September 25 2021 (till October 2 and then on tour in Hull, Norwich, Sheffield, Leeds and Southampton from October to December. For details go to northernballet.com)
Theatre Royal, Nottingham
Northern Ballet’s Merlin: a modern classic has been born
Northern Ballet’s Merlin is an epic piece of story-telling which glows, pulsates and frequently explodes with energy. Drew McOnie’s creation received not only its world premiere in Nottingham on Saturday evening but also one of the longest, most ecstatic standing ovations I can remember.
The ballet is one of those relatively rare shows where each element is crafted to be a vital part of the whole, as if the whole venture had been born fully-formed with plot, choreography, music, set, costumes, lighting (I could go on…) as essential as any organ to a living, breathing human body.
When the ballet’s story is written down, it sounds hopelessly complicated, fragmented and frankly incredible. But this just demonstrates that the plot, earth-bound on paper, takes wing through dance. As soon as the action starts, the narrative has an irresistible logic and thrust which makes disbelief impossible. Merlin is remarkable not only for its spectacular set-pieces but also for its fluidity, one scene melting into the next, the dancers’ bodies shifting from one emotional extreme to another with an ease and speed which frequently takes the breath away.
As for the story, if your idea of Merlin is of an eccentric old wizard sporting a blue pointy hat and singing ‘Higitus Figitus’, then you may be in for a shock. Northern Ballet’s Merlin (spectacularly, movingly danced by Kevin Poeung) is 18 years old, fatherless, vulnerable, searching for identity, love and purpose. He becomes a soldier, struggles with his magic powers, is torn between good and evil, almost destroys himself through romantic infatuation, goes to prison, tames a (very cute) dragon, realises his place in history and eventually has a very big choice to make about who he wants to be. With all that (and more) going on, it’s not surprising that the show sinks its claws into the audience’s emotions and won’t let them go.
The atmosphere is a mixture of Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter with a bit of Wagner and much else thrown in. And yet it’s always itself. Grant Olding’s original score is a great addition to the ballet music repertoire. He’s not only a memorable tunesmith but his feeling for the music’s colour and texture is as detailed and thoughtful as his ability to match music to movement. His sound world is equally good at evoking the magical and the epic as it is at pastiche, his set piece courtly dances witty and perceptive. He does ecstasy pretty well too – and tenderness too, as in the moving dance for Merlin and the Blacksmith towards the end. Conductor Jonathan Lo ensured that the Northern Ballet Sinfonia played like angels throughout.
Colour is important in this production as both symbol (gold and green especially) and as a means of engaging and often startling the eyes. The fantasy setting certainly allows the set, costume and props designers full rein for their creative imaginations. The blacksmith’s forge in the opening scene is given impressive realism and the special effects department have done wonders with magic flowers, red-hot metal and burning trees. And this family-orientated show has some wonderful puppets (à la War Horse): fearsome dogs and a smoke-breathing dragon whose evolution from threatening to playful is bound to please the young-at-heart in the audience.
The plot’s range and intricacy make heavy demands on the dancers – but each rises to the challenge. There are equal numbers of Male and Female Warriors who dance with power and precision whether as Knights of the Round Table or as soldiers in the Solar Kingdom’s Army. Gender is clearly an important issue for Drew McOnie and his ballet is full of strong, vital, romantic, complex and multi-layered women who are at least a match for their male counterparts.
It must be thrilling to create a role in a new ballet, especially one on this scale and the expressive energy displayed by each of the show’s principals seems to reflect this excitement. Kevin Poeung’s Merlin, Antoinette Brooks-Daw’s Morgan, Minju Kang’s Blacksmith all seem to defy gravity in their expression of constantly fluctuating emotions. Amongst other outstanding artists are Lorenzo Trossello (Uther), Rachael Gillespie (Ygraine), Javier Torres (Vortigern) Abigail Prudames (Lady of the Lake) and Greig Matthews (Helios), each member of the company proving that this story lies beyond and above the world of words in a realm where dancers do the seemingly impossible.
Merlin is a ballet about Family and for families. It doesn’t shy away from the strong stuff like passion and violence but its world of magicians, fairies, princesses, warriors and dragons combined with its superlative dancers, haunting score, colourful sets and costumes – and Drew McOnie’s thrilling, deeply thoughtful choreography surely give the show the widest appeal. Not to be missed.
Merlin Kevin Poeung
Morgan Antoinette Brooks-Daw
Uther Lorenzo Trossello
Ygraine Rachael Gillespie
Vortigern Javier Torres
Blacksmith Minju Kang
Lady of the Lake Abigail Prudames
Helios Greig Matthews
Dragon puppeteer Ashley Dixon
Male Warriors Sean Bates, Filippo Di Vilio, Ashley Dixon, Jonathan Hanks,
Riku Ito, Mlindi Kulashe, Gavin McCaig, Andrew Tomlinson
Female Warriors Helen Bogatch, Sarah Chun, Sena Kitano, Heather Lehan,
Harriet Marden, Aerys Merrill, Aurora Piccininni
Northern Ballet Sinfonia Conductor Jonathan Lo
Leader Geoffrey Allan
Choreography & Direction Drew McOnie
Music Grant Olding
Set & Costume Design Colin Richmond
Lighting Design Anna Watson
Illusions Chris Fisher
Design & Direction of
Puppetry Rachael Canning
Costume Design Assistant Julie Anderson