Mary Brennan

IMAGINE, just for a moment, that Northern Ballet has commissioned you to create a new work about the life and loves of Casanova. Where would you set your opening scene? In a lady’s bed-chamber, perhaps– the name Casanova has long been a byword for womanising on an epic scale. Or maybe at a masked ball, where the pickings are tantalisingly rich for an arch seducer whose wealth lies in his charismatic charm.

Choreographer Kenneth Tindall does neither: he sets the opening sequences of his Casanova ballet in a church. It might even be a cathedral, the set – framed by massive, gilded pillars – nods in the worshipful direction of ceremonial grandeur and a time in the 18th century when the Inquisition was still a force to be reckoned with, even in decadent Venice.

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This particular gambit might not have occurred to Dundee-born Tindall when he first got to grips with devising a plotline for the ballet. But then he fell in with writer Ian Kelly whose 2008 biography of Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798) is a definitive reappraisal of the man’s character, career and reputation.

“I realised, very quickly, that I needed to collaborate with an expert,” laughs Tindall. “Casanova wrote 12 volumes of memoirs, I was creating a two act ballet – there was so much material to draw on, it was almost a problem. I knew, precisely, what I didn’t want. I didn’t want to isolate just one part of his life, because this was a man with many sides to him. And I didn’t want to go down the “memory lane” approach that was used in the BBC drama series – an old man writing memoirs, and flashbacks where you hear Vivaldi and there are all the familiar 18th century cliches of how people and places looked. That makes Casanova more of a fiction, than a real person who admittedly lived a rather fantastical life.

"I wanted to make a ballet that showed a real person – and maybe surprise audiences, give them some other perspectives on the man, because Casanova is a very complex character. There’s more to him than his now-notorious sex life.”

Initially Tindall and Kelly spent enthusiastic hours talking about the 18th century, exploring the art, the music, the politics and social conventions that were Casanova’s world. Tindall quickly became fascinated with the whole business of masks and identity, and how – by never showing your face in public – the well-to-do enjoyed the freedom to have all manner of illicit liaisons while staying anonymous.

There were, however, risks, as Tindall explains. “You’re not always sure who is in the room, who has taken the seat next to you, who is perhaps starting up a conversation about politics, religion, or the books of “secret knowledge” that were outlawed by the Church.

"It could easily be a spy from the Inquisition – or perhaps just another impoverished adventurer hoping to pass undetected among the aristocrats. And that kind of upwardly mobile class-hopping was, in itself, a big no-no in Venetian society – there were certain families who ruled in that society and you went against their pecking orders at your peril. But, in a way, it was the risk-taking that attracted Casanova – it was another game, like the gambling and card-playing he was so good at.”

Other pastimes/careers that Casanova also turned his hand to ranged from travel writer to librettist, geometry expert, violinist, librarian and trainee priest. Which brings us back to where Tindall begins his ballet: in church.

“It’s while he was studying for the priesthood, that Casanova ends up on the Inquisition’s radar. Having sex among the pews – he lost his virginity in church – was probably enough to get their attention, but it was really his interest in the books of “forbidden knowledge” that most concerned them.

"Books about the new sciences, books that challenged the orthodoxy of the Gospels – these were considered heretical by the Church authorities, and could see you thrown into prison, tortured and even executed if the Inquisition saw you as a threat. And this, we know, is what happened to Casanova. It’s the journey we go on with him in the first act, when – even though he has found a wealthy patron, is mixing with the nobility, going to hedonistic parties, wearing gorgeous clothes – he can’t stop being interested in the new ideas that the Inquisition holds as pernicious, subversive and punishable. So they fling him into jail. Luckily, for our Act Two, he escapes!”

When the curtain rises, after the interval, Casanova is in Paris. The shadowy recesses of the first half mise-en-scene have given way to a glittering array of mirrored walls – ideal for being dazzled by your own reflection, while never being confronted by your true self. And for Tindall’s Casanova, there are aspects of this superficial gloss that no longer satisfy his inner being.

