LONDON — What kind of story ballet can be created in the 21st century?
The narrative genre, exemplified by “Swan Lake,” “Giselle” and other 19th-century works, remains enduringly popular, its legacy extending to 20th-century ballets like Frederick Ashton’s “La Fille Mal Gardée” and Kenneth MacMillan’s “Manon.” Despite the influence of George Balanchine’s often plotless, neo-classical works on late-20th-century ballet, audiences still seem hungry for stories. Arguably, ballet directors are even hungry, constantly on the hunt for a new, lush narrative that they hope will draw audiences.
Enter “Victoria,” a new work by Cathy Marston for the Northern Ballet, based in Leeds. Ms. Marston, a British choreographer, has had a solid career since the late 1990s, but shot into prominence this year. She showed a liking for narrative work early on. Her first full-length ballet was based on Ibsen’s “Ghosts” (2005); her “Jane Eyre” (2016), also for Northern Ballet, will be performed by American Ballet Theater in June.
Unlike these pieces, “Victoria,” which opened at Sadler’s Wells on Tuesday, is based on historical accounts rather than a literary narrative, but Ms. Marston hasn’t found a convincing way to pull us in and make us care about the fate of its characters. Its structure is episodic, recounting parts of the life of Queen Victoria (Abigail Prudames) through the eyes and memories of her youngest daughter, Beatrice (Pippa Moore), who was entrusted with transcribing and editing the 122 volumes of her mother’s diaries after the queen’s death.
“Victoria” is carefully wrought, well danced and cleverly designed, with a serviceable cinematic score by Philip Feeney. It achieves a nice balance between period history and a contemporary perspective; Ms. Marston, and her dramaturge Uzma Hameed, never let us forget that we are looking at the past by providing an abstract, simply dressed chorus embodying the court and the populace.
There is no gilt and glitter, no voyeuristic recreation of royal settings in Steffen Aarfing’s spare set, which places the action against a curved library wall of floor-to-ceiling volumes
And yet, this is “Masterpiece Theater” ballet. “Victoria” offers us potted glimpses of the monarch’s life, and of the mostly unhappy lot of Beatrice, who was 4 when her father, Prince Albert, died, and who became a companion to the queen for the rest of her life.
Organized around the idea that Beatrice is reading, transcribing and censoring her mother’s diaries (as she did), Act I shows the Queen’s grief and attachment to her servant John Brown (the excellent Mlindi Lulashe) in the years of widowhood; Act II goes further back, to Victoria’s youth, her meeting with Albert (Joseph Taylor) and their love story.
This episodic, nonchronological structure means that the ballet has neither narrative sweep nor emotional heft. It’s simply a series of glimpses of Victoria’s life — and to some extent, the life of Beatrice.
Ms. Marston’s choreography is interestingly contemporary-looking in its spare, expressionistic force. There are no frills or flourishes in the dancing; it’s all straight lines; skimming swirling turns; and bold gestures. (Also a no-holds-barred Albert-Victoria sexual encounter which Beatrice quickly excises from the diaries.) Rather than serving decoratively, every step seems to mean something in Ms. Marston’s storytelling, notably an impressive sequence of repeated acts of childbirth, which economic suggests the difficulties of being wife, mother and ruler.
But no choreographer has the power to convey Disraeli’s bringing about “legislation to create Victoria Empress of India,” or Albert’s “dreaming of a new Europe unified through his growing family,” as the program synopsis suggests. And no choreographer could explain to us which of Victoria’s other eight children is which, who their spouses are, or why Lord Melbourne is smoking opium. (Or who Lord Melbourne is, for that matter.)
Ballet can’t convey historical detail; its power is in allusiveness, in imagery, in suggesting states of mind and emotion that words cannot capture. “Victoria” is skillfully put together and skillfully danced, but it’s hard to see the point.