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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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Carousel at Opera North: The Sitzprobe

If the brightly coloured, ethereal posters around town haven’t alerted you to the fact, Opera North are right in the middle of a two week run of Carousel, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical voted as the best of the 20th century by Time Magazine. A week or so before the opening night, I was lucky to be able to attend the sitzprobe, a seated rehearsal which is the first time that the orchestra and the singers rehearse together. This particular one was held in the Howard Assembly Room, which many of you will know as a remarkably versatile venue, and which turned out to be a beautiful space in which to enjoy this experience.

As we waited to go into the Howard Assembly Room, the musical director, Tim, spoke to us a little bit about where the cast and crew were at in the rehearsal process, what the sitzprobe would involve and why the show was going to be so good. It was all incredibly interesting, but one moment stood out for me. A blogger asked why someone who wasn’t interested in musical theatre at all, and would rather watch X Factor on a Saturday night, would be interested in going to see a musical by an Opera company. Tim described that moment that people get when watching X Factor, when someone opens their mouth and starts singing, and it’s so beautiful that your hair just stands on end, and goosebumps blossom on your arms. He explained that this would be like that, only better. About a thousand times better, I added in my head, because these are extensively trained, incredibly talented singers that have honed their craft professionally for years.

We filed into the Howard Assembly Room and took our seats down one side of the balcony to watch the set up. At the end, in the gallery, sat the chorus, and opposite us were the main cast members. Below us, the main room was teeming with people, setting up double basses taller than me, lugging in drums that took two people to carry and arranging more chairs than I imagined could ever be necessary. Disappointingly, there was no triangle player – the keyboard player had to multitask. The trills and scales as the players tuned their instruments and warmed them up were divine – I had to just take a quiet moment to soak it in and bask in the presence of all that sheer talent.

Soon it was time to get started and the orchestra launched into their opening number, the instrumental Carousel Waltz. The sound of a whole orchestra filling the room was incredible, and I felt absolutely privileged to be in the room for this experience. They played the piece straight through, and I felt transported away from the rainy Leeds day and straight to a 19th century fairground in a seaside town in Maine. It was absolutely beautiful, and couldn’t be improved upon in any way. Or, so I thought – turns out the conductor had other ideas. He barked a few instructions to the flautists, and painstakingly went through the whole piece again, stopping regularly to discard a pianissimo or throw in a mezzo forte. I had thought the piece was impeccable before, but it just got better and better as we listened, and I left with a brand new appreciation for the work and the vision that goes in to productions like this.

Next, we moved on to one of the big numbers, June is Bustin’ Out All Over. This was the first time we heard the singers at work, and it was worth the wait. The chorus, a group of about fifty people populating the gallery, suddenly stood and started singing, and it was just a wall of exquisite sound that blew me away. The individual cast members were just as impressive, with voices that effortlessly spanned the octaves and produced notes that thrilled when they could just as easily have chilled.

At this point we were summoned; 3.30 had arrived and it was time to leave. As we left I felt resentful that we’d been dragged out after just two songs, but actually tit was perfect – I was left desperately wanting more.

Carousel is running at Leeds Grand Theatre until 19th May. Tickets are available here.

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Laughter Lines

Comedy in Leeds seems to fall under the radar a little; the big names have toured a few of our theatres, of course, but I don’t seem to hear too much buzz about other events. (If you’re interested, incidentally, you must follow @killforaseat, who knows where it’s at.) Luckily we have Patrick Turpin and Natasha Rosenthall, two graduates of the University of Leeds, currently in the throes of organising their second comedy festival in the city.

Laughter Lines is a week long comedy festival, starting at the end of April, featuring fifteen shows across eight venues. Topping the bill are Frisky and Mannish, Isy Suttie, Paul Foot and Henning Wehn. There’s also a film screening, a showcase of up and coming local talent, clean comedy for families and a show from the world’s only comedy think tank.  There’s a huge variety so hopefully there’s something for everyone. The venues include The Carriageworks, Dock Street Market, Hyde Park Picture House, Seven Arts and several of Leeds’ best pubs – so at the same time as having a good giggle you could also find a favourite new hangout.

