Northern Ballet: Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby has such an aura and relevancy at the moment with the much-anticipated Hollywood film and designers and fashionistas holding the pages to include the latest 1920s-inspired flapper styles of dropped waists and short hemlines and men in three-piece suits, looking extremely dashing. The Northern Ballet manage to create full-length narrative works on a pretty much annual basis, with limited resources. Recently the company were filmed as they let the British public behind the scenes to show the dire financial straits with budget cuts tightening and the prospect of scaling back what was already a small company, even further, by paying off dancers. Thankfully, due to a ‘Sponsor a Dancer’ campaign (www.northernballet.com/sponsoradancer), the company have been able to not just save the talented dancers that they have but actually increase their number as well as being accompanied by the Northern Symphonia, who were in fine form.

Northern Ballet come from the theatrical spectrum of ballet, telling the story is as paramount as technique of the dancers. The stories they tell have great, wide, sweeping vistas, taking some of the great romantic characters to the stage. A year ago, the company announced they would be developing the Great Gatsby as their new work, which felt very timely, the ballet should have been coming out in the wake of the hype for the film but ended up, with difficulties for the film, coming to stage first. Many people have read The Great Gatsby, probably at school, a lot of us have a residual memory of the shadowy character of Gatsby, finding that his wealth and obscure fame are not enough for him as he pines after his lost love, Daisy, who is now married to a man, both have little affection for each other. Tom Buchanan treats his wife, more as a possession or trophy, whilst he parties with his mistress, who is in turn, married to someone else.

The production commences with the narrator of piece and the conduit by which the story is told and in his perspective, Nick Carraway. Nick appears quite naïve against the sophisticated, aloof, Gatsby, whom we first see looking back on his first love, Daisy, as he leaves her to go off to war. Daisy is young, youthful and flirtatious and Gatsby thinks he has won her heart as she accepts his white rose, symbol of purity and first love, only for it to forgotten in the dust as Daisy is flirtatiously whisked off by a group of soldiers. Gatsby’s reverie ends as his gaze rests on the light on in Daisy’s house, she now inhabits with her aggressive and brutish husband.

The opening scenes set the scene for the main characters and their personalities but little else. It is not until the first scene at the Petrol Station that I felt the production came alive. Introduced to the young garage owner, George Wilson and what I first thought was his mistress because of the flirtatiousness of her character. Myrtle, is dressed in a gorgeous but quite innocent, peach dress. She teases her young husband, played on this occasion by Sebastian Loe. I found both these dancers fascinating to watch, Myrtle, the flirty feminine tease, driving the men in her life wild and yes, there are men, as she drives her husband wild to leave him and join her lover, Tom Buchanan, Daisy’s husband.

The next scene is so imaginative in a ballet as George, left alone, dressed in dirty overalls and unsophisticated ways, dances with the props of his trade, a large tyre. This is the first glimpse of some really innovative and dynamic choreography and complex prop work as the strong dancer flies daringly through the tyre and over the top of it, turning the mundane, almost childlike sequence but with real, adult frustration and loneliness. The seething tension of this sequence demonstrates that this character may not have the sophistication or panache of the others but may be pivotal to the story.

Sets are sparse but designed to provide context whilst not overwhelming the audience as the costumes and music provide the real backdrop to the piece. The Northern Ballet have worked with a number of contemporary composers who are giants of modern classical composition, such as Les Miserables’ Claude Michel Schoenberg. For ‘Gatsby’, the late, great, Sir Richard Rodney Bennett provided the score. The programme notes provide testimony to the composer’s legacy, “those many people who remember Richard with admiration and affection will surely rejoice that so many aspects of his widespread compositional talents will be on display all round the country in the score of Northern Ballet’s The Great Gatsby”. The score was dazzling as it went from soaring orchestral works to percussion-heavy jazz tracks where a solo snare drum accompanied the dancers. I definitely feel that a score contributes probably as much to the success of a ballet as the choreography does as it helps to engage the brain with what is happening on the stage and certainly opens your heart the way the score to accompany the pas-de-deux did.

I adored the party scenes, the jazz track that accompanies a Charleston-infused corps-de-ballet sequence. The party takes place in the love-nest of Tom and Myrtle, surrounded by fashionable neighbours, they dance and sing. Yes, as well as performing a ballet-come-Charleston, en pointe, the very talented dancers also break into song, ballet dancers do have a voice! This dance goes from the very upright to the low, bending of the knees as the feet swish back and forward and in pointe shoes and men in suits, throwing their partners into the air and executing the classic moves of the period as well as the balletic moves that they are used to. For this, the dancers received extra training in this style that they were not previously competent at but from videos made for this production, they loved the joyousness of the movements that allowed them to be a little less controlled and free. There was an especially eye-catching dancer whose usually tamed, blond curly hair, into a neat ballet bun, was allowed to wear her hair free which underlined this production’s eye-catching attention to detail, to get the atmosphere of the period just right.

Myrtle flirtatiously moves around the part-goers and takes full advantage of being the centre of attention, dancing with both men and women and making sure that her glass is full. Tom’s dark nature bursts violently into the scene, as he takes hold of Myrtle, hits her in the face and she falls to the ground. Nick, who has been Tom and Myrtle’s guest, looks on in horror but, as the party disperses, she forgives Tom and the two dancers join their bodies together. This scene is mainly why this ballet was recommended for age 12+, although as dancers are fully clothed, it is tastefully done and is not pivotal to the production, except for showing Tom’s worst nature which makes you yearn for Gatsby and Daisy to get together. This may also be why, for a matinee, usually packed with children, was rather sparsely attended. Although, the company have not neglected a younger audience as they recently produced ‘The Ugly Duckling’ for Cbeebies, a ballet specially made for children.

