Music: Alex Baranowski
Choreographer and director: Jonathan Watkins
Reviewer: Laura Jayne Bateman
It is over sixty years since 1984, George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel, was first published in 1949. In that time, the story has lost none of its relevance and has lent itself to numerous adaptations. Indeed, Headlong’s acclaimed stage version is currently making its way around the country, closely followed by Northern Ballet’s new dance version. Both productions are superb, but there is a dark beauty to the ballet that renders its brutal ending shocking without a single word having been spoken.
The ballet is set in Oceania, one of three inter-continental states that emerged after a global war. Winston Smith (Tobias Batley) works in the Ministry of Truth, revising historical records to delete references to ‘unpersons’, those disappeared by the Party for endangering the established regime. He discovers a diary in a junk shop, in which he records his rebellious thoughts toward Big Brother, the Party leader. He finds he is being followed by a young woman named Julia (Martha Leebolt), who eventually hands him a note informing him that she is in love with him. The two embark on a passionate affair, renting the spare room in the junk shop to do so. As the pressure of balancing outward conformity and inward rebellion begins to mount, it becomes increasingly difficult for Winston and Julia to tell who is a friend and who is a foe, and an act of betrayal is the catalyst for the piece’s tragic conclusion.
The ballet tells a complex story, and without the detailed synopsis written in the programme, it is doubtful whether audience members who had not read the book would fully understand the plot. It is an extremely challenging text to wordlessly adapt, yet Northern Ballet should be commended for the clarity of their production. The choreography is truly superb: Jonathan Watkins combines classical and contemporary movements to give the piece a harsh edge, which is particularly successful in the Ministry sequences when the dancers move in sharp, regimented unison. The aggression in these moments contrasts effectively with the lyricism of the solos and pas de deux, enhanced by Alex Baranowski’s outstanding original score. Baranowski’s compositions swing between the glorious (in the pas de deux that closes Act One) and the chilling (in the impressively-staged Room 101 sequence)and skilfully cultivates the show’s unsettling atmosphere. Praise must also be given to conductor Nathan Fifield and orchestra leader Geoffrey Allan for heading a talented team of musicians.
The dancing is, without exception, absolutely first-rate. So often in ballet, the male characters (such as Prince Désiré in The Sleeping Beauty) are underdeveloped, often in the shadow of the principal ballerina. It is refreshing, therefore, that Tobias Batley’s Winston is layered and expertly-drawn. He has a magnetic stage presenceand combines strong technical ability with excellent acting skills that display themselves most effectively in the torture and love scenes. Martha Leebolt as Julia, Winston’s enigmatic co-worker, is also magnificent: her tremendous technique means that her pas de deux with Winston as they consummate their passion for the first time is the stand-out moment of the evening. The ensemble also dances with effortless grace, with particularly eye-catching performances from Victoria Sibson, Luke Francis and Antoinette Brooks-Daw due to their energy and attack.
Another challenge presented by the novel is its multiple locations, but Simon Daw’s functional, minimalist set and Chris Davey’s imaginative lighting ensure that transitions are slick. There is also impressive video design from Andrzej Goulding, demonstrating Northern Ballet’s commitment to bringing classical dance into the technological age.
The classic ballets- Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty and others – are performed with such regularity, wonderful as they are, that it is a joy to see companies taking risks on new work. The excellent new music, ingenious choreography and terrific performances combine to make 1984 a thrilling piece that deserves a permanent place in Northern Ballet’s repertoire.
Photo: Guy Farrow |Runs until 3 October 2015 and on tour