Remarkably, the festival has been fully crowdfunded via If that doesn’t show that there’s demand for this sort of thing in the city, then what does? Let me know if you go along to any of the shows – it would be great to hear what you all think of it.

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World Book Night 2012 in Leeds

It’s here again! Tomorrow is World Book Night 2012, when tens of thousands of givers across the country will distribute half a million free books among their local communities. Come Wednesday I’ll be at a local Girl Guide group telling them why I love I Capture the Castle; meanwhile on Monday night tons of other book lovers are organising fab events throughout our fair city.

World Book Night at The White Swan, Leeds

In the city centre we have an event from @LeedsBookClub and the one and only @Gazpachodragon. As you can see from the poster above, it’s at The White Swan (awesome ale alert) and starts at 7pm. Prepare yourself for endless literary fun and grab yourself a free book to see what all the fuss is about! Plus, I heard there would be cake…

Up in Headingley @BookElfLeeds is looking to repeat last year’s success at Arcadia Bar. Again, there will be free books, plus the incredible Travelling Suitcase Library and a buffet. The word on the street is that cheese on a stick will feature heavily, which is good enough for me. Again, it starts at 7pm and full details are here.

If you’re already a total bookworm, then popular book blog For Books’ Sake are holding an event at Café 164. You can swap books from 2pm and from 6pm is a literary quiz. With prizes! Book your team’s place by tweeting @cafe164. More info here.

Finally, the gang at @WaterstoneLeeds are celebrating in style! They’ll be open til 8pm and offering 10% off all full priced books between 6pm and 8pm. They also have a quiz, plus an open mic for random reads – grab your favourite book passage or poem and share it with everyone. Again there’ll be free WBN books, wine, nibbles and activities for kids.

That’s a ton of World Book Night fun in Leeds tomorrow! Unfortunately I think anyone would struggle to get them all in but I’m sure there’s scope for a bit of party hopping. Have fun deciding, and, most importantly, get into the spirit of the night. Read the books, enjoy them, pass them on, and introduce someone to the joy of reading.

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Mary Shelley at the West Yorkshire Playhouse

Not only am I a bit of a bookworm, I’m quite stubbornly feminist, so I couldn’t resist the opportunity to go see Shared Experience’s new production, Mary Shelley, at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. The poster, featuring a dishevelled Kristin Atherton as Shelley staring insolently into the camera, sparked in me a curiosity about this woman, who at just 19, wrote a haunting, classic novel about man’s fascination with creating life.

From the very opening scenes, all eyes are on Atherton, who plays a vibrant, irrepressible Mary, full of dreams and aspirations, and nursing a fervent admiration for the mother she never knew. She’s energetic and wilful and smart, as one would expect the offspring of the feminist and philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft and the radical political philosopher William Gibson to be.

The setting is fairly domestic, to begin with: Mary, her half sister Fanny and her step sister Claire are reunited when Mary returns from a visit toScotland. The house is all abuzz with news of a visitor: the young, handsome, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who admires Godwin’s politics and wishes to help him out of his debts. Of course, we all know what happens next: Mary and Shelley fall in love, and despite Shelley’s wife and children, decide to go away to be together. When Godwin’s lack of support becomes clear, the pair are forced to run away in the dead of night, taking Claire with them.

It is in the crucial scene where Godwin tells Shelley that his running away with Mary is impossible, that we see his struggle. Years earlier he wrote freely about the affairs his wife (Mary’s mother) had, and then went on to encourage Mary to read all about them. Yet faced with this real, liberal daughter, a product of the upbringing he gave her, willing to run away with a married man, we see how much society has worn his ideals down. He is more sensitive to the pressures of society, and the realities of business than Mary ever will be. He shuts Mary out of his life, and refuses to have any more to do with her.

