Not long ago Northern Ballet’s artistic director David Nixon told me during rehearsals for this production that “it promises to challenge the idea of what stories can be told through dance”. He wasn’t kidding, nor especially blowing his company’s own trumpet. Despite umpteen stage and screen adaptations, the notion of a ballet based on Orwell’s prescient tale of love and betrayal in a repressive, omniscient state does seem especially ambitious, even improbable, not least given 1984’s narrative reliance on the manipulation of language and the regimentation of so many of its characters.
Happily I was proved wrong in my misgivings and Northern Ballet’s version of 1984 is an unexpected triumph. The storyline was as clear as it could possibly be without great wodges of explication on the screens (after all, how many young people these days might think of Big Brother and Room 101 as nothing more than TV show concepts?); the technology was impressively and appropriately utilised; and, perhaps most importantly of all, the dancing was excellent, with the pas de deux that closes the first act a particular highlight of both Jonathan Watkins’ choreography, and Tobias Batley and Martha Leebolt’s terrific performances as, respectively, Winston Smith and his Julia, lovers and would-be revolutionaries who discover that Big Brother really is watching.
The project has been a long-cherished dream of director Jonathan Watkins, whose other recent credits include a ballet based on Kes (another apparently non-ballet-friendly book) for Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. Like many people (including me) he first read Orwell’s dystopian novel in his teens and fell in love with it.
“That book has been a constant inspiration to me in all that time,” he says. “What is remarkable is how the meaning of this powerful and thought-provoking allegory keeps changing with the times and with me as I mature. Now, more than ever though, 1984 has resonance with the times in which we are living.”
The production, designed by Simon Daw with lots of on-stage screens, light towers and the like, looks striking, even elegant, which is quite an achievement given the subject matter. It’s set to an original score by Tony-nominated composer and arranger Alex Baranowski, who recently worked with Mercury Prize winners and Manchester International Festival favourites The xx. Played live by the Northern Symphonia, it was, again unexpectedly, lyrical and subtly engaging.
None of this would matter much if the choreography and dancing aren’t up to scratch, though, and thankfully they are. The precision of the company is impressive – they are entirely believable as Party workers in thrall to Big Brother and convey the ever-changing concept of truth in the all-powerful State. Batley and Leebolt shine as the State-crossed lovers and the moment when they find love together, apparently away from prying eyes, is rather wonderful, as suspicion and suppression give way to sexuality and sincerity. Or do they? The production cannily leaves open the interpretation that Julia might have been involved all along in plotting Winston’s downfall and eventual acquiescence to Big Brother, finally broken and literally wiped from history by his fear-crazed treachery.
Northern Ballet’s 1984 is at the Palace Theatre, Manchester, until October 17, 2015; then at Sheffield Lyceum Theatre October 20-24, 2015
To read Kevin Bourke’s interview with the team behind 1984, click here