“He is still living in a world of masquerade, luxury, intrigue and powerful patrons, but no-one takes him seriously. No-one recognises him for his intellect, and that continues to this very day. But if you look at the memoirs, a very different Casanova emerges. Yes, he has affairs – and he writes about them in a very vivid way – but he’s not collecting lovers, and carving notches on the bed-post.”

Tindall is engagingly close to evangelical on Casanova’s behalf, but not without cause. Historians have increasingly found that Casanova’s account of events – personal encounters as well as what he observed first-hand as he travelled through Europe – are more often accurate than not.

“His memoirs really are the go-to manual of the 18th century,” says Tindall. “He records the kinds of details you don’t find elsewhere. As for his own adventures – he probably had around 138 significant conquests, which is not by any means excessive in the context of the 18th century. It only works out at about 4 a year, really. And if you compare it to the present day, when social media has facilitated – encouraged – the anonymous hook-up, is it so different hiding behind a screen and a text, from disguising yourself behind a mask? There are, for me, so many parallels between our 21st cult of celebrity – with everyone wanting a piece of that action – and the way the fashionable set behaved in the 18th century.”

This sense of overlap has influenced almost every aspect of Tindall’s Casanova. The music, specially composed by Kerry Muzzey, has a modern, cinematic feel that echoes the shifting moods of the narrative. The costume designs (by Christopher Oram) have body-swerved period panoply, so that the ladies who swan around the chi-chi salons of Paris are unencumbered by voluminous skirts. Instead, those skirts have been stripped back to the bare hoops of their petticoats – they’re ready for close encounters of a sudden, sexy kind. With legs free to kick over the traces, it allows Tindall to choreograph ensembles that catch the risque mood of the times, conjuring up an appropriate backdrop to the duets between Casanova and the two women, Henriette and Bellino, who represent what Tindall sees as Casanova’s positive regard for women.

“He doesn’t use them as sex objects. This is not about him exploiting their vulnerability – Henriette is trying to escape an abusive husband by pretending to be a soldier, Bellino is disguised as a castrati in order to earn a living singing. He doesn’t betray either of them, he cares for them – and it’s them who leave him, and go off into their own future. He actually ends up alone, finally finding himself by becoming an accomplished writer.

“For me, it was important to keep faith with both the man and the myth,” says Tindall. “You do get to see his faults, but I think you get a more sympathetic view of Casanova. He was a feminist in some ways. The real Casanova – this flawed but fundamentally heroic man, crippled by depression – is so far from the sexual deviant and outrageous philander we normally see. I think it’s more about trying to capture the essence and energy of the man. Using the theatricality of his life to create dance that expresses not just his own character, but the character of the times he lived in.”

Northern Ballet’s production of Casanova has its only Scottish performances at Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre from Thurs 23 – Sat 25 March details at: - www.edtheatres.com

Northern Ballet’s flair for story-telling.

Even before David Nixon came into post as Artistic Director in 2001, Northern Ballet had built up an enviable reputation for staging high quality, crowd-pleasing narrative ballets. Nixon has since added his own suberbly-crafted works to the repertoire – hot ticket hits that range from Madame Butterfly to The Great Gatsby, Wuthering Heights to Beauty and the Beast, among them. No other dance company in the UK can rival Northern Ballet’s success when it comes to telling a story with irresistible audience appeal – so what’s the secret?

Nixon goes back to basics when he says it’s about making sure that every dancer – not just the principals – has a wealth of information about the subject matter before they start learning a single step. “They get introduced to a lot of different sources, given material that will stir their own imagination – help them get inside the characters, the situations they need to bring alive on-stage. You really want them to make discoveries for themselves, gain insights into motivation, get under the skin of what it’s about. You know we rarely get the established super-stars joining Northern. We don’t get the ready-baked, ready-to-go dancers – but actually, that’s OK. Because what we get are young dancers who are ready to grow within their art, and within themselves. Of course we guide them, and of course technique will always be important – but watching them gain confidence in their abilities and real understanding of what a story is saying about our humanity is something we all cherish here. It is an essential part of Northern Ballet’s identity. But I do notice other companies are doing more story-telling ballets these days...”