In some ways it's hard not to admire David Nixon's unrelenting commitment to new work, which he continues to direct and choreograph for Northern Ballet. In the past he's tackled the Emily Bronte classic Wuthering Heights, as well as the epic tale of Cleopatra, both with composer Claude-Michel Schönberg.
Another timeless love story, Beauty and the Beast, is his most recent muse, however stark contrasts in style will greet the seasoned Nixon fan. Gone are the West End-style scores by Schönberg, as is the period costume of high camp history. Unfortunately, this fresh approach proves equally problematic.
Beauty and the Beast's aesthetic is based on a simple thesis; children relate impressions and expressions of feeling. Perhaps this philosophy would hold if the production were minimalist, or tinged with otherworldly timelessness. Nixon's imagining though is cluttered, disorientating and unfocused.
The first act is testament to this, in which the arrogant Prince Orian (Tobias Batley) is punished for his vanity by La Fée Magnifique (Georgine May) and turned into a beast in overtly pantomime style. Although different in spirit and appearance The Beast (Ashley Dixon) is also clearly a different dancer, with a different expression inherent to his movement. Little is expressed through dance, rather a kind of physical theatre, the traditional steps reserved for love scenes and divertissement.
All of which is played out over the insistently familiar Danse Macabre by Saint-Saëns, spliced with Debussy and Bizet. This compilation style is a sloppy reflection of the lack of focus in the work generally. Despite this the Northern Ballet Symphonia, conducted by John Pryce-Jones, give a spirited performance. The set and costumes appear to be a disjointed collection of ideas floating around: aristocratic gowns, futuristic goth bailiffs and lizard skin castle walls to name a few.
The Beast moves with a degree of animalistic intensity, however poor production value lets him down. The transformative rotating mirror is tacky to the extent that it's hard to imagine any child's imagination being fired. In turn, this renders the scenes with Beauty all the more staid, their duet choreography being decidedly uninventive.
Nearly every aspect of Nixon's Beauty and the Beast seems thrown together — set, costume, score, style. Claims that this is an attempt to engage with a child's mind seem hopelessly patronising given the quality of this production; some distance from a good show, and a different time zone from a good ballet.