Stepping up to the challenge

Ten years after joining The Northern Ballet Theatre, Martha Leebolt is dancing one of her most challenging roles ever. Abigail Saltmarsh catches up with her as she prepares for her arrival in Norwich with Cleopatra.

From Odilia and Odette in Swan Lake to Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, and Titania in a Midsummer Night's Dream, Martha Leebolt has danced all the coveted roles in ballet.

Now, however, she has the world of dance on its toes once again as she takes to the stage in the title role of Cleopatra, an acclaimed new production from The Northern Ballet Theatre (NBT).

Due to arrive at the Theatre Royal in Norwich next Tuesday, Cleopatra is currently on tour and has been highlighted by critics as one of the 'must-see' dance productions of the year.

'It is very exciting,' Martha admits. 'It is unusual in the ballet world to be doing something like this – to be telling a story that has been told in very few other ballet versions and to be dancing in a production that really is brand new.

'The music is new, the choreography is new – and we have new sets, costumes and lighting. Because there are no other original versions to go by, the creative processes on this from all those different angles have just been incredible.'

The production has been described as 'a labour of love' for composer Claude-Michel Schonberg, the man behind Les Miserables and Miss Saigon, and choreographer David Nixon, NBT's artistic director.

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And for Martha it has been no less of an exhilarating experience.

'It is a dancer's dream to do something like this,' she stresses. 'I worked with David on the choreography and created the role with him. In that situation, you cannot help but put parts of yourself into it.

'David is an amazing man to work with – he draws on everyone's abilities to ensure we end up with the very best production possible.

'And the character herself is simply incredible to play. She was such a strong, commanding woman, especially for the time in which she existed. She had two of the greatest love affairs ever – with two of the most powerful men there have ever been. She was a mother and yet she was queen of Egypt too.'

David and Claude-Michel first came up with the idea of penning a ballet about Cleopatra while working together on the 2008 hit Wuthering Heights, which won critical acclaim throughout its UK tour.

David says the aim was to get inside her character and present a woman of great depth.

'I want them to understand her as a human as much as someone going to lead a country. She possessed a quality that could engage men and hold them, and I want to create that kind of charisma while at the same time let the audience know this was a woman who had children and was trying to protect them,' he explains.

'This was also a woman who thought several times that she had achieved her goal only to be left running for her life. There's an incredible woman in there.'

The NBT, which celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2009, has a reputation for pushing the boundaries in its ballets.

Californian Martha, who now lives in Leeds – home to the NBT, came over to join the company in 2001.

'It was my first job and I have gone on to see my career develop with the NBT. It is a great company to be part of. It is a close-knit group and we have had some great times together. I love living in Britain – I do miss San Diego sometimes but this is home to me now.'

And she adds: 'I do know Norwich fairly well too, having been there before with other productions. We get such a great response at the Theatre Royal that it is always nice to come back.'

She admits this tour has been hard work, however.

'There are so many different aspects that go into this role that it is very challenging – performing as such a strong character for two hours every night takes a lot of physical and mental effort.

'I think I have enjoyed every role I have ever taken on but this has been one of the most exciting things I have ever done.

'As a dancer, you always want to do well but when you have been involved in the creation of a role, such as Cleopatra, there is a great sense of responsibility as well – you know you have to do a really good job.'

Cleopatra opens at the Theatre Royal Norwich next Tuesday and runs until Saturday, October 15. For more information or to book telephone 01603 630000 or visit

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