Europe’s Best Dance Company, Northern Ballet, made the bold choice to ask young but noted choreographer, Jonathan Watkins to choreograph a ballet and Watkins made the daring choice of George Orwell’s celebrated but what most would assume as undanceable, 1984. Concepts such as ‘Big Brother, ‘Room 101, ‘Newspeak’, ‘Thought Police’, ‘Ministry of Truth’ etc., have permeated into popular society especially with technology, such as social media and mass media catching up with Orwell’s literary imagination to make such a society a distinct possibility but would a ballet using the choreographic language that was established in pre-Revolutionary France that uses the body only to convey its’ message. This choreographic language has accommodated vast change throughout its’ history but would ballet be able to sustain and convey such drudgery as twenty-four hour monitoring, leading to a people that no longer think and act for themselves. 1984 was written post- World Wars and in a climate of fear, in the wake of Fascism and paranoia with the rise of Communism. There have been a lot of works of classical literature being adapted recently that are thought to be pretty much undanceable and the Northern Ballet have a long history of adapting great works of literature such as Wuthering Heights and Great Gatsby and Jonathan Watkins received very high acclaim for his adaptation of another great Northern novel, Kes. What struck me, whilst watching the dancers performing their prescribed tasks and movements, that, in many ways, ballet is the perfect medium with its rigid perfection of a corps de ballet, moving at the same time and in the same prescribed way but this time with a blankness behind the eyes. I got the distinct feeling that what I was watching felt like theatre done through the medium of ballet. The first cast for this World Premiere is one of ballet’s most dramatic pairings around at the moment, Tobias Batley and Martha Leebolt. To an add an extra frisson to this exciting story of bringing a new ballet to the stage, choreographer and Principal Dancer went to the Royal Ballet School together, having both attended the Royal Ballet School, which must have further enhanced the collaborative process and where where fascination with the literary work began.
The Northern Ballet have been receiving some very prestigious and deserved accolades, awarded Europe’s Best Ballet Company at the Taglioni Awards, a few years after being under threat of extinction, the company is now blossoming with a new building, acquiring exciting new dancers and doing more touring than ever. The Northern Ballet excel as a company outside of the glamorous environs of London which can mean tighter budgets but maybe a less hot-house atmosphere leads to artistic freedoms that cannot thrive in a packed arena. The Northern Ballet is renowned for passionate interpretations of the ballet narrative and produce works based on the theatrical end art-form as they used to be names, Northern Ballet Theatre. The company threw themselves into this work with all the strength of feeling (or devoid of feeling that the work encapsulates). This is what makes ballet great, the regimentation of class that builds great technique to build a solid foundation with the corps and then layer on top, freedom of expression as ballet is an art-form, first and foremost. The greatest dancers are able to interpret the story to captivate and engross and can interpret music to another level so that they inhabit their own beautiful timing that takes your breath away, here we have two of the finest dramatic interpreters in Tobias Batley and Martha Leebolt. Graciousness permeates from every movement but for the grim other-worldliness of they can unleash this in a spectacular pas-de-deux or contain it when being furtive around the other workers of the ‘Outer Party’, they are naïve and also incredibly brave. Tobias and Martha are two of the country’s finest exponents of ballet theatre and their leading partnership has been getting hotter and hotter over the last few years, we see moments of this and Tobias Batley carries this doom-heavy work on his shoulders with a beautiful pas-de-deux with his gracious partner at the middle, before further descent into gloom and destruction.
The setting for this ballet, the West Yorkshire Playhouse, matched the atmosphere of the piece, more than a gilt and velvet grand theatre would and it was a thrill to see every sinew and muscle of the dancer’s body, up close. When the massed dancers were throwing out hate, the audience were, in some way, complicit, and in the worst light, audiences could be construed as a benign Big Brother, voyeuristically watching in the dark, whilst dancers strain to create beauty for our pleasure. ‘Big Brother’ watches from video screens at the back of the stage, the rest of the set is sparse and the costumes are drab, almost war-like, uniforms of blue. There are stifled flashes of brilliance from other dancers and I, for one, would have liked to have seen some more dancing from them but then with ballet theatre this is often the compromise. Kevin Poeung, for one, gives a ‘boutique’ solo that is enough to witness beautiful dancing and feel the heartbreak of not being able to witness such a talent in full flow. The poignant parallel would be if, in the 21st century, government and funding exerted too much power over art that it became suppressed and robotic and without freedom. Tobias Batley plays the everyman, Winston Smith, a member of the Outer Party, a worker whose job it is to erase history and destroying any written accounts that have a personal view contrary to Big Brother’s. Winston is tantalised as he has made steps to subvert this careful order set by Big Brother by venturing into the Proles district and being lured into purchasing a diary. To our modern world where we unburden our feelings all the time, the purchase of book with blank pages is so innocuous not to be noted but in a world where thoughts can lead to open rebellion and the total loss of power, this is a serious misadventure.
