1984, Northern Ballet, The Palace Theatre, October 15 2015
As a cultural colossus of a novel, reworking 1984 will never be easy in any media. With modern ballet being better known for its abstract movement than defined storytelling, it must be one of the hardest. Although doing a better job than many others before him, Jonathan Watkins’ new adaptation just misses the mark of perfection and instead becomes an overall good production with glimpses of genius.
The ballet consists of two acts, with the first ending with the most exciting pas de deux that has been choreographed in recent years. Staged when Winston and Julia go to the countryside to begin their clandestine love affair, it starts with Julia (Martha Leebolt) leading the way, itself a brilliant example of explored female sexuality on stage. The shift of power from Julia’s sexual dictation to Winston (Mancunian Tobias Batley) taking charge was beautifully smooth, notably linked using a number of bold lifts. A style more frequently seen in contemporary pieces, they were perfectly in place here and the overall effect was by far the highlight of the production.
It is the ballet’s faithfulness to the original work’s narrative that lets it down. Its dogmatic portrayal of proletariat life may have helped those unfamiliar with the story follow Winston’s descent into rebellion but added nothing to the overall dance. The sections using an individual character to progress the story were disappointingly weak links. The worst offending of these were O’Brien’s solos, a terrifying character in writing but translated very poorly to a plot-mover on stage. This in turn hindered the Room 101 scene, which, whilst not going as far as to have dancers portraying rats, was too literal, almost pantomimic. The dramatic ending in the book is dulled on stage by predictable flashing lights, a pretend electric chair and some poor acting. At the close of the production, you do see Winston turned into a party-lover through the repetition of a previous motif but unfortunately it is not enough to redeem it.
The whole-company party members sections were the opposite of the ineffectual individual. Being abstract enough not to be a caricature, the angular nature of the movement had a very mechanical feel and was undeniably reminiscent to a Soviet Russian propaganda poster. The repeated ‘2 minutes hate’ movement was the pinnacle. Ballet often struggles to capture this emotion due to the formality of the movements; however, Watkins’ chorography allowed the dancers to really let loose and become almost animalistic, whilst still managing to retain the classical retirés.
The set deserves a special mention. Featuring a series of telescreens in a manner the author would certainly have improved of, they showed both live footage of the dancers and beautiful crafted animation during day-to-day life. Rotating blank walls, 1950s upright desks and a towering bookcase completed it in a suitably Spartan fashion. The music, composed by Alex Baranowski, was the perfect accompaniment and remained incredibly haunting to the last scene. It is unfortunate that the dance lagged in the second half; a few minor tweaks and this production would have turned Watkins into the choreographer of a generation.