Music: Sir Richard Rodney Bennett CBE
Writer: F. Scott Fitzgerald
Choreographer and Director: David Nixon OBE
Conductor: John Pryce-Jones
Reviewer: Jo Beggs
Any adaptation of The Great Gatsby promises so much. After all, it’s a sparkling novel, packed with powerful visual imagery, smouldering sensuality, passion and colour. It has the glitz of 1920s New York City, and the languid Summer days on Long Island. And it has parties. Lots of parties.
All of this gets David Nixon’s production off to a rather beautiful start in Northern Ballet’s production which first opened in 2013, right about the time when Leonardo DiCaprio wasn’t winning too much critical acclaim in Baz Luhrmann’s screen version. The simple set design by Jérôme Kaplan creates a wonderful backdrop for the dancers, from minimalist vertical drops creating the canyon like streets of New York City to glorious interiors and an Edward Hopper-esque gas station. Everything slides and drops with effortless precision as furniture is moved about by ‘the help’ whose efficiency would get them hired in any Long Island mansion. Lighting by Tim Mitchell compliments Kaplan’s designs with exquisite soft blue and pink hues as Gatsby gazes out to sea, and sumptuous oranges and golds in the homes of the rich.
You can’t really go wrong with 1920s dress either – from sharp suits to floaty dresses, sparkles and frills, David Nixon’s costume design brings much style to the stage. Everyone looks suitably marvellous. But Fitzgerald’s novel has something else. Something that makes it earn it’s place in the list of Great American Novels. A complicated plot dealing with complex and dark emotions. Underneath the razzmatazz is the not so pretty underbelly of the American Dream.
Sadly, this is what is missing in Nixon’s production, and without it, the splendour of it all is just not enough. Without a good working knowledge of the story it would be hard to have a clue what’s going on. There’s a reason that traditional stories in ballet are so simple. While Act One just about holds together, Act Two is just a mish-mash of dance numbers interspersed with rushed, and ultimately pointless, attempts to move the story along. Over-long dance scenes become tedious, while snippets of action move too fast to be understood, particularly in the final scene where the story reaches its inevitable and tragic end. By this point it’s hard to care very much about Gatsby’s demise.
In an attempt to reflect Gatsby’s longing for the past, when he had the girl, Nixon uses ‘ghost’ characters, dancing in synch with their future selves. At first it’s satisfying device, but then becomes over-used and rather sentimental. There’s only so many times we need to see the young Gatsby woo Daisy, even if he does think about it a lot in the book.
The very best moments belong to George and Ayrtle Wilson, wonderfully portrayed by Mlindi Kulashe and Minju Kang. Scenes full of love and longing in the dirty summer heat of George’s garage, jealousy and sensuality in the bedroom. Both are extraordinary dancers.
Other memorable moments are those when everything comes together visually. Gatsby and Daisy’s duet in the room of mirrors, their movement and her floating dress creating distorted, surreal reflections. The symmetry and rich colours of Myrtle’s New York apartment where Tom’s jealousy gets the better of him, and the simplicity of the lonely figure of Gatsby, standing alone on the dock in the summer twilight.
Sir Richard Rodney Bennett’s music is fittingly esoteric, with a nod to 1920s jazz, to Gershwin and the Charleston. He even throws in a bit of flamenco, while also reflecting the classical nature of much of the choreography. A tense scene in the Plaza Hotel where tempers run high is scored entirely with percussion that suggests everything from beating hearts to war drums. The Northern Ballet Sinfonia deliver it all invisibly from the orchestra pit (which is always the problem with sitting in the stalls).
Like Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 film, Northern Ballet’s The Great Gatsby seems like a lost opportunity. The book leaves the reader with moments hard to forget. Not so this lacklustre production.
Runs until 11 May 2019 | Image: