Ondine rehearsals at Northern Ballet

After reading this lovely blog from Anna at angel in the north about her visit to the ‘try before you buy’ sessions at Northern Ballet, I knew I had to get myself booked in. The try before you buy scheme is a brand new initiative by Northern Ballet to let people get a little taster of what they can expect from a ballet. For £5 you got to watch the dancers in their rehearsals for an hour, with the added bonus of a packed lunch at the afternoon sessions or a nice glass of wine/Pimms/beer at the evening sessions. Finally you also got a voucher for £5 off any ticket when the show opens at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. If the crowd when I popped in was anything to go by, it’s a successful initiative; the benches were packed with about 150 people and I was lucky to find a seat. Although all the Ondine sessions are over now, it’s to be hoped that Northern Ballet consider running this scheme again – it’s a genuinely unique experience that was more than worth what I paid.

Proceedings started with a little introduction from Daniel De Andrade, Northern Ballet’s witty and charismatic Ballet Master, detailing the plot and giving us a little information about which scenes we would be watching.

The dream sequence between Brand and Ondine

The difficult thing about the speech was that as interesting as it was, I kept getting distracted by the dancers warming up in the background. They were limbering up, practising their moves and just casually contorting themselves into increasingly graceful but unattainable positions. So although I caught the gist of the story, here it is more coherently from the Northern Ballet website:

“As a child, water sprite Ondine is rescued from the shore and raised as a daughter by the fisherman who saved her. Regardless of her mortal upbringing she maintains the mysterious allure and eternal youthfulness of her species.

Years later when nobleman Brand stumbles upon Ondine he is mesmerised by her, and she by him. Despite his betrothal to the mortal Beatrice his attraction to Ondine is too strong to resist. When forced to choose between them he marries the breathtakingly ethereal nymph and swears his eternal loyalty to her.

Through their union Ondine develops a soul and is transformed from sprite to woman, opening her heart to the joy and pain of human emotion. Nevertheless, in time Brand grows fearful of the alien and otherworldly creature he has married and finds himself again drawn to Beatrice.  However, he knows that should he break the bond between mortal and water sprite, nature decrees that a watery grave will seek him out.”

Daniel told us how Ondine was inspired by the same folk tale that inspired The Little Mermaid. There is a similarity between the two, in the way they deal with the human obsession with and fear of the sea.

We watched three different scenes being rehearsed: a dream sequence with Brand and Ondine, some wedding dances, and the final scene which I won’t spoil for you. They were all really different: as Daniel explained to us beforehand, Ondine boasts a wide variety of both classical and more contemporary dances, so it’s very challenging for the dancers. The difference between the two styles was apparent even to my extremely untrained eye – they’re both executed with immense skill and grace, though. The dancers are just absolutely beautiful people, every single one of them, with incredible chemistry, and the atmosphere once they started moving was electric. I couldn’t help but think forward to how much more intense it would be on a stage with the lighting and costumes and everything. At the same time, though, I loved the way this was treated as a normal rehearsal, so if something wasn’t right, the dancers were stopped and made to do it again. It was fascinating to watch this process and learn more about how everything comes together backstage to make the spectacular shows that the audience sees.

The hour of rehearsal absolutely flew by, and left me wanting more! Luckily I was able to have a quick chat with Daniel before I left, to ask him a couple more questions. We talked about the try before you buy scheme, which he was really pleased with, but what I really wanted to know was, why should new audiences, previously uninterested in ballet, come to see Ondine? “It’s a true British classic”, Daniel says. “The choreography is incredibly rich, it’s musically rich and it has a very strong narrative. The characters really come alive.” He also adds that the story really plays to that mythological relationship between humans and other worlds. I also ask him what stories within popular culture bear a similarity to Ondine. After a brief mention of the Colin Farrell film version of the story,  Daniel describes Ondine as a “more tragic, more sensual” version of The Little Mermaid. This seems about right to me, although the story also brings to mind Romeo and Juliet – except they’ve both survived, the novelty has worn off for Romeo and he starts remembering that Rosaline chick a lot more fondly.

I can’t wait to go see this production for real – the costumes, the set and the lighting are all bound to be fabulous and I can never resist a trip to the West Yorkshire Playhouse at the best of times. Ondine runs from the 8th to the 15th September, and you can get tickets here. Also see Northern Ballet’s gorgeous publicity photos here.

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