“Gallivant, Adventurer, Playboy – what a Combination!”
Kenneth Tindall chats about bringing Casanova, the legendary lothario, to the stage in his first full length production with the Northern Ballet
Interview by Andrew Steel Photography by Justin Slee
Kenneth Tindall is, at first impressions, not the man you’d expect to be the choreographer of a ballet, at least by a traditional gaze. Dressed in a large parka and faded jeans, cheeks rosy-red, he cuts the figure of someone disciplined to the rugged outdoors rather than graceful dance. But, feet tucked up on the edge of a sofa overlooking the sprawling Leeds cityscape from the third floor of Northern Ballet’s headquarters, there is an obvious ease to the way he sets himself for his chat; this is his territory.
“It’s quite a brilliant space, this,” he comments abstractly, glancing around the open-plan structure over the edge of the balcony behind him that hangs some 25 metres above the reception desk. “As soon as you move into a new place, it brings new people; there’s a modern gloss to it that attracts individual talent.” Was their old location perhaps less sophisticated? He nods emphatically. “It’s vastly different to the one we were in prior, which was this old secondary school in West Park.” A boyish grin lights up his features. “It was like being in Rocky IV, where you’re just training amongst the rubbish and the wilderness; moving here is like becoming Ivan Drago. Facilities like these do the company justice for its productions.”
A man who namedrops Stallone films as a reference point for a dancing career is not who you expect to tackle Northern’s latest full-length production. But then Kenneth has a mischievous air and pop-culture sensibility about him; elements of which are perhaps sorely needed in dance in this era of post-modern movement. He spent the length of his professional career at the Yorkshire-based company, with brief sojourns to Israel and Japan; it is only right to him then, that he should debut his first multiple-act ballet at the place he calls home. And what is the subject for his original narrative piece? Why, Giacomo Casanova of course.
“Gallivant, adventurer, playboy – what a combination!” he exclaims when asked how he came to adapt the story of a man whose name is synonymous with the word womanizer. “I’d been approached by a few different people to ask if I was interested in a full-length ballet. Northern wanted me to come up with the idea and pitch it because they wanted it to be truly organic, something that I could be passionate about rather than something they dictated me to do.” He pauses to consider. “At the same time however, this is an organisation, like many companies, that has a specific remit; it has to be able to generate box office, so this has to be a title that they feel they can sell too. We went through a few titles before we got to Casanova that perhaps weren’t right for the company at this point.”
Casanova is certainly a recognisable property, though perhaps one who has eluded a definitive portrayal on screen or stage. Numerous films have shared his story – most recently 2005’s Casanova, starring the late Heath Ledger and Sienna Miller – but of the adaptations, only the BBC’s television series featuring David Tennant and Peter O’Toole has really remained in public consciousness. No internationally-recognised company has ever attempted to craft a ballet before, Kenneth is surprised that he seems to be the first in the modern era to rework the tale for the ballet.
“There’s a distinctly operatic grandeur to Casanova,” he notes wryly. “The art of the sensual in dance – come on, it’s a no brainer. On the surface, Casanova is perfect for ballet. What’s truly incredible for me is that this is a true story too; a story so vast that you’re able to craft an original scenario that has not been interpreted in another medium. This narrative of Casanova doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. It’s not a retelling, it’s not a reimagining; it’s an interpretation of the truth of his life that is a wholly original story.”
Does he feel that deviating from the memoirs is perhaps unfaithful? He shakes his head emphatically. “Not at all. What’s brilliant about this story is that there is always room for fresh perspective. I worked with Ian Kelly, who wrote his biography in 2008, to effectively streamline it; with 12 volumes, there’s more than enough to adapt that hasn’t necessarily been seen before. It’s hard to put him into context but I hope that we can showcase more than just the sexuality of his character.”
Has he and Kelly managed to convey the many facets of his life then, in their original narrative? “It’s important for me as an artist, to remain faithful to the man, both fact and myth. You 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 enabler of dreams, this flawed but fundamentally heroic man, crippled by depression – is so far from the sexual deviant and outrageous philander we normally see. The mental state is a big thing in ballet. But we were keen not to convey pity either; he looked back on it fondly in his works. I think it’s more trying to capture the essence and energy of the man.”
