FROM the flame burners outside the theatre to the heat of a sensational, sensual orgiastic second-half scene, David Nixon’s world premiere of Cleopatra is hot stuff in the dance world. Indeed, I would go so far as to say this is his defining production for the Leeds company.

It is not that he has not already put his stamp on Northern Ballet – or Northern Ballet Theatre as it was until last October’s re-branding that coincided with the move into a new £12 million headquarters in Quarry Hill – but you could sense that this show mattered more to Nixon and the company than any since the days of Christopher Gable.

These are troubled times for arts funding and the best way to respond is to make work so dazzling, exciting, dramatic, to emphasise why dance and theatre enrich or lives. Saturday was a magnificent statement, and no wonder Nixon knelt at the feet of his muse for Cleopatra, the Californian premier dancer Martha Leebolt, as she did likewise, the pair caught up in a most public yet private moment of shared appreciation in front of an ecstatic first-night audience.

She had given the kind of electric, charged, sensuous and yes, sexy, lead performance not seen here since Charlotte Talbot’s days.

Nixon had first posited the possibility of choreographing the story of the Queen of the Nile in his BalletMet Columbus days, mentioning the prospect to composer Claude-Michel Schonberg in 2003. It has been well worth the wait… for both of them.

This production is as much Schonberg’s triumph as Nixon and Leebolt’s, and the contributions of designer Christopher Giles and lighting designer Tim Mitchell to this epic conceit are important too. The Roman statues that drape material from a great height to the floor are but one of the memorable images here, while Mitchell wonderfully evokes Egypt’s light.

Schonberg’s music always has a grand sense of theatre and here the percussion is startling. Wow! How the dancers respond to it. Not only Leebolt’s potent seductress, unforgettably emerging from an unfurled rug, but also Kenneth Tindall’s lithe snake-like Wadjet, Javiet Torres’s haughty Julius Caesar and Tobias Batley’s entranced Mark Antony.

Their (mutual) seduction scene and the writhing bodies around them outdo even Opera North’s saucy Carmen. More arresting still is Mark Antony’s death, where Leebolt and Batley’s physical chemistry peaks with an extraordinary leap by Cleopatra to thrust his blade through his heart.

Leebolt and Tindall’s finale, bathed in celestial light, is befitting of the dying of a great force, where Cleopatra’s spell does not die with her.

This was already a talking-point show of Yorkshire’s arts calendar for 2011, and it surpasses all that advance talk. If you miss out on Leeds this week, make sure to go the extra mile to see it in Hull or Sheffield.

Cleopatra, Northern Ballet, Leeds Grand Theatre, until Saturday; Hull New Theatre, March 16 to 19; Sheffield Lyceum Theatre, March 22 to 26. Box office: Leeds, 0844 848 2705; Hull, 01482 226655; Sheffield, 0114 249 6000.