Northern Ballet – the full story
Artistic Director Laverne Meyer
1969 – 1976
Northern Dance Theatre was set up in 1969 by Canadian-born Laverne Meyer. Meyer was a dramatic dancer whose formative years were spent with Bristol-based Western Theatre Ballet, the first ever British dance company to be based outside London.
The creation of Northern Dance Theatre was backed by the Arts Council, North West Arts and other supporters, and the Company gave its first performance at the University Theatre, Manchester, accompanied by musicians from the Royal Northern College of Music.
The Company began with 11 dancers and the emphasis was on small-scale classical and modern works, suiting both the size of the Company and the venues in which it performed. Northern Dance Theatre survived these early years through inventiveness, hard work and sheer determination, building a strong identity and a loyal audience in the North.
Artistic Director Robert de Warren
Robert de Warren was appointed Artistic Director in 1976. A classically trained dancer with a wealth of experience, having previously worked with the Royal Ballet and the larger West German ballet companies.
To highlight the Company’s new focus on ballet, he renamed it Northern Ballet Theatre. Now with over 20 dancers, de Warren was able to work on scaled-down versions of full-length classical ballets, rediscovered works and brand new creations. It was also under his leadership that the Company started to build an international reputation, recruiting dancers from China, Japan, Italy and France, and touring Italy and Hong Kong. The rapidly expanding repertoire of shorter ballets, to which de Warren and Andre Prokovsky made significant contributions, included work from choreographers as distinguished as August Bournonville, Michael Fokine, Walter Gore, John Cranko and Royston Maldoom.
In 1987, after 11 years as Artistic Director, de Warren accepted a new post at La Scala, Milan. His contribution to the development of Northern Ballet Theatre had been significant; under his direction the Company increased in size to 28 dancers, Rudolf Nureyev became Artistic Laureate and danced as a regular guest artist, and HRH The Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon, became Northern Ballet’s Royal Patron.
Artistic Director Christopher Gable
1987 – 1998
Christopher Gable’s association with Northern Ballet Theatre began in 1987 when he was persuaded to take the part of Salford-born artist, L.S. Lowry in Gillian Lynne’s new ballet for the Company, commissioned by Salford City Council to celebrate the artist’s life and work.
As a result, Gable returned to the dance stage after 20 years away: Lynne knew of no other dancer whose experience could master the complex and sensitive character of Lowry. Following a notable career with the Royal Ballet, Gable had pursued an equally distinguished career as a stage, film and TV actor. His association with Ken Russell led to some of his most memorable film credits including the title role in The Boyfriend, in which he co-starred with Twiggy, and D.H. Lawrence's The Rainbow, co-starring Glenda Jackson. His TV work included Russell’s much acclaimed insight into the life of Delius as seen through the eyes of Eric Fenby, played by Gable. His stage work included successful seasons with the Royal Shakespeare Company and The Royal Exchange Theatre.
A new focus
As Artistic Director of Northern Ballet Theatre, Gable focused as much on the ‘theatre’ as the ‘ballet’ in the Company's title. In a relatively small UK theatre circuit, which included a number of classical ballet companies, he saw a unique role for National Ballet Theatre. As a result, the Company attracted a new audience to dance through theatrical, emotional and dramatic narrative dance theatre.
With the emphasis on classical dance drama, the popular success of A Simple Man was followed by full-length productions of Swan Lake, Romeo & Juliet, A Christmas Carol, The Brontës, The Amazing Adventure of Don Quixote, Dracula, Giselle and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Many of the productions won awards and were huge box office hits, making Northern Ballet Theatre one of the most successful touring companies in the UK.
An outstanding legacy
Gable's impact was remarkable. In his 11 years as Artistic Director, the Company developed a large and loyal audience who relished its innovative and accessible productions. The dancers also benefited hugely from Gable's theatrical experience as their new performance skills were carefully nurtured through a programme of acting, singing and mime workshops. As their ability to communicate with an audience was finely tuned, the Company’s dancers were recognised not only for their expertise as classical dancers but also for their skill as actors.