Kenneth aspires to look at the Casanova beyond what he terms as the “bedpost-notching libertine”. It’s an intriguing direction in which to take his work, even if the choice of the Casanova story is not wholly unexpected given his previous career. As a dancer, Kenneth possessed an oddly graceful brutalism in his movements; an individualistic style that seemed to naturally draw him to Byronic hero archetypes in his most cherished roles, such as Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. Did his experiences with those roles transfer across to the choice of Casanova?
“Perhaps,” he admits. “Early in my choreography career, I never thought about narrative or character roles in particular. Some would call my style abstract, which I’d argue against; to me, there is no such thing as abstract as all dance comes from a source, an idea, a story. But my early work did lean non-narrative, which was more because I was interpreting my ballet vocabulary and signature and refining it to teach. As a choreographer, you take the body in front of you and you actively work together to make it into an instrument for your voice, as a dancer. That being said, the Byronic roles align with the choice of Casanova; he very much ticks the boxes of that role.”
Kenneth was also keen to avoid falling into parody too; a notion that comes up strongly when discussing the Catholic inquisition who locked up Casanova. “When you say inquisition, people think of Michael Palin in a floppy hat, and that’s the notion you have to challenge. Monty Python is a cultural touchstone, and has influenced a lot of artistic perceptions of historical figures. Graham Chapman’s King Arthur, from the Holy Grail, is arguably considered the definitive screen incarnation of the persona, despite it being a send-up. You have to convey that these real characters were nothing like their comedic reincarnations, particularly with Casanova.”
Bringing 18th-Century Europe to life is something that cannot be conveyed only through dance too, hence why set and costume design forms such an important part of a narrative production. In tackling his first full-length production, Tindall brought in Christopher Oram, off the back of a Tony and Olivier Award-winning turn for Wolf Hall, to breathe magic into the world of Casanova. For Oram, the chance to tackle his first ballet was too good an opportunity to pass up.
“A friend on the board put me Kenny’s way,” he recalls. “It was something I’d never had the chance to take on; and Casanova was an exciting opportunity. I’ve done work set in these Venetian and Parisian locales before, but I’ve never tried design for dance. There is a crossover between the disciplines of theatre and dance, but you’ve still got to do it justice.”
His partner has nothing but kind words to say about the designer too. “He came up at the end of his year at the Garrick Theatre with Kenneth Branagh and I was just blown away by his work. Here was someone who knew the rules of design inside out who could tear them up. You can never break the rules if you don’t know them all. There was an instant connection on our wavelength when we first met to discuss it and we immediately bonded. There were nerves for both of us with it being a first for us each respectively, but I think that helped. He’s an absolutely incredible designer and unbelievably professional too.”
Chris agrees that the pair’s collaboration has been a joy. “You have to learn the strengths of your new team and your choreographer, and that’s been a wonderful pleasure. It’s a collaborative form, and you work together. The job of the designer is to communicate ideas. It’s making sure the aesthetics match the characters, that visually you can establish each ensemble’s place in the world. It’s very important in a narrative that the audience understands who these characters. But you realise, working in a ballet, that the movement of these characters is just as important to the narrative too, and Kenny conveys that with a passion.”
Following Casanova, Chris returns to Frozen again, whilst Kenneth has a short piece premiering in Germany, and the offer of another full-length production in Croatia. He’s also eyeing up film and art work too, so that he can brings those experiences back to create something else unique. “I don’t want to do one of the classics,” he states when asked if he’d consider it. “They’re classics for a reason, but that’s why I don’t want to; because it’s down to my generation to create the new classics. I want to experience as much as I can too, so I can incorporate other influences. Casanova is that first step; as an artist, you hope to leave behind an original legacy. I’d love to think that 50 years from now, today’s new works are the old ones reinterpreted; to me, that’s creating something magical for the future right now.”