Choreographer: Jonathan Watkins
Reviewer: Hannah Hiett
Northern Ballet are storytellers on another level. Alongside the classics of ballet repertoire (The Nutcracker, Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake ) Northern Stage are doing something special. They are bringing the best of English literature to life on-stage, with classic masterpieces including Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre featured in the current season, alongside their captivating and chilling adaptation of George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece, 1984.
The challenge is obvious – how do you transform a novel (especially a novel that seems to be comprised mostly of talking and thinking) into dance?
The answer is consummately expressive choreography from Jonathan Watkins. The mechanical, pseudo-military movements of the cogs in the propaganda machine at the Ministry of Truth savour of soviet utilitarianism and the mid-20th century paranoia surrounding the Red Menace in the East.
The aesthetic of the world under the eye of Big Brother is stark, blue-toned and gloomy. The costumes are something between a Mao suit and the British military attire of Orwell’s time, with a futuristic edge. In contrast, the ‘prôles’ – the people living in slums on the fringes of society – live in world of warm colours, languid, free-flowing movement and jumbled ‘antique’ bric a brac. The shift of allegiance in Winston Smith (danced by the wonderful Tobias Batley) away from conformity is read in moments when his movement relaxes and when he begins to find himself coveting the warm colours of disobedience…
The set is dominated by a large digital screen, which is used to suspend an enormous pair of eyes, watching everything that unfolds on stage. Flashes of glaringly bright lights and busy, pixelated activity overwhelm with a visceral sense of urgency in moments of heightened tension. It must be said, however, that without reading the synopsis online ahead of the ballet, or paying £4 for a programme, there are messages on-screen that are too subliminal to know what they’re about – a montage of yellow fists being subsumed by purple palms would have been baffling without prior knowledge – a moment in which the narrative capacity of dance can’t quite effectively communicate what’s happening in the story.
The love story, however, is told wonderfully – with an erotic duet between Winston and Julia (Martha Leebolt) in the woods that makes the polite courtship dances one might expect to see in a more traditional ballet look relatively tame.
The finale, as it could only ever be, was difficult – but the psychological destruction of Winston Smith was effectively told in sadistic duet between Winston Smith and O’Brien (danced by a skilled, menacing but slightly peacock-like Javier Torres). The introduction of silly cardboard ‘torture helmet’ was disappointing – it’s not, after all, a moment of comedy – but, overall, Northern Ballet’s 1984 is a stunning effort and brings a modern classic to life in a slick, stylish and profoundly affecting piece of story-telling.
Runs until Saturday 17 October 2015 | Photo: Emma Kauldhar.