Merlin, a new ballet by Drew McOnie, marks the final season of the company’s artistic director David Nixon. Nixon has been at the head of Northern Ballet for some 20 years, during which time there have been many successes (such as his acclaimed Madame Butterfly in 2006) and the occasional dud (most memorably, Daniel de Andrade’s dreadfully misjudged Holocaust ballet, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas in 2017).
Merlin sits so squarely between those two polls that it might be the very definition of “the middling sort” in contemporary ballet. McOnie has fashioned a choreography, based upon the myth of the titular magician, that fits perfectly into Northern Ballet’s tradition of narrative dance works.
It traces the early years of Merlin’s life in sorcery, from the efforts by his adoptive guardian, the Blacksmith, to persuade him to hide his supernatural gift, to his epic victory over the seductive sorceress Morgan le Fay. Along the way, we witness the creation of the legendary sword Excalibur, Merlin’s befriending of a dragon and the magician’s conflict with the evil king Vortigern.
Merlin’s story has been told numerous times on the big screen, and McOnie’s stage aesthetic has a “Disney does ballet” look about it. From the cartoonish grime of designer Colin Richmond’s blacksmith’s forge to the gilded splendour of Camelot, the piece has an almost cinematic sense of spectacle.
Rachael Canning’s puppets are impressive, and very much in the same aesthetic vein as Disney stage shows, such as The Lion King. Ferocious rubber dogs on wheels are scary, but not too scary. The all-important dragon, which has an unerring ability to turn up at just the right moment, is so small and cute that one fears Northern Ballet has missed a trick by not selling a miniature version of it in the foyer.
The risk with such assiduously narrative ballets is that the choreography can become too literal. So it proves here. The movement is executed beautifully by a universally fine company of dancers. However, the self-imposed requirement to imitate certain actions, rather than express particular emotions, often makes the piece look like choreography by numbers.
That said, there is a definite energy to Merlin, which is reflected wonderfully by the lead dancers. Kevin Poeung is a youthfully dynamic Merlin, with Antoinette Brooks-Daw a perfect combination of sensuality and dark determination in the role of Morgan.
Grant Olding’s music, which is played with gusto by the Northern Ballet Sinfonia, shares with the choreography an imitative impulse, with sound matched to action so directly as to be almost onomatopoeic. The score, like the dance, places the emphasis on accessibility, rather than innovation.
By the ballet’s end, as Merlin plants Excalibur, not in the ground, but in a tree, it feels almost as if McOnie is preparing us for a cinema-style sequel. Can King Arthur: The Ballet be far behind?
Touring until December 4; northernballet.com