Blame Kenneth MacMillan. The great Royal Ballet choreographer of the 1960s, 70s and 80s was convinced that narrative dance could and should extend its reach beyond boy meets sylph and began wrestling with heavyweight essay subjects such as the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire (Mayerling) or the last of the Romanovs (Anastasia). And now look: Queen Victoria, the pointe shoe years, a bold, good-looking ballet that almost triumphs over the absurdity of its premise.
Cathy Marston’s latest work for Northern Ballet follows the success of her 2016 Jane Eyre, a spare, clever reworking of the novel that will be danced by American Ballet Theatre in New York this June. Victoria, which premièred in Leeds last weekend, has been commissioned to mark the Queen’s bicentenary and is told from the point of view of Beatrice, the beloved youngest child charged with editing and transcribing her mother’s diaries — an act of loving censorship described by one biographer as ‘one of the greatest acts of censorship in history’.
Flanked by Steffen Aarfing’s set of high, handsome bookshelves, the 43-year-old princess, vividly played and danced by Pippa Moore in her farewell season, begins work on her mother’s formidable output — the diaries alone filled 122 volumes and she averaged 2,500 words a day. As she reads, the characters come to life around her, but Victoria’s literary executrix is not merely a witness. Whenever the diaries run counter to the image of her mother as matriarch and stateswoman, the well-meaning Beatrice joins the dance in order to reshape and sanitise the scene before turning to rip the offending pages from the record.
The boldly episodic narrative outline runs to two rather confusing A4 pages — I defy anyone to convey ‘Albert dreams of a new Europe unified through his growing family’ without surtitles. Keen to avoid anything as banal or audience-friendly as old-fashioned ‘linear’ narrative, Marston and her dramaturg Uzma Hameed also have Beatrice attack the royal diaries in reverse order. This enables them to save the real meat of the drama — Victoria meets Albert; Victoria loses Albert — till last.
We begin with the ‘Mrs Brown’ years in which the grieving Queen (the steely and tireless Abigail Prudames) is consoled and amused by the kilted ghillie (a nifty turn from first soloist Mlindi Kulashe). As pretty much everything the Queen wrote about her ‘heart’s best treasure’ was either deleted by Beatrice or incinerated by Edward VII, Marston allows herself free rein with some fruity pairwork fuelled by a commissioned score from Philip Feeney. There is a flurry of disgusted disapproval from various family members and parliamentarians before Beatrice steps in with her nibbling pas de bourrée to cool down the steamy duet, blocking each embrace and forcibly lowering the Queen’s suggestively high développé.
The first act reunites Beatrice with her own past (a frowned-upon alliance with Henry of Battenberg) but in the ballet’s second act she meets her mother’s younger self. The widow’s black bombazine is literally peeled away and the dance-mad, spaniel-loving teenager emerges in a calyx of white silk. Messengers arrive with news of her accession (much kissing of her arched satin foot) but no sooner has she asserted her independence than Albert arrives. Their first exchange is a lovely duet, at once sexy and demure, packed with skimming lifts in which Victoria’s feet slide across the floor, skater-style. Unfortunately, this mood of elegant restraint deserts Marston for the wedding night pas de deux which begins with the young Queen wrapping the groom with her legs like a sex-starved koala and ends with her spreadeagled in the splits over a red plush love seat. Suddenly, I’m itching for my own little blue pencil…