For those of us that have read the Great Gatsby or melted at Robert Redford’s portrayal of the ‘boy-made-good, with a past’, the memory that stands out are the lavish and hedonistic parties organised by the mysterious host, standing aloof. Gatsby organised these lavish parties to gain access to the powerful and beautiful of the time. I like to believe that his motives were romantic, to win back his lost love, Daisy came from the upper echelons of society. Although it was also to buy influence and those that may look into his past and where his great wealth came from. A pivotal scene towards the start of the ballet sees men in black overcoats and hats, pass large amounts of cash in dark alleyways, between them, hooking the young Jimmy Gatz, later to become Jay Gatsby, in his pursuit of becoming upwardly mobile. Of course, one person with influence that was not likely to be easily bought off or dissuaded was the brutish husband of the woman that you are hoping to win back with your money and influence and Tom seizes every opportunity to bring him down.

The party scenes are probably what I’ll remember most about this production. Like that most balletic of ballets, Swan Lake, where the corps is as important as the lead dancers, so with most of the productions of the Northern Ballet, there are stars, yes, but this is a real ensemble company. Also with a smaller company, quite often dancers from the lower ranks will get more opportunities to dance solo and lead roles than at larger companies. The party scenes showed the versatility and talent of these dancers as they moved from Charleston through a Waltz to the Tango, all within the boundaries of classical ballet. There was so much to see that my eyes were flitting about the stage and my mental processes were getting such a workout that I was mesmerised and completely drawn into so many emotions that are danced by this most theatrical of ballet companies. David Nixon’s choreography allows strong gender roles, men are men and women are women. There are strong dancers throughout the company.

F Scott Fitzgerald portrayed the rich in his book as real party people and Gatsby’s parties as legendary. The second act opens to another of these parties where Gatsby engineers a secret meeting with Daisy as they gaze into the wall of mirrors that line the room. Mirrored there, the two characters see their past selves, the soldier going off to war and the young, immaturely dressed, girl in white and blue dress. The characters see echoes of what might have been as other dances mirror their movements, through the glass. The forlornness of lost love and this heart-rending pas-de-deux, gives the dancers the opportunity for us to really grieve for them and the lost years. My emotions were fully engaged and senses heightened as they are reunited and then move away as Daisy is thrust away to a second position, en pointe, which makes her look undecided between her new life and her past. From one set of lovers, Myrtle is pining for Daisy’s husband Tom whilst her youthfully naïve husband, is beginning to witness the cracks in his marriage barges into her reverie as he tries to win his wife back as he thrusts a suitcase at her and insists that they go away. He finds an expensive bracelet and his fears are realised that she is another man’s and he locks her up.

In the meantime, the other protagonists, Tom and Daisy, Gatsby, Nick and Jordan take their tense little party, to New York where the action takes a dramatic turn. Partners that are clearly meant for each other and are clearly attracted to each other, as Daisy and Gatsby get closer to each other. There are some death-defying but appropriate lifts, from the playful where she is tossed between Gatsby and Nick and the lifts as part of the pas-de-deux where the dancers express their love that would be in words, in the literature but in ballet, it is through open arms and romantic hands laid on top of each other and trust through lifts that show great strength and openness as the partners are fully engaged with each other. The two male leads even lift each other at one time, as Tom confronts Gatsby, basically questioning the root of his wealth. The various publicity shots, show Daisy, usually flying through the air,

My only criticism of the piece, would be, that the plot, at times, was over-convoluted or too many characters that it took me a while to know who they were. There are maybe too many characters with not enough time to define them. Also, the ending was very abrupt that it maybe didn’t provide the dramatic build-up or the emotional outlet that my engagement with the love story was yearning for. There had been so much to see throughout the performance, the frenetic party scenes that were immensely watchable to the intimate intertwining and spectacular lifts of the pas-de-deux/ tois and the obvious love and attraction that grows over the piece, is deadened, in a flash and the curtains come down quickly. There is no discovery of the true black-hearted villain of the piece but as the narrator, Nick, knows the truth, we can only hope past the final curtain of some justice. This has made me thirst for more and if it hadn’t been for a major family engagement, I would have went out to the Box Office to buy a ticket for the next performance.

The Northern Ballet’s Artistic Director, David Nixon, has been mesmerising audiences for years with great literary and historical figures, such as Wuthering Heights, Hamlet, Dracula and Cleopatra. The latest romantic hero, Gatsby, did not disappoint. Alongside David Nixon, is Co-Director, Patricia Doyle, who has collaborated on many of these works.  This work of literature and period of fashion is pretty much made for this company. The work is so theatrical and filmic, Hollywood will have a very hard act to follow, even the choreographically-aware Director, Baz Luhrmann will be challenged to come up with something quite so mesmerising and engaging. The dancers are just brilliant, their technique is effortless, I can only dream of being able to dance like that. With a challenge put in front of the new BBC Director General to return Arts to public broadcasting and with an arts TV channel such as BBC4 and with Sky Arts already offering ballet, I would like to see this company and companies such as the Scottish Ballet, feature more, especially as they are so theatrical and also would love to see on the big screen, although my hope is that Hollywood do not discover David Nixon and lure him away as he is such a major asset to ballet in this country, even though not a native of the UK, although one of his Premier Dancers, Kenneth Tindall, is commencing an exciting career in choreography. I will now wait with anticipation to see what the next work will be and when they will return.

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