Sean Bates, Matthew Koon and Minju Kang in Merlin. Photo: Emma Kauldhar

The early life of legendary wizard Merlin is at the heart of Northern Ballet’s new production, and there’s a decent amount of magic dust sprinkled through the show.

The story charts Merlin’s formative years as an adopted child to a blacksmith, before being drafted into the evil Vortigern’s army. He develops a crush on general Morgan who, after a surprise victory in the tournament of champions, leads the kingdom’s forces in a battle against the Kingdom of Tides.

The brutal battle triggers an anger in Merlin, killing everyone around him – a magic feat witnessed by Morgan. Morgan’s victory sees her presented as a bride to the king’s son Uther, but her rejects her in favour of Ygraine, their enemy’s princess.

Merlin sees the potential to unite the kingdoms and helps the lovers escape Morgan’s clutches, but he and Uther are eventually captured and held prisoner. Morgan takes advantage of Merlin’s latent feelings for her and steals his power, becoming Morgan Le Fae and bewitching Uther.

The blacksmith sneaks into the palace to free Merlin, who then joins with Ygraine in a renewed battle that culminates in the defeat of Morgan and Vortigern, and the happy union of Ygraine and Uther and their kingdoms.

As stories go it’s fairly typical for ballet, which frequently dabbled in magic the supernatural, and the choreography mixes traditional approaches with the occasional more modern attitude. Set pieces in the palace and the scattered interlude of Merlin’s celestial parents appearing have distinct classical tinges.

Elsewhere the use of puppet dragons and dogs give a more modern feel, although for me the ballet tradition of people playing animals would be preferable: War Horse has a lot to answer for, with on-stage puppets becoming an over-used device.

Matthew Koon casts a spell from the off as Merlin, with a commanding presence on stage that demands to be watched. He runs the gamut of boyish charm to angry soldier well, with fluid and natural movement. He also, fittingly, does a nice line in magic tricks, pulling flowers out of thin air.

Antoinette Brooks-Daw similarly stands out as Ygraine. She has the most naturalistic approach of the company, with an ease and lightness that makes every move seem instinctive. Her duet with blacksmith Heather Lehan is especially sweet, as is her bathing scene as she frolics in glitter ‘water’.

Lehan too impresses. It is telling that when she sneaks into the palace disguised as a soldier, her battle moves are more sinewy and brutal than the ‘real’ soldiers. Too often the fight moves from others lack her vigour, with a slight languidness that shows the dancers’ minds at work, rather than their muscles.

This is, however, fairly early in the run, and some tightening of Drew McOnie’s choreography could easily rectify that as the piece grows more familiar. The overall action is well paced, and with the exception of an emotionally and visually awkward ‘heralding’ scene directly after Morgan’s dark triumph over Merlin, the story is well told.

It’s always brave to bring forward a brand new show like this, and even more so off the back of a pandemic. Northern Ballet also deserve commending for sticking with a live sinfonia for Grant Olding’s music. Together with Colin Richmond’s inventive sets, they add up to a highly ambitious show – and for the most part successfully so.

At its best, Merlin is a sparkly, shiny, magical treat. For the rest you just need to believe.