn't quite unhappy enough.
To 28 Feb, Grand Theatre, Leeds (0113 222 6 222), then touring to Nottingham, Eastbourne, Newcastle, Glasgow