“The Three Musketeers”
at the Estonian National Opera
Interview with the Choreographer and Stage Director David Nixon (Northern Ballet Theatre)
The history of the ballet dates back to 1975. What is the story behind the birth of this ballet?
David Drew, a dancer with the Royal Ballet, had originally wanted to create a full-length ballet for the Royal Ballet. Drawing upon Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, David wrote a scenario, enlisted a designer, and set up a meeting with the composer Malcolm Arnold, who he hoped would compose an original score. In the event, the opera house refused to entertain the proposition and David’s hopes were crushed. Then, whilst in Leeds in to see Northern Ballet’s triple bill in 2004, David arranged to meet me, as he wanted me to consider him as a collaborator for a new narrative work. He talked about the Three Musketeers, without thinking that it would capture my imagination. I immediately urged him to let me turn this idea into a vehicle for my own company, and from there the ballet was born.
Sir Malcolm Arnold’s music is very English in feel, but encompasses a vast range of scores from chamber to symphonic, ballet and especially film. There is huge vitality in the music, with lots of drama, and it is easy to dance to. David Drew’s intention was to use the composer’s original fragments that exist for this ballet – with the remainder of the score made up entirely of music taken from Arnold’s wider catalogue of works. Thanks to the knowledge of Anthony Meredith, Sir Malcolm’s biographer, we were able to find enough music to create a full-length ballet score.
You are also the lighting designer and costumes designer for the ballet – have you learned costume and lighting design? Does it help you to create choreography as well, when you do everything yourself?
Having worked so long in the theatre, one does start to appreciate the feeling and aesthetics that will produce a desired result. Although I have had no formal training as a costume designer I have learned to do this on the job. I have always been interested in fabrics, colours and textures so it has been a natural path for me to follow. When I choreograph I imagine how my dancers will look, how the fabrics will move and what the overall effect will be.
What is important for you when designing the costumes?
When I design costumes I first research the period and silhouette. I begin to imagine how these will or will not move, and what fantasy I can bring to the design that will stay true to the silhouette - and yet be imaginative in the way it looks and moves on stage, whilst capturing an element of its character. I then search for the fabrics with colour, texture and movement qualities. Ultimately the costumes are only as good as the maker’s technique and imagination. I have been very fortunate to have a great team in the opera house to call upon, with much help from Klarika Verliin.
What are the challenges for the dancers?
The challenges for the dancers in this work are many. First, it is always hard for dancers to work with a new choreographer who has a different aesthetic and concept of movement. Secondly, my work is very theatrical and demands all involved to understand who they are in the piece and to be alive at all times. Technically there are also challenges, as the duets need a great deal of strength, skill and stamina.
Does The Three Musketeers make a good plot for a ballet?
I think that the plot can be confusing for the audience if they take that element too seriously. Like the novel itself, the complicated story is secondary to the characters within and the wonderful way in which they live. It is these larger than life Musketeers, the romantic Queen Anne, the beautiful and dangerous Milady d e Winter and the young love of d’Artagnan and Constance we remember and enjoy. The ballet stays true to this and provides a great night in the theatre. The Three Musketeers was extremely well received in England, winning the Manchester Evening News Award for best dance, and a nomination for the prestigious Olivier Award.
For you the most beautiful part of the ballet is…?
I think that the duets are beautiful and each has its own merit, but what I most enjoy are the street scenes with the washerwomen, Madame Bonacieux and the Musketeers.
You and Daniel de Andrade, the choreographer of the fight scenes, have worked together for a long time. Could you speak about your co-operation? How do you blend two different choreographic handwritings into one ballet?
Daniel was still a dancer when I took over Northern Ballet Theatre (NBT) but moved over to being my ballet master in the third season. Since then he has worked with me on all of my ballets and has come to understand my style and preferences. It is not difficult in this case to blend the work because Daniel understands the choreography and the fight scenes are of a different nature and content.
Is there a particular ballet or subject for a ballet that you have always dreamt of choreographing? What is your dream role to dance?
There are many subjects that flutter around my head to make a ballet and I would love the opportunity to do a musical. I had such an extensive career that there was not much left that I had not danced, but I would have loved to dance John Neumeier’s Swan Lake. Of my own work I find it so tailored to this generation that it would not have suited my way of doing things, but I would like to have danced the leading role in my Swan Lake and would find it fascinating to perform Claudius in my Hamlet.
Interview with the Set Designer Charles Cusick Smith
This is not your first time to work at the Estonian National Opera. You have designed the sets and costumes for Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet (1998), Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker (2001), Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (2006). How do you find the technical possibilities of our smaller-scale stage compared to other European opera theatres?