Throughout his time at Northern Ballet Theatre, Gable also remained Artistic Director of Central School of Ballet, a school he co-founded with Ann Stannard in London in 1982, which became a source of dancers for the Company. Gable, who in 1996 was awarded a CBE for services to British dance, said:
"Northern Ballet Theatre and Central School of Ballet provide classical dance training and experience that is unique to the United Kingdom. It is narrative, theatrical and dramatic and is accessible to a wide range of audiences who would not otherwise see the highest quality of dance."
When Gable died in 1998, the Company had begun to gain a worldwide reputation, with its productions requested by Norwegian National Ballet, Atlanta Ballet and The Royal New Zealand Ballet. Gable’s invaluable legacy was that he made Northern Ballet Theatre a flagship for change: teaching a whole generation of dancers to think differently about their craft and through his philosophy attracting a new and wider audience to dance theatre.
Artistic Director Stefano Giannetti
1999 – 2001
In May 1999, Stefano Giannetti became the Company’s fourth Artistic Director. His dance career had seen him create and perform principal roles for English National Ballet and Deutsche Oper, where he honed his skills as a choreographer in ballet and opera productions.
His first ballet for Northern Ballet Theatre was a well received adaptation of Charles Dickens's Great Expectations. Giannetti directed and choreographed the ballet which premiered in the Company's home city of Leeds in February 2000. Giannetti left the Company in May 2000 to pursue an international choreographic career.
Artistic Director David Nixon OBE
2001 – present day
David Nixon OBE joined the Company as Artistic Director in August 2001 and began the work of revitalising the Company's training programme and adding a variety of challenging works to the repertoire.
In February 2002, he presented his revised version of Madame Butterfly; poignant and dramatic, it was a triumph in London and on its UK tour. Then, in May 2002, Nixon gave the dancers the opportunity to ‘let loose’ in the UK première of his tribute to the music of George and Ira Gershwin, I Got Rhythm – the genius of Gershwin in song and dance. Another audience hit, the production had the added excitement of guest singers and the Company’s orchestra appearing big-band style on stage.
Nixon's first complete new work for the Company, Wuthering Heights, was a glorious collaboration with composer Claude-Michel Schönberg. The production premiered at the Alhambra Theatre Bradford on 21 Sept 2002, close to Top Withins, the dramatic moors that inspired Emily Brontë's masterpiece.
Nixon has created over ten new full-length ballets for the Company and recreated many others new to the Company. In 2011, during his tenth season as Artistic Director, Nixon premièred his tenth new work for the Company, Cleopatra. This is a major new production created in collaboration with Claude-Michel Schönberg who wrote a new score for the ballet. Since then he has created Beauty & the Beast, a ballet version of the American classic The Great Gatsby to music from Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, and in December 2013 the Company premièred a new version of Cinderella choreographed by David which was Northern Ballet's highest grossing première to date.
New name, new home, new direction
Under Nixon’s directorship, the Company moved to new purpose-built facilities and changed its name to Northern Ballet, reflecting its 21st century vision to become a powerhouse of inventive dance.
Northern Ballet is now regarded as one of the world’s greatest ballet companies, committed to creating new ballets and touring widely, performing to audiences throughout the UK who otherwise wouldn’t have access to the highest quality ballet. The Company is also much in demand internationally and has performed in China, Bangkok, Milan, Barcelona and Miami.
Northern Ballet’s new home is a magnificent six-storey purpose-built space with seven dance studios, a 230-seat studio theatre, health suite, office space, meeting rooms and conference space. It is enabling the Company to expand its Academy, offer a wider programme of dance classes, create new work and give more opportunities for experimentation and invention as the Company continues its artistic growth and development.
In 2014 Northern Ballet won Best Company at the inaugural Taglioni European Ballet Awards and in 2016 were honoured by the Best Dance Award at the South Bank Show Sky Arts Awards.