The Proles are those whose lives are seen as too insignificant not even to warrant monitoring and live somewhat drab lives but their movements have more freedom and maybe significantly, do not dance in pointe shoes, as Victoria Sibson shadows Tobias Batley by always dancing in the background. Her dancing is rather enigmatic, only being able to hazard a guess as to its purpose but nonetheless, it is striking in the red, earthy colours of the Proles. Winston rejoins his fellow workers but to partake in the obligatory, daily minutes of hate, he is out of step with his fellow workers of corps dancers and cannot get back in step again, which is a very intelligent use of the ballet form as one of the greatest sins that a corps can make, is not be perfectly in sync. Not only has something been awakened in Winston by the frisson of his rebellion but also something more than picking up the contraband diary but his soul has been awakened by the sight of Julia, a fellow worker who also has forays into the Proles district and wears a red ribbon with her drab blue uniform. An element to Winston being out of step, is that he is looking for Julia, he probably isn’t aware of what she has awakened and whether it is a soul or love, that is the beauty of the work, as it is up to the interpretation. Winston and Julia subvert further laws by passing a note between themselves and it is not long before they are meeting under what looks like a tree that has been long neglected and given up its fight for survival in this blank world, they are in front of a cold blue background but at least it is not metal or concrete which dominates the Ministry of Truth. Winston and Julia are quickly overcome by passion stripping off their uniforms to costumes that underline their vulnerability for what was a very memorable pas-de-deux. This pas-de-deux is executed with all the trust that a long-established partnership gives and this was fully necessary as the choreographer gave us dancing that was both tender, very seductive and a real feast for the eyes and these dancers were more than equal to it. I really didn’t want the first act to end and I found it difficult to get back into the darkness of the piece after he bright lights of the atrium.
Act II took us on a downward trajectory and there is little to fill anyone with hope. Orwell had lived through extreme times, Europe was recovering from the most violent period in history and Communism was on the march, he was also very ill, so the work reflects this bleak set of circumstances. Not just that but this work of fiction has seen it become more and more real and pertinent in our own modern times It is brave that the Northern Ballet are not only pushing the boundaries of what is possible in Ballet Theatre but giving us a work that has also a lot to say about out society, at large. The piece is not set in a defined period, there are no computers or mobile technology but there is a dominating screen that flashes the eyes of Big Brother which either you will love and think it adds to the ballet or hate for its intrusion and diminish the presence of the artists on the stage. The screen and graphics are by the same company that provide them for X-Factor. Maybe some of the subtleties are lost and characterisation becomes glowing eyes on a screen or the villainous O’Brien, played by a suitably menacing, Javier Torres was maybe a little underused or sketched out in one-dimensional only, we don’t know his rise to position and how it’s warped his soul or even hinted at the insecurities that usually lead someone to treat human life as so insignificant that they become a torturer. The final scenes of the crushing of the human spirit are danced with great aplomb and there is no cheesiness about the very unpleasant scenes of torture, mental and physical, designed to break down any rebellious spirit by playing on Winston’s greatest fears.
Ballet has in previous years been accused of being overly reliant on big classics such as Swan Lake and perhaps it has but with choreographers now producing works that are not just great works of theatre but can have great relevance and provoke thoughts about our own world. There are clear inferences of Nazism and Communism, totalitarian regimes that depended on paranoia, brutality and most importantly, conformity. Don’t forget that although many of the terms in 1984 have found their way, tellingly, into modern parlance, Room 101, Big Brother, even describing, for instance, the over use of surveillance or political ‘doublespeak’ as Orwellian, this book was written in a pre-CCTV, internet, social media age Orwell was prophetic in seeing that latent or overt oppression would not end with the end of World War II but would advance. It is only when it is too late that Winston and Julia realise that they have been caught in a rat-trap and the secret eyes of Big Brother are startling discovered, it is too late for them to escape.
Ballet often ends in tragedy but there is usually some sort of sacrificial redemption in it, to uplift the audience, a glimmer of hope. In a world that increasingly is questioning the value of Arts and freedom to have views contrary to that of the mass media and social media, seems to be in decline, Arts budgets are decided on the size of the audience or how much hashtag activity they generate. 1984 is a cautionary tale to not snuff out consciousness and free expression, to not take history as written without searching out several sources and your make up your own mind. It is a miracle that a lot of these concepts can be conveyed via the medium of dance and why I love dance so much, stories are told purely via the body and through human dedication alone, there is no device or apparatus, just human empowerment and the highest level of training. The pas-de-deux in Act I stunning and brave and emotional, sometimes it is the simplest gesture just like the leg of a lover desperately reaching out for another human being, that is the most memorable. This is a thinking ballet, probably more than an emotional ballet, the further distance I have had from this ballet, the further I have appreciated it. Northern Ballet artistic output is high for a company of their resources, producing full-length ballets on a regular basis, with Artistic Director, David Nixon and a loyal group of dancers who have been together as an artistic team for several years but with the much-needed injection of cash, they have added up and coming talents like Archie Sullivan, winner of the Ballet section of BBC’s Young Dancer of the Year (and what a lot of people think should have been overall winner). As long as Northern Ballet give us this range of ballets, the announcement has been made that they are returning Yorkshire and the Brontes for Jane Eyre and I’m still waiting for David Nixon to choreograph Pride and Prejudice, that keep us on the edge and excited and doing something different from other companies in the UK and around Europe, they will remain an incredibly exciting company. With young choreographers like Jonathan Watkins and the company’s own retired dancer, Kenneth Tindall making a name for themselves, Northern Ballet will deservedly own the accolade of Europe’s Best Dance Company.
For more enlightening photographs about this production from Martha Leebolt, see her Vogue article: http://www.vogue.co.uk/arts-and-lifestyle/2015/08/1984-northern-ballet-ballerina-martha-leebolt-profile