After this point, Mary seems to fade into the background a little. Perhaps because we never see her talking to anyone outside her family, she seems to lose some of her spark. Poverty and motherhood have matured and changed her. She becomes eclipsed by the other dramas happening around her, and we get caught up in the stories of Claire and Fanny. Claire is played marvellously by Shannon Tarbet – she’s flighty and bubbly and incredibly self-possessed, Meanwhile Flora Nicholson’s Fanny is perfectly kind, gentle and proper. Fanny is overshadowed by both her sisters, and as she becomes increasingly torn between the two halves of the family she almost becomes invisible. I felt for her the most. Her story is the least well known, but it’s the most relatable and the most human, and it’s so sad.

The set is limited but inventive. Shelves packed with books dominate the stage, and a long dining table at the front serves whichever purpose it is called upon for: it is at various times a bed, a boat, a desk or a gravestone. The oversized, eclectic furniture and the imposing bookcases give the whole stage a gothic feel that matches the story so well.

At just about three hours, this isn’t a short play, but it didn’t feel anything like that long. I was completely absorbed in the story and the characters all the way through, which is very rare for me. I never watch a film all the way through, and even at good plays I’m generally clock watching towards the end.

Not everything was perfect; there were moments that rang slightly false, and I would have liked to see a little more of Mary and Shelley falling in love, as it was all a bit sudden for my liking. Regardless, I’d give this a hearty five stars, and recommend it to anyone.

Mary Shelley is at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in the Courtyard Theatre until 7th April 2012.


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Joan Miro at Yorkshire Sculpture Park

As I’m sure you’re aware thanks to my enthusiastic tweets, a couple of nights ago a whole bunch of lovely Leeds bloggers and tweeters were invited to Yorkshire Sculpture Parkto see their latest exhibition: a collection of Jean Miró’s sculpture.

I’ve never been to the Park in the dark before, largely because my main purpose for visiting is generally a lot more picnic related than not. In fact, until a year or so ago I genuinely believed that there were about 30 sculptures in the Park, that never changed, and that was it. But, I live and learn, and I won’t make that mistake again!

After a little welcome chat, we were led through to the Underground Gallery, where most of the collection is housed. We were lucky enough to be given a general overview of the works by Clare, the head curator, who gave us a fascinating insight into Miró’s life and work.

The pieces are as varied as they are surreal; according to Clare, he worked with two different foundries simultaneously, leading to two very distinct types of sculpture. One type is huge, inky black, smooth and so shiny you can see your own, dull reflection within it. The pieces are like cartoonish, obese versions of their subjects: men, women, birds. A few have violent lines gouged into them which look as if they’re done on the spur of the moment, in a sudden, quickly forgotten moment of rage.

In stark contrast are a number of pieces splashed with the brightest of reds, yellows, blues and greens. They are found objects and pieces of junk, brought together into totems resembling an approximate human form – so much taller and spindlier than their shiny black counterparts. One of the galleries had a quote on the wall from Miró, saying: “For me an object is something living. This cigarette or this box of matches contains a secret life much more intense than that of certain human beings.” I could easily see this in his work as he plastered together objects like taps, sponges and cans to make sculptures of the female form.

Finally are a series of raw bronze works, which are smaller and distinctly overpowered by the others. Like the totems they are made from various objects cobbled together, and despite the lack of much finishing, a few of the pieces struck me as remarkable tactile. One had strips of bronze at the back that looked so much like soft, malleable strips of leather in the way they hung that I had to clasp my hands together to keep from touching it.

The curator told us that Miró wanted art to be part of people’s everyday life. Many of his pieces are in major cities, and he lived in the country for most of his life. His work reflects his love of the land, so it was odd really to see so many pieces all in this industrial warehouse style gallery. It felt like the pieces were too big for the rooms; there was too much vitality in them for them all to be cooped up together. I really wanted to see the pieces that were outside, where I felt the setting would be more fitting for the majesty of the larger pieces. Unfortunately, by that point it was far too dark to see them; all I could see were dark shadowy shapes. I can’t wait to get back there to have a good look!