It was quite difficult because of the lack of wing space in the Tallinn house. Fortunately I had to design for NBT with the consideration of the larger and smaller venues that the production would tour. The set was created adaptable to larger or smaller widths of proscenium.
Considering your experience with our theatre and team, we hardly managed to surprise you with anything, or did we?
I was very pleased that all the construction and decoration was made in the house. The NBT have no production team and their version was made by several freelance craftsmen and painters. The painters in Estonia really surprised me by their dedication and ability to translate my designs into real sets. Luckily for them they had the expertise and advice of how to paint in certain new styles by the painter of the original backdrops Phil R. Daniels. He was also very impressed by their considered approach.
What do you consider most important when doing your work?
Firstly I have to have a clear vision of the work and also to be completely in agreement with the choreographer/director. I must ensure to give enough space for the relevant dancing.
Is this your first production with David Nixon? What inspired you when designing the sets for this ballet?
Since this collaboration I have designed the Nutcracker with David for NBT and also for The Slovenian National Ballet in Maribor. I took my inspiration from my many visits to the Louvre in Paris and Versailles. Luckily there are many books on Louis XIII. David was very clear that we have different scenic elements to create the journey of D’Artagnan.
What are the challenges of this particular production for the designer?
To evoke so many different locations of country, town, exterior, interior, the harbour at Calais and to create the splendour of the Palais Royal.
The scenario demands several quick changes of scenery. How did you find a solution?
I created a panelled environment with secret doors and with secret settings which pivot onstage and meet flown backdrops. I was determined to create a self masking design that would not expose any lights. I had to devise open corridors that would contain the side lighting towers.
How would you characterise the ballet?
A very fast, furious and good humoured love story with exciting fights.
The most beautiful bit of the ballet for you is…?
Transformation from The Golden Palais to the queen’s bedroom and the arrival of Buckingham from the secret panel. I also like the streets of Paris and the washerwomen tempting the Musketeers while the fight with Richelieu’s guards.
Interview with the Dancers Marika Muiste, Heidi Kopti, Sergei Upkin, Aleksandr Prigorovski and Eve Andre
How does The Three Musketeers differ from other ballets in the repertoire of Estonian National Opera?
Sergei Upkin (Sergei): The Three Musketeers adds colour and sparkle to the repertoire, because the choreography is different. It gives the dancers a wonderful opportunity to test their skills.
Marika Muiste (Marika): It does not resemble classical ballet in the way that it is all about the princess and the prince – it is a ballet for the whole troupe with different characters and every dancer has a role, or maybe two.
Aleksandr Prigorovski (Aleksandr): We had the opportunity to be co-authors of fight scenes as Daniel de Andrade encourages improvisation and creativity on dancers’ part. I am already eager to see different casts, as every one brings something of his own to the role, making it unique.
Heidi Kopti (Heidi): …thus making every performance unique.
What is your role like?
Marika: I dance both the role of Madame Bonacieux and Milady de Winter. They are absolutely different! Milady is a contradictory character and constantly changing – at one moment she is cunning and
contriving and at another she is modest and lovable.
Eve: The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that Constance is exactly like me. I am spontaneous, I act before I think and so does Constance. There are situations when such behaviour saves her, but this also gets her in silly situations…
Sergei: D’Artagnan is an important character in this adventurous ballet – the audience sees a young man starting an independent life full of challenges and adventures. Love inspires him to seemingly impossible heroic deeds. Brave men are crowned with success! It is easy for me to portray him, as I am still a youthful daredevil myself.
Aleksandr: My Porthos enjoys life to the fullest – he loves good food, excellent wine and beautiful women. It is an interesting role for me as I have never done a character actor role before. Porthos should be funny, but you mustn’t overdo it…
Marika: It is always exciting to create a role not just as a dancer but also as an actor. There are those who want to do roles that require polishing your dancing technique rather than creating a character. I like to act and create my role. That is why I loved doing
Shannon Rose: it has a story upon which I could build my character. I could look for new nuances at every performance to make my role more credible.
The most beautiful bit of the ballet is…?
All: There are many!
Heidi: The scene with Madame Bonacieux and the village women is the funniest!
Aleksandr: I like the scene of Constance being imprisoned, the situation seems so desperate… and I like the fight scenes – they are exciting and look so real!
Sergei: The most beautiful and most enjoyable piece for me is the dance of Louis XIII at the ball!
Eve: In this ballet, every dancer is given the chance of being an actor. You can really show what you are capable of.
The interview was conducted by Liina Viru
For further information on performances of this ballet in Tallinn, or to book tickets, please contact: www.opera.ee
Back To News