Northern Ballet’s new work, based on John Boyne’s eponymous book, tells a complicated story set in and around a death camp in the midst of the Holocaust. This is extraordinarily difficult subject matter, which does not lend itself easily to narrative dance, and choreographer Daniel de Andrade along with his collaborators (dramatic coach Patricia Doyle, designers Mark Bailey and Tim Mitchell, and composer Gary Yershon), has done well to convey the complex plot.

The score, which is demanding to listen to and intricate to play, is integral to the work, and at times the instrumental accompaniment and danced steps seem to represent conversations between the characters, in the manner of a scene in a nineteenth century ballet. The dancing is exceptionally good (clear and precise with strong elevation and turns), particularly that of Matthew Koon (Bruno), and I enjoyed watching Hannah Bateman as his mother and Antoinette Brooks-Daw as his sister Gretel. It is undoubtedly difficult of adults to play children on stage convincingly, but de Andrade has succeeded in giving his characters steps that express their moods and personalities. He is less successful in his use of body movement to reveal the condition of his characters. It is one thing to create a movement motif for the Nazi officers, such as the aggressive squatting full plié in second followed by a sharp turn to the left and the violent suggestion of a goose-step, but how does someone move when they are starving? What choreography could tell us that someone is too weak to stand because of malnutrition, and how could dance be used to differentiate between the three generations of Bruno’s family?

The decision to represent Hitler (‘the Fury’ in the book) with a dancer in a death mask (Mlindi Kulashe), like the embodiment of one of the Erinyes, avoids pastiche and has great dramatic effect, but it also changes the nature of the tragedy (spoiler alert): in the book, the perpetrators of evil make conscious choices and Bruno’s father is responsible through his own deliberate actions for losing his son. That frightful link between personal decision and result is blurred in the ballet. Indeed, the sheer quantity of material in this ballet almost overwhelms the book’s other main point, that Bruno and his Jewish friend Shmuel are essentially the same; in the end, to which of them does the book’s title refer?

This is a company of dancers who can all act, and their commitment to creating and then touring new narrative works that are accompanied by live music, makes a significant contribution to our national dance scene. Their next new ballet will be The Little Mermaid, with the première at Southampton in September.

Maggie Watson

11 June 2017

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