Northern Ballet’s Casanova Back

Kenneth Tindall’s Casanova, a new ballet based on Ian Kelly’s marvellous 2008 biography of the eighteenth-century Italian adventurer, opens with a beguiling image: a hanging censer wafting a cloud of incense down to a darkened stage. The symbolism is precise, establishing the tension between the sensory and the spiritual that characterises the setting of Act One: eighteenth-century Venice, the home of masquerade. Alastair West’s lighting design is compelling and Kerry Muzzey’s cinematically baroque music—pulsing, hypnotic melodies reminiscent of Philip Glass—is instantly mesmerizing. Time barely seemed to pass until the curtain dropped at intermission, breaking the spell cast by the arresting music, movement, and storytelling of Casanova, which had its world premiere on 11th March 2017 in Leeds.

The original scenario, a collaboration between Kelly and choreographer Tindall, captures the brilliantly multifaceted identity of Casanova, ‘Actor, Lover, Priest, Spy’ as the biography is subtitled. His storied public and private history is brought to life in a series of scenes that showcase Casanova’s allure: his intelligence, charisma, and aptitude for both seduction and self-fashioning. Early in this episodic ballet, Casanova, a priest-in-training, finds himself drawn into the life of the body in a pas de trois with two young women under his tutelage, their gradual surrender to mutual desire unfolding amidst billowing fabric. The other highlight of Act One is an erotic rendezvous with a mysterious nun, M. M., with whom Casanova cavorts under the voyeuristic gaze of Cardinal de Bernis. Throughout the ballet’s first half, the dark forces of the Inquisition lurk at the edges of Casanova’s bliss. Act One ends with Casanova’s arrest and early in Act Two, which is set in Paris, Casanova narrates his famously daring escape from his Venetian captors. The decision not to directly depict this event is a bold and thoughtful one, reflecting the essential performativity of Casanova’s life, also seen in Kelly’s structuring of the biography into dramatic acts; such moments in Casanova seem to speak to the metanarrative tendency of eighteenth-century writing. Interpolated tales—stories embedded in longer narratives—are crucial to the period’s imaginative literature, from the amorous protonovels of English writer Eliza Haywood to Henry Fielding’s sprawling comic tomes. Casanova tells this story during a gambling scene, wonderfully danced with gaming tables as props, and consistent with one of the protagonist’s key qualities: his willingness to hazard—his life, his body, even his soul—for freedom and pleasure.

This original ballet, like Kelly’s biography, attempts to show Casanova as something much more than a lover and his age more than an age of surfaces. Though cerebral pursuits are naturally more difficult to portray wordlessly than sexual exploits, Casanova largely succeeds in its ambitious aims. Countering the darkness of religious persecution is the force of Enlightenment: literalised with the glowing book in Act One, set designer Christopher Oram’s gilded pillars, which are reminiscent of shelved volumes, and Casanova’s graceful dance with his writings in Act Two, an exquisite moment that could have been drawn out. The scene in which Casanova’s picture is painted is a rare, yet very minor misfire in this masterpiece of a ballet. The painter sports an Andy Warhol-esque wig, undercutting any serious statement that could be made about the importance of portraiture in eighteenth-century European culture and society. Shortly after, the polymath Casanova presents his mathematical ideas to Voltaire, who plainly scorns him (maybe because it’s hard to take an intellectual in a chest-baring, gold lamé top seriously?). Still, Giuliano Contadini, a remarkable dancer, is a striking, athletic Casanova, irresistibly drawing the eye to his every motion. And, the costumes, likewise designed by Oram, are gorgeous stripped-down homages to eighteenth-century fashion, evoking the period’s aesthetic without unduly limiting the dancers’ movements.

The central romances of Act Two, featuring Bellino (a woman disguised as a castrato) and Henrietta (an abused wife in soldier’s dress) are both touching. They show a tender Casanova, a man emotionally and physically invested in the lovers he beds. With these relationships and other passionate encounters, many in masks, the fluid nature of gender and sexuality is beautifully played out. Casanova’s depression, triggered by the loss of his beloved Henrietta, manifests in his descent into cold sensuality; in contrast with an earlier tender unmasking scene, masked dancers of both sexes draw him into an orgy, the hero drowning in a sea of despair and anonymous flesh. The extraordinary choreography by Tindall, formerly a principal dancer with the Northern Ballet, conveys the intensities of both lust and love with elegant sensuality and without any of the crassness that can creep into portrayals of historical womanisers.

The ending of Casanova is truly magnificent, an exhilarating testament to the power of writing—its ability to console, to move, to pay lasting tribute to the lives that have touched our own. Casanova, teetering on the edge of self-destruction, is saved by the project that renews his sense of purpose and meaning: his twelve-volume memoir, Histoire de Ma Vie. Pages flutter down as memories – whirling dancers reminding us of past episodes in the ballet fill the stage, which now stands in for the author-hero’s creative mind. Casanova not only rekindled my love of ballet, many years cooled, but reminded me just how moving, and more surprisingly, how intelligent, this art form could be.

Kenneth Tindall’s Casanova was at Sadler’s Wells from Tuesday, May 9th to Saturday, 13th May. London was the last stop on the Northern Ballet’s UK tour, which included Leeds, Edinburgh, Sheffield, Norwich, Milton Keynes, Cardiff, and Salford.