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David Nixon on Cleopatra

This interview was originally published in 2011.

Why did you choose to make a ballet of Cleopatra?

I've been interested in Cleopatra and that period for a long time. Two-thousand years later she is as popular as she ever was, in fact more so. I think the legend and the mystery of the woman grows rather than lessens.

I'm portraying Cleopatra as a woman, a queen, a mother, a lover. I want the audience to understand her as a human as much as someone going to lead a country. She possessed a quality that could engage men and hold them, and I'm hoping to somehow create that kind of charisma, and at the same time let the audience know this was a woman who had children, who was trying to protect them. This was a woman who thought several times in her life that she had achieved her goal only to be left running for her life. There's an incredible woman in there.

When you're creating dance you have to find a reason why a story will work in dance as opposed to just any other medium. Cleopatra is about sensuality and relationships, manipulation and political manoeuvring and these are all things that dance can portray very well.

What is the inspiration behind it?

The inspiration was the revival of Wuthering Heights in 2009, because Claude-Michel Schönberg and I decided that we needed an extra scene in the ballet. With re-writing part of the music for Wuthering Heights the ballet took off far more intensely and powerfully than it had the first time. Claude-Michel was very inspired by this, and so immediately we started talking about the next project and I said Cleopatra's still there.

Two weeks later I got a phone call saying, “Could you please come over and listen to some music I've written?” It was incredible. It was imaginative and sensual and moving and captured the humanity of the characters. I felt in the music he wrote even the naivety of Cleopatra. The first thing I heard was the moment she met Caesar and it captured so much and I felt that I could not let somebody else choreograph to that music.

What relationship does the dance have to the music?

With Claude-Michel's music, the dance really comes out of the music. I feel that I respond to what he's written. Maybe because he writes for musicals there's always a bit more latitude in what you can do with the music. When you pick symphonies and things like that, they're quite rigid in what they have to say. So if all of a sudden you realise that this is not what you want to be feeling at this moment. Whereas, with Claude-Michel's music, if I find myself somewhere else, I can often work with it. It moves you, and you move to it. You don't struggle to find what to do with the music. The music is really powerful. For me, it's some of the best stuff he's ever written.


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