Cathy Marston’s Victoria: in conversation with British Ballet Now and Then

Earlier this month Julia and Rosie travelled with their friend Rebecca to Leeds to see Northern Ballet’s new ballet Victoria, choreographed by Cathy Marston.  The ballet offers a particular perspective on the life of Victoria, based on the rewriting of the Queen’s diaries by her youngest daughter, Beatrice.  It’s presented in flashbacks as Beatrice reads the diaries, both remembering the mother she knew, and discovering the young Victoria, whom she of course never knew. 

On the journey back from Leeds we discussed our initial thoughts, commenting firstly on the set, designed by Steffen Aarfing, and the lighting, by Alastair West, then on aspects of characterisation and choreographic structure that struck us, and the emotional resonance of the work.  

The set

JULIA: Sandra Callard of Yorkshire Magazine describes the stage set as relatively simple but I see it as minimalist. I believe it is carefully planned; it leaves space for the choreography and at the same time contributes to the action on stage, supporting the flashback structure of the ballet; for example, the white curtain that helps with the seamless transitions between the past and present.

ROSIE: Yes, I agree, the set is absolutely integral to the work. Although Sandra Callard says it requires little attention, from reading about the ballet beforehand I knew that the set was based on a library and that Victoria’s red diaries were going to be replaced by Beatrice’s blue volumes. So I was always checking out what was happening with the set during the different stages of Victoria’s and Beatrice’s life.  It’s a really fabulous set.

REBECCA: I also noticed that before the shelves are filled with the blue books, they become windows. This is when Beatrice is discovering her mother as a young woman, when Victoria is falling in love with Albert, before her life is filled with the burden of childbearing and when she is enjoying her early popularity as Queen. Her life seems carefree and full of light.   

JULIA: This makes me think of the lighting in the opening scene, when the spotlight on Victoria is surrounded by darkness.  It seems such a simple device, but I found it very powerful as an opening, especially the way it was accompanied by that melancholic fanfare that starts off the music score by Philip Feeney. Perhaps I would have liked to see more of this kind of lighting.  For example, in Act II when Victoria and Albert consummate their marriage, it’s followed by the bright light of the morning sun.  I loved the choreography for the pas de deux, but it might look even more stunning with more distinctive lighting.

Victoria’s motif

JULIA: From the start of the ballet I could identify Victoria’s motif. It is a simple motif which in ballet terms is a 2nd position of the feet, with the arms in an open 5th position. This creates an X shape through the body, which to me seems to signify authority and dominance. As Act I developed, it evolved and became more pronounced.

ROSIE: In Act II, there were all kinds of variations on this motif. This is when the young Victoria has a lot of dancing, representing major events in her life, like the coronation, her marriage to Albert, and growth of her empire.  It’s like we’re watching Victoria develop her identity as a human being and a queen before our eyes; whereas in Act I she is already established as a character so the motif isn’t as varied.  It works so well with this idea of Beatrice discovering her mother’s youth through the diaries.

REBECCA: I wondered whether the X shape of this motif can also be seen as two V shapes, connecting to the name Victoria and the idea of victory.  One of the variations that I found intriguing was when Victoria plunged into a very deep 2nd position plié, slightly rocking from side to side. This seemed to be when Victoria had to reach a difficult decision, for instance, when she was obliged to go through documentation regarding matters of state.

Moments of emotional poignancy

ROSIE: For me one of these moments was directly connected to Victoria’s motif. I think it was after Albert’s death when Victoria was literally crumbling, and so losing her signature motif, almost as if she were losing her identity.  Beatrice showed her emotional support by physically enabling her mother to take up her Victoria stance once more, regaining her identity and power.  It was like a labour of love.

JULIA: I found the duet between John Brown and Victoria particularly touching, especially when they were encircling the bust of Albert, as if he was included in this new love.  It was unexpected and made me well up for a moment.

REBECCA: For me it was when Beatrice’s husband dies: she dons her widow’s weeds and suddenly realises with dismay that she is turning into a version of her mother. This makes the older Beatrice try to rip off the black dress which she’s been wearing throughout.

Structure and transitions

ROSIE: One of the things I really appreciated was the seamlessness of the transitions, because I find that when there are lots of scene changes it can be clunky and disrupt the flow of the narrative for me. But as well as that, Beatrice is seeing her mother through Victoria’s diaries, and when we see things in our mind’s eye, they are not neatly compartmentalised. So the structure reflects the free flow of our thoughts.

REBECCA: There was a real contrast between the two acts, with a lot more interaction between Beatrice and Victoria in Act I; whereas in Act II Beatrice is watching the Victoria she never knew, so she’s more distanced from the action.

JULIA: Yes. This reminds me of Sanjoy Roy’s review which he starts off by commenting on the fact that reading is the “driver” of the ballet – very unusual for choreographic works.

ROSIE: And writing too is a really important theme, I think.  Cathy and her librettist Uzma Hameed enable us to see how Beatrice edits Victoria’s writing.  It’s altogether a fascinating ballet.

REBECCA: Yes, it’ll be great to see it again in London.

JULIA: And with a different cast.  Northern Ballet dancers are very expressive, and the characters are rich and complex, so it’ll be wonderful to see different interpretations.

REBECCA: Then we will have the cinema screening to look forward to in June. It’s bound to highlight details we have missed in the theatre.

JULIA: I hope it comes out on DVD. Then we can add Victoria to our dance analysis modules.

ROSIE: That would be great!

© British Ballet Now and Then & Rebecca Jukes

References

Callard, Sandra, “Victoria (Northern Ballet) – Review – Leeds Grand Theatre”.  Yorkshire Magazine, March 2019, http://www.on-magazine.co.uk/arts/yorkshire-  theatre/victoria-northern-ballet-review-leeds-grand. Accessed 25 March 2019.

Roy, Sanjoy, “Northern Ballet: Victoria review – royal story is a feast of brilliance”.   The Guardian, 10 March 2019, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2019/mar/10/northern-ballet-victoria-review-  cathy-marston-ballet-queen-daughter-beatrice-choreography-grand-leeds. Accessed 25 March 2019.

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