Choreographer: Jonathan Watkins
Imagine a world in which society is entirely controlled by the government; they tell you when and where you can work, restrict access to your favourite leisure activities and determine who you can fraternise with. While this may sound familiar, it is very unlikely that any of us will experience such a tight level of control, but for the protagonist of George Orwell’s novel 1984, the concept of freedom is so alluring that he risks everything for it.
Modern ballet is incredibly experimental, taking inspiration from cultural influences beyond those normally associated with dance and using them to create new modes of narrative expression. Last year, Northern Ballet brought their rather charming retelling of the life of Queen Victoria to Sadler’s Wells and now their superb 2015 adaptation of Orwell’s novel, Northern Ballet’s 1984, is available to stream via its YouTube channel.
For fans of the book, it makes a rather extraordinary transition to the stage, a wordless but nonetheless evocative dance interpretation in which the flowering and destruction of Winston Smith is vividly portrayed. The mood created by chorographer Jonathan Watkins is fascinating, creating stiff shapes and repetitive sequences that on camera clearly suggest the rather drab workforce and its endless administrative burden.
Set to Alex Baranowski’s ominous but expressive and nuanced score, Act One is a scene-setter in which the limitations of society are clearly conveyed, watched over by the famous ‘Big Brother’ on a screen behind the dancers that lifts in and out as needed. This filmed production adds further layers to Orwell’s story and there is something both meaningful and disconcerting about us watching them being watched.
Andrzej Goulding’s video, which often appears in close-up, also works as a plot prompt where workplace datasets and, crucially, the deletion of individual names shows the audience what is happening. It becomes vital to the brainwashing drama of Room 101 in Act Two which is quite brilliantly and almost movingly played, and is integrated so purposefully into the production that it connects entirely with Baranowski’s music and Watkins’ choreography to create tone as well as story.
Tobias Batley’s Winston has a mix of modern and classical choreography, the latter used primarily to express his growing desire for freedom. There is an innocence in Batley’s performance at first, the diary-keeping a harmless act of defiance that soon becomes more dangerous. When he falls for Julia, Batley expresses the tenderness of their connection, which, during their first secret assignation, becomes a notable sexual chemistry. But the viewer also senses a recklessness in Batley’s Winston, and despite the inevitable, a hope that somehow he will evade detection.
Martha Leebolt’s Julia is a colder presentation and the audience is never quite sure whether she truly falls for Winston or is essentially a honey trap design to flush out dissention. There is a neatness to Leebolt’s dancing, all very precise, clean and tightly controlled, while her best moment is the more fluid expression of the lovers’ first tryst.
Watkins’ production emphasises the central characters so, on occasion if you’re unfamiliar with the novel, some of the other sections may seem a little more obscure, including Winston’s encounter with what looks like gangsters and the dreamlike woman in the red dress, or the fist pumping angst of the proletariat. It is a small stage, but occasionally the wider choreography of a scene is not fully visible in shot, losing the impact that the audience in the room would have experienced. But in translating 1984 as a dance piece, Northern Ballet have done an extraordinary job; tone, texture, narrative and character are impressively conceived, so while we enjoy lockdown for ourselves this is still a treat.