Northern Ballet Theatre, Sadler's Wells, London <br></br>Henri Oguike Dance Co, Laban Centre, London

Exactly the right degree of wutheringness

Jenny Gilbert
Sunday 23 March 2003 01:00
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Heathcliff and Cathy must count among the most mythologised couples in literature. Like Frankenstein and his monster, or Jekyll and Hyde, they have acquired a fuzzy existence independent of the pages that bred them. So when Northern Ballet Theatre's David Nixon set about making a ballet on Wuthering Heights, he could have done pretty much anything he liked in his treatment of the central pair. NBT has built its reputation on story ballets, and its audiences do like a story they can hum. But to his credit Nixon retained some of the fierce and truculent spirit of Emily Brontë's novel while at the same time turning it into a musical.

The juggling act succeeds thanks largely to two exceptional performing talents. Jonathan Ollivier's Heathcliff not only fills the physical requirements of height, brooding looks and rough athleticism, but he understands the power of understatement. Charlotte Talbot for her part shows Cathy as more than merely a wild thing tamed by society. We believe in her dangerous bond with Heathcliff because of the sheer abandon in the way she dances with him. Yet she also reveals her need for Edgar's civilised world.

Any simplification comes in the story's editing. Nixon had little choice but to telescope the action to key scenes – on the moor, in the Earnshaws' kitchen, the Lintons' party, the wedding – but inserts a clever linking device in two additional sets of Cathy/Heathcliffs: as children and adolescents. Their rumbustious, free-wheeling duets act as a taunting memory for the adult lovers, a flashback to the companionship they have lost. They also contain the evening's loveliest choreography.

Less successful are the episodes that rely on naturalistic acting. The violent family row that erupts when Cathy first brings Edgar home tips uncomfortably into melodrama, prompting giggles on Monday night when Cathy's brother took a horsewhip to Heathcliff's bottom. Sensibly, Nixon channels most of the dramatic incident into dance, to riveting effect in the case of Heathcliff's brutal importuning of Isabella.

The designs, by Ali Allen, are efficient and nicely spare, supplying just the right degree of wutheringness as well as quiet belches of moorland fog (Royal Opera House take note). Alas the orchestral score by Claude-Michel Schonberg of Les Mis fame is a let-down. It romps along in blowzily predictable ways without once injecting any hint of menace or pain. Nixon's dance treatment may give only a glimpse of the emotional scope of the book, but it isn't afraid to tackle the ugly bits.

The new Laban Centre building on London's Creekside, officially opened eight weeks ago and already humming as a dance school, is only just getting into its stride as a performance venue. Designed by Herzog & de Meuron, the architects who did Tate Modern, it's hard to miss, glowing like an opalescent spaceship in the murky industrial wastelands bordering Greenwich. Which is just as well given that there are no signs to it from the station. You see it, but have no idea how to get to it.

But it's worth persevering for the pleasure of sampling the liquorice allsort colour-blast of its interior: a great sloping entrance walk bordered with runway lights, shocking pink asymmetrical walls, thick black coils of spiral stairs, and a mural by the artist Michael Craig-Martin. Other attractions include a creekside café, a moss garden (not yet mossy), and a 300-seat theatre, perfectly proportioned for the kind of independent contemporary dance that Laban students hope to produce in the future.

I used my visit to check up on Henri Oguike's current programme, which suffered electrical glitches when I reviewed it earlier in the tour. In Laban's perfectly equipped theatre his Dido and Aeneas was transformed, the recorded music cue-perfect, and every detail of the movement etched in bold. What struck me afresh was the audacity of Oguike's imagination – his Dido entering in darkness and silence before flinging her clenched fists wide with a sharp exhalation of breath, as Purcell's opening chorus bursts forth and lights blaze. This is ballsy stuff indeed.

j.gilbert@independent.co.uk

'Wuthering Heights': Milton Keynes Theatre (01908 606090), 29 April to 3 May; and touring. Henri Oguike Dance Co: Richmond Theatre (020 8940 0088), 12 April

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