Ballet Chocolat

National Youth Ballet, Sadlers Wells, London

Sunday, September 11th 2011

The first thing to say is that I echo fellow NYB first timer, Wayne McGregor (resident choreographer at The Royal Ballet) who said on stage at the end of this performance that he was “blown away” by the talent, passion and dedication shown tonight. The NYB exists to fully immerse talented young people around the United Kingdom in every facet of putting on a ballet, which they go on to perform at a professional level. And some ! Joanne Harris, author of the best-selling novel Chocolat upon which the ballet is loosely based, attended the Gala, and the Sadlers Wells audience loved every minute. And here’s why.

Ballet Chocolat gives dancer and choreographer Andrew McNicol his first chance to stage a story ballet. McNicol is talented beyond his years in both areas which show in his production values and detailed, well-drawn characters. He tells the story with the loudest of whispers and his background at Northern Ballet as a Senior Associate serves him well, as the company is well known for its remarkable story ballets that are brought to life by dialoguing the roles in rehearsal, long before the steps.

Taking it’s essence from Joanne Harris’ book and the subsequent Miramax film, Ballet Chocolat opens in provincial France in 1959, just before Lent. Not the best time to open a Chocolaterie, but those who have read Harris’ books will know that she imbues her characters with special powers, sometimes bordering on witchcraft (white witch, of course!), which Vianne, owner of the Chocolaterie, will need in ladles.

Atmospheric lighting by Andrew Ellis combined with Rachel Portman’s closely accented musical score deliver a fast-paced story that gives space and energy for the lively characters to develop.

Olivia Holland, as Vianne, inhabits the role entirely intuitively, arriving with her daughter Anouk (Imogen Bowes) beside her as a small caravan of rose-coloured puddles, into a frozen scene of pesky grey villagers who are under the control of Reynaud, the Mayor (perfectly cast Max Maslen) both dressed in beautiful flowing lava red cloaks. There’s no sign of Anouk’s imaginary friend, the rabbit Pantoufle, but this is a short ballet and the essence of the characters is perfectly distilled.

Maslen’s choreography is pointed and taut, like a fully charged elastic band. His ferocious, frantic and space-grabbing upper body movements reference contemporary moves; his feet are quixotic and pure velvet classicism. He’s a confident dancer, mesmerising in action and, in character, dangerous to know. Vianne confronts him, feet like flashing tinsel shards as she makes her point.

Setting up her Chocolaterie, Vianne and Anouk quickly run into trouble with the locals, who steal and riot, causing havoc. They’re a bit like absinthe; difficult to mix. There’s old Guilaume (Pascal Johnson) and his equally old dog, beaten-up Josephine (acutely danced by Ellena Nou), who initially steals from Vianne, Grandmere (Imogen Myers) and, in a diversion from the novel, Muscat (Jacob Wye). But Vianne has a trick or two up her sleeve, and in the shape of Olivia Holland these materialise variously as a warmly extended hand, a caring face and a will to bring some life and colour to the village. Gradually the dusty, bickering locals are drawn to the Chocolaterie, able to gossip freely for the first time, to savour its warmth, colour and of course, Vianne’s chocolate.

The three women (Gregory Moore, Ruaidhri Maguire and Alfie Smith) provide a contrasting element of comedy against the darkness of village life.

As summer arrives and the Chocolaterie thrives, a group of visiting river gypsies join the locals to celebrate. There are many well used props including a tower of Profiteroles, and when the flower-strewn tables are cleared of the festivities for the dancing I thought we were going to launch into a scene from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers! It’s a very well-choreographed routine, with the villagers, led by the Mayor, opposing the river gypsies, led by Roux (Christopher Aguis Darmanin). Darmanin has exactly the right balance of swagger and care, and when he finally gets his pas de deux with Holland’s Vianne, the pair melt into the steps like ganache. Incrementally the choreography heats up, with languid, almost tropical extensions from Holland and strong support, possibly laden with intent, from Darmanin.

Their carousing is not long-lived, as the dancing shadows reveal that the village has been set alight. Vianne desperately tries to make her way through the crowds as smoke billows from the buildings -evocative enough at any time but this is the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and timely food for thought.

Vianne finds her vermillion cloak in a crumpled heap in the doorway, picks it up and, staggering around the stage, very movingly forms it into what she believes to be her lost child, cradling it to her, rocking back and forth as she falls to her knees, sobbing. One of the villagers shakes her out of her misery, bringing Anouk with her, and their amazed reunion is equally touching.

The Mayor’s day of reckoning must surely come – this is chocolate after all and not a sin against the Church. When it does, and the hitherto controlled elastic band collapses along with his moral authority, Maslen lets loose with the choreography and is seduced into devouring the chocolate across several tables. Those Profiteroles were first to go! He’s riveting to watch, in his last year at Central School of Ballet and just 18 yrs– one to watch! You can literally smell chocolate in the air and see it generously stuck to his face as he devilishly gorges with increasingly submission. Vianne embraces him just as she has the others, having won them round with a combination of charm and chocolate. A lesson for us all, surely.

Ballet Chocolat was premiered at Sadlers Wells tonight but it wasn’t the only ballet on the bill and the varied programme contained some absolute delights. I want to mention a few of them : Katherine Collings as Dilys the Dachshund, Isabella Vargiu as Blanche the Baby Owl and the gorgeously adorable Snails who were : Anouska Barratt, Sophie-Zara Davies, Joeley Gibson, Iona Green, Ella James, and Millie Murphy. Costume credits to Robert Allsopp, Caryl Ray and Tessa Balls. Incredible, especially the moths and the snail shells. (I haven’t gone mad; the ballet is called Captain Beaky.

Just for the Sadlers Wells Gala, English National Ballet dancers Ruth Brill and James Streeter, both NYB Alumni, danced Impromptu, a tribute to the late Frank Freeman who was Founder Patron.

I also found La Piazza – Tarantella beguiling and A Cowardly Affair funny and well-choreographed by Jo Meredith with great costumes by Jill Tookey and Tessa Balls. Special mention to Jem Trim.

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