I was left feeling curious about Miró, a man who saved his most ambitious ideas for his latest years. Who wouldn’t want to know more about a man who refused to identify as a Surrealist, so he was free to experiment as much as he wanted with other styles, who wanted to find a way to make four dimensional paintings, and who wrote about the possibility of gas sculpture? His work is colourful, playful and fun, but in the gouged grooves and garish faces is a hint of the depression that he suffered throughout his life.

If you want to find out more about that man, the exhibition is on from 17th March 2012 until 6th January 2013. More info is here.

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Fun and Frugal

Roundhay Park in the December sunshine...

Ah, January. That cold, sparse month when payday seems to linger on the horizon, never getting any closer no matter how many nights you spend in the pub making half a pint last two hours. I went to January’s free Bettakultcha the other night, and it got me thinking: are the best things in Leeds free?

Everything on this list costs less than a fiver, proving that fun can be frugal, and January doesn’t have to feel long and lonely.

The Royal Armouries

You could spend hours in this enormous museum, dedicated to war, armour and weapons. Ironically, my favourite section is ‘Farewell to Arms?’ a small gallery which examines peace movements and the art of conscientious objection, but the Hall of Steel is an absolute must see. Entrance is free, but if you’re feeling flush, £3 will buy you eight crossbow bolts that you can shoot at haystacks on the top floor. Brilliant fun! (Top tip: aim a lot higher than you think you need to.)

United Enemies

The Henry Moore Institute’s United Enemies Exhibition is packed with highlights of sculpture in the sixties and seventies, when the idea of what sculpture was, was being turned completely on its head. You can get in for free, and it’s right next to Leeds Art Gallery, also free: get two for one on your cultural edification.

Beautiful bacon butties

I feel completely justified in saying that I can tell you where to get the tastiest and best value bacon butty in Leeds– and it’s at The Greedy Pig. Greasy spoon from the outside, foodie heaven on the inside, this place is amazing. Last time I checked the bacon butties were a value-tastic £1.60 – the perfect Saturday morning treat. The bacon is thick, salty and crisp, the bread is fresh and soft, and the sauce is red, if you’ve got any sense. Why not sit in and browse one of the papers left out for customers? Find them a few doors away from the Reliance on North Street.

Bracing walks

We’re having a cold snap just now, but overall the winter’s been fairly mild. Leeds is teeming with gorgeous green spaces and this crisp, cold weather is perfect for a bracing stroll. Meander around the Lake at Roundhay Park (pictured above), take snaps of the Victorian statues in Hyde Park, or admire the exotic birds at Lotherton Hall. It won’t even feel like exercise.


Are you bored of your winter wardrobe, but reluctant to splash out on new threads? The answer comes in the form of Remade in Leeds and their monthly clothing swaps. For a £2 entry fee you can take up to twenty items that you’re tired of wearing, and swap them for something new and exciting. It’s good for the environment, it’s good for your bank balance and it’s good for your social life! The next clothes exchange is on the 28th January: details here.

Alternatively, why not donate some old books to the charity shop, and pick up some fresh new ones for under £1 (if you don’t go to Oxfam, who are brilliant but are also the Prada of charity shops, ie amazing but I can’t afford them. Hit up the hospices and the animal charities for the best prices).

Expand your mind

I don’t know about you but my brainbox is still quite chilled out from Christmas. It’s just floating around in my head on a sea of gravy and leftover cheese, idly wondering if there are any chocolate oranges left. (There aren’t. We scoffed them already.) At the Howard Assembly Room on Wednesday, 25th January there’s a free talk by Lucy Hughes-Hallett, entitled Cleopatra: Queen, Lover, Legend. Described as witty and insightful, it sounds just the thing to wake me from my festive slumber.

That should see you through to February, but if not, try visiting the library, popping along to a pub quiz or (if you’re feeling tough) window shopping in the covered Victoria Quarter…

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