There can’t be many productions whose own back stories rival the drama that plays out upon the stage to quite the degree of Northern Ballet’s appropriately star-crossed, but equally star-garlanded, Romeo & Juliet.

Since its 1991 premiere, it has, over the course of more than 500 performances across the globe, found itself tested by the elemental vicissitudes of fire (in 2001) and flood some 14 years later. Now, more than three decades after its debut, thanks in large part to a public appeal towards meeting the costs of restructuring and repair, it finds itself on the threshold of a third resurrection. Embarking on a fresh lease of life, it will tour once again, beginning at Leeds Grand Theatre on March 8, 2024.

In anticipation of this new incarnation, The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery has brought together a range of memorabilia in order to illustrate the story of the ballet’s longevity. To the soundscape of Prokofiev’s score, playing out on rehearsal footage from the forthcoming revival, the interested can pore through a sort of scrapbook under glass, punctuated by more solid mementoes, in the shape of autographed pointe shoes and embroidered costumery, each going some way to suggesting shreds and wisps of the ballet in real time.

The company, whose archives now reside with the University of Leeds, can date its inception back to 1969 when it was established in Manchester as the Northern Dance Theatre. Premiering within the timelessly beautiful surroundings of the Blackpool Grand Theatre, one of architect Frank Matcham’s few surviving gems, Romeo & Juliet was its first full-length production. Fittingly, it’s represented here by a range of contemporaneous material, perhaps the most striking of which is the wonderfully-realised advertising poster, making prominent use of Lez Brotherton’s strikingly Gothic costume for Lady Capulet, itself arrestingly reminiscent of something from Mervyn Peake’s allegorical fantasy, Gormenghast.

The full breadth of Brotherton’s conception can be examined in further detail across the centre-spread of the programme for the dates at the Grand in which stylised Montagues and Capulets face off against each other like nightmarish chess pieces, with a dark elegance Tim Burton can only dream of. Displayed alongside it are reviews clipped from The Guardian and The Times, both of which were enticed away from their more habitual metropolitan haunts to admire not only Brotherton’s vision but those of original director Christopher Gable and choreographer Massimo Moricone.

Further displays show something of the ballet’s further peregrinations and setbacks, from a rain-damaged note from a gushing Princess Diana to photos documenting the devastation wrought on a wider scale, when, on Boxing Day in 2015, the River Aire burst its banks, in the process destroying costumes and scenery. Still, even the tantalising glimpses of the ballet’s two principals in rehearsal must inevitably fall short of the full experience. For that, the world will have to wait for the opening night of current artistic director, Federico Bonelli’s interpretation when, rising above the floodwaters and out of the ashes, Northern Ballet’s Romeo & Juliet takes flight once more.

By Desmond Bullen

All images courtesy of Leeds University Library Galleries / Northern Ballet. Credits: Anthony Crickmay, Richard Farley.

 

Preserving The Passion: Northern Ballet’s Romeo & Juliet is at The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery in Leeds until March 23, 2024. For more information, click here.