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Behind the Scenes: Northern Ballet – Inside 1984

By Rich Jevons

Before the creative team behind Northern Ballet’s 1984 gave a day-long exposition of the thinking behind their modern masterpiece based on George Orwell’s dystopian novel, we are asked to consider what we would put in Room 101. Quite flippantly, I think of celery and the complete works of Xenakis on a loop. But more seriously, we think back to the rats in both film adaptations, spiders and a host of other phobias, rational or irrational.

Choreographer and director Jonathan Watkins, like myself, read 1984 at the tender age of 14 and found it an inspiration. We both enjoyed the idea of one man’s radical stance against a totalitarian system, and, more generally, the individual’s struggle against an unjust society. Written in 1948 as a prediction, many of the things foreseen have come to pass, like the telescreen, but rather than Big Brother watching us, we’re watching Him, the omnipresent omniscient dictator of social mores.

In this premiere contemporary dance version, Watkins explores the ability of ballet to say things that the text never can. While there is no verbalisation and no actual Newspeak, influences of the Party ideology are felt through the dancers’ contrived and restricted movement. This is contrasted against the prôles who move in a different way, less militaristic.

The piece is intended to be timeless and follow the book in a fair amount of detail, from Winston writing his diary in an alcove of his apartment to the work at the Ministry of Truth where he works falsifying historical documents.

A 28 piece orchestra is at composerAlex Baranowski’s disposal, who previously worked with Watkins on Kes, at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield alongside dramaturg Ruth Little. Also reprising their creative working relationship with Watkins is costume and set designer Simon Daw. To add to this creative mix, video designer Andrzej Goulding strikes a delicate balance between live and video action.

Goulding’s telescreens are heavily pixelated, giving them more of a low-tech feel befitting the Orwellian bleak landscape. It is only when Winston and Julia depart for a wild fling in the country, that the beady eyes of Big Brother are not on centre screen (or are they?).

Watkins reveals that the ‘Two Minute Hate’ came as the result of some Stanislavskian realism techniques, with the dancers asked to rage against whatever irritates them, the physical energy informed by a personal powerful emotional drive.

Watkins takes a deliberate stance of interpreting the book itself, rather than drawing on the other versions, including the films from 1956 and 1984 and theatrical productions by Headlong and Northern Broadsides.

The two lead dancers – Tobias Batley as Winston and Martha Leebolt as Julia – emphasise the piece is essentially a love story, even if, after all, that love is tragically torn apart. They both acknowledge the director’s vision of what he wanted from the performers, a challenging but rewarding collaboration.

In terms of design, it is clear this is not intended to be 2015, but it could be a very close tomorrow. The costume designs are the same for all Party members, but Julia stands out with her red Anti-Sex League sash. When she changes into pink, the sudden splash of on-stage colour is all the more exotic and erotic. The prôles meanwhile appear in controlled rusty colours, individualised to indicate their wear and tear, while the guards are in a simply sinister black.

For the excruciating torture scene, Winston is forced to wear a contraption over his head akin to medieval torture technique or is it a modern mechanism with an enforced virtual reality?

All in all, it was a fascinating behind-the-scenes tour of Northern Ballet’s home on Quarry Hill which, combined with a re-reading of novel, proved an invaluable key to comprehend and appreciate Northern Ballet’s latest tour de force. Doubleplusgood!

Touring until 28th May 2016. See website for more details.

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The Reviews Hub - Yorkshire & North East
The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Holly Spanner. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.