Why love is like a butterfly

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NORTHERN Ballet are back next week with their spectacular production of Madame Butterfly which was first seen in 2002.

But for two members of the Northern Ballet hierarchy their memories go back long before that.

Artistic director David Nixon originally created the piece for his ballerina wife, Yoko Ichino, who is now ballet mistress and academy director of the Leeds-based company.

“He had recently begun a new job at BalletMet Ohio and was still dancing but for the first time had to choose a repertoire for the company,” she recalls.

“We were at a restaurant for dinner, I think – yes, we never got lunch in those days – and they were playing something from Madame Butterfly and that’s where he got the idea.”

The ballet is based on the original Belasco play that inspired Puccini’s opera — a heart-redning tale of love and infidelity involving a young geisha who marries American Lieutenant Pinkerton only to be abandoned by him when carrying his child.

The loyal Butterfly raises her son alone in a society which has ostracised her. When Pinkerton eventually returns to Nagaski he brings his new American wife, sealing Butterfly’s doomed fate.

Nixon has said he aimed to capture Butterfly’s dilemma of trying to adapt to Western culture which ultimately betrays her forcing her to return to her roots by incorporating traditional Japanese music into Puccini’s score and blending Japanese dance styles with classical ballet.

“The challenge was trying to bring out the cultural differences and express that in the dancing,” says Yoko Ichino.

Not in terms of movement where it would be absurd to attempt to reproduce the way women actually walked in a kimono, she says, but there are other things can could be reflected.

“There’s the way the women had to walk behind the gentleman or how they were not supposed to have eye contact, that you could interpret.

“There was also the Western American attitude. Pinkerton didn’t take it all as seriously as Butterfly did. At the end of their first pas de deux he gives her a hug which was very ackward. So there are little things like that.”

Yoko was able to provide input from her family background as a first-generation Japanese girl born in Los Angeles.

“Even today in Japan you can find something similar like covering their mouths when they giggle,” she says. “The younger generation are much more outgoing but if you go back generations you can find it. You only have to go to some of your own relations you see old Japan.”

She said that the difference between the families of her parents demonstrates the gradual change. “On my father’s side it was much more open while my mother’s was very strict.”

It is a long time since Yoko actually danced the role but it remains essentially the same, she says. “There have been a few changes in the production, though not so much for Butterfly and Pinkerton – the dream sequence is still the same – but the parasol ladies dance is different, and of course the set is different.

“I only did it in that opening season. Now what I do is pass on the knowledge of things like what I was thinking when I was doing the moves and the musicality of it. There are little things you can add.”

Alongside a career as a dancer that spanned three decades and companies across the world, counting Rudolph Nureyev among some illustrious partners, she began teaching as a teenager and continues to develop her gift.

Madame Butterfly is at the Lyceum from Tuesday to Saturday.