Ballet is dancing to a classic tune

Northern Ballet Cleopatra'Martha Leebolt as Cleopatra and ;Tobias Batley as Marc Antony
Northern Ballet Cleopatra'Martha Leebolt as Cleopatra and ;Tobias Batley as Marc Antony

THE posters for Northern Ballet’s new production refer to “Claude-Michel Schönberg and David Nixon’s Cleopatra”, unusually crediting the composer of the music alongside the choreographer.

That’s because the music man, best known for composing the score for epic musicals Les Misérables and Miss Saigon, was the catalyst in ensuring Cleopatra came to fruition.

The original idea to create a ballet exploring the life of the ancient world’s most powerful woman and her passionate love affairs with Marc Antony and Julius Caesar came from Northern Ballet artistic director Nixon.

“David talked to me about Cleopatra nine years ago,” explains Schönberg who had previously worked with him on Northern Ballet’s acclaimed version of Wuthering Heights. “He showed me a scenario which was written by someone else and its climax took place on the Paris Metro. I said it was not for me, I am more of a traditionalist in these kind of things. David thought about it and a few months later said you are right.

“In 2008 we did a revival of Wuthering Heights for the 40th anniversary of Northern Ballet and decided to do a new sequence in Act One. It was new choreography different from what we had done before and we enjoyed the process of collaboration very much and knew we ought to work together again.”

The idea of Cleopatra surfaced again. “I started thinking about it and came up with a few notes for potential scenes,” continues the Frenchman. “At the beginning of 2009 I showed David 10 minutes of music and he was moved by it but said he didn’t know if he wanted to choreograph again. I wrote more of the music and he was overcome by the flow of music and he succumbed, saying: What can I do? And that’s the way we started again.

“First of all I wrote the beginning of a scenario to describe and tell the story through music,” he recalls and his way in was to start at the end of the Queen of the Nile’s life. “I started with the scene where Cleopatra is with the snake and it’s ready to bite her. I sat at the piano with a blank page and I started to see something happen on stage and wrote for that scenario.

“David is a very musical man, his insight is coming from the music. That’s why I am laughing when I read critics saying the music is not connected to the dance because it shows they don’t understand the way we are working.”

By the time he embarked on his second collaboration with Northern Ballet, Schönberg had established strong ties with the company after marrying ballerina Charlotte Talbot in 2003.

It also links him to Sheffield since his wife was born and bred here, going to Silverdale School, studying dance at Bailey-Hickman School and drama at the Joy Reynolds School before going on to the Central School of Dance in London when she was 16.

“We visit regularly – I was in Sheffield three weeks ago,” declares the one-time pop star who went on to compose arguably the world’s most successful musical.

“Charlotte is working on the production at Northern Ballet and has spent the last month in Leeds. David asked her to collaborate on the new dance. Ever since we were planning to do Cleopatra she has been working on it. Charlotte will be with the company during the run so will be here in Sheffield and I might come up myself, I’m not sure. I have other projects on the go such as the movie of Les Miserables and also the recording of the Cleopatra soundtrack at the end of March.”

The couple married in 2003 after meeting on Wuthering Heights. Not quite, according to Schönberg. “Back in 2002 we were working side by side for about a year and exchanged a maximum of three words. We really only met in April 2003,” he insists. “There’s a joke in America between an actor and an actress where he says, I love you baby but the tour is over. In our case it was the opposite: I love you baby because the tour is over.”