Inspirational Madame Butterfly

EMMA LEE East meets west with tragic consequences in Madame Butterfly, which is being staged by Northern Ballet Theatre in Norwich this week. EMMA LEE spoke to the company’s artistic director David Nixon, and discovered why the ballet is particularly personal to him.


When I was growing up I got called Tina the ballerina. But that's the kind of thing that gives you strength,” said David Nixon, the artistic director of Northern Ballet Theatre. The 46-year-old is remembering his upbringing in Canada, in the type of place where eyebrows are raised if boys don't play hockey.

But luckily he didn't take the taunts of his contemporaries to heart.

Mr Nixon trained with the National Ballet School of Canada, where he became a principal dancer, and his career as a dancer has taken him all over the world.

He has worked with a host of the ballet's most famous names, including Erik Bruhn and Rudolf Nureyev.

While training he also developed an interest in choreography and when he decided to retire from dancing in the mid-1990s became an artistic director.

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In 2001 he joined the Leeds-based Northern Ballet Theatre as its artistic director, and this week the company's production of Madame Butterfly is being staged at the Theatre Royal in Norwich.

The ballet was initially created for his acclaimed ballerina wife, Yoko Ichino, who performed it in Ballet Met Columbus, Ohio.

“To my mind she is the perfect Butterfly,” he said. “So graceful.

“I felt that she is Butterfly. The way she moves, looks, and captures the emotional qualities of the story.

“I have danced with my wife a lot. We have a really strong partnership on stage,” he said.

“I think that she felt I was someone she wanted to perform with. Someone who knew the way she moves.”

Madame Butterfly, a story of innocence, love and betrayal, tells the tale of a young Geisha who marries Lieutenant Pinkerton, a dashing naval officer, only to be abandoned carrying his unborn child.

The loyal Butterfly awaits her husband's return, raising their son alone in a society that has also deserted her. When Pinkerton eventually appears with a new American wife, Butterfly's fate and that of their young son are sealed.

Puccini's score is interspersed with traditional Japanese music, and Japanese-style dancing is blended with classical ballet.

“It started out as a small one-act piece in a workshop for my wife - it was 30 minutes long. Then I did a full-length version and now its in its final form,” Mr Nixon said.

“Butterfly would have been about 16. Pinkerton was probably her first man. She was beginning her training as a Geisha. She didn't have any idea. She believes in that love then never has it fulfilled again.

“When Pinkerton leaves her life stops. At the end of it all she's got is a child and she has to give that up.

“Part of the issue in the story is the cultural difference, which I identify with. I have lived in so many countries at the end of the day I feel like an alien,” he said.

Mr Nixon's career has certainly taken him far from home.

From 1985-90 he was principal dancer with the Deutsche Oper Ballet in Berlin, then left for a series of principal guest appearances with National Ballet of Canada, Bayerisches Staatsballett Munich and Royal Winnepeg Ballet.

He returned to Deutsche Oper Ballet as first ballet master in 1994.

They same year BalletMet in Columbus offered Mr Nixon his first role as artistic director.

During his six-year tenure he added 16 world and 15 company premieres to the repertoire, including his own full-length productions of the Nutcracker, Dangerous Liaisons, Butterfly, Beauty and the Beast, Carmen, Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake, Dracula and A Midsummer Night's Dream.

His productions have since been staged by companies in Canada, the USA and South Africa.

He has a number of prestigious awards to his name. He was voted director of the year 2003 by readers of Dance Europe Magazine.

Northern Ballet Theatre won the audience award in this year's National Dance Awards and A Midsummer Night's Dream was nominated in the best new dance production category in the Laurence Olivier Awards 2004.

Mr Nixon retired from the stage when he was in his mid-30s.

“Thirty is the point where a lot of dancers will evaluate what they have got. You have to decide whether you would rather stay at home and have a family. If dancers continue over 30 they either love it or their career's going somewhere.

“Forty seems to be a big cut-off point. But you can become a character artist and can be on stage until you're in your 60s.

“It's funny, for me I didn't decide to stop, what I decided to do was become a director and said I was stopping.”

He enjoys his role behind the scenes. “When you are the director you are there for everyone else. I love watching people develop and grow as artists,” he said.

Madame Butterfly is at Norwich Theatre Royal until Saturday, November 5. For performance times and prices telephone 01603 630000 or visit

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