WEST YORKSHIRE PLAYHOUSE, LEEDS
Reviewed by Mark Brown
It takes an audacious and confident choreographer to attempt a ballet based upon George Orwell’s iconic novel 1984. For sure, Orwell’s Oceania, a high-tech dictatorship headed by the seemingly omniscient Big Brother, is replete with memorable images, but there is, as any adapter will tell you, many a slip betwixt page and stage.
I’m pleased to report, therefore, that Jonathan Watkins, who is both choreographer and director of this new work for Northern Ballet, has created a piece which is clever, consistent and powerful. Assisted by an extremely impressive, new musical score by Alex Baranowski and striking, bold stage and video designs by Simon Daw and Andrzej Goulding, it is a brave new ballet.
The visual world of the novel is evoked brilliantly. Our heroes, Winston Smith and Julia, meet in the cold, blue, regimented society of the Ministry of Truth, where the eyes of Big Brother gaze down constantly from ubiquitous telescreens. They pursue their forbidden love affair in the sanctuary of a rickety secondhand store which sits in a “prole” district that is, by contrast, broken down, but terracotta red.
Filing, like zombies, through the refectory of the Ministry of Truth, Winston and his fellow functionaries of the “Outer Party” are a frightening vision of a suppressed people. There is a playful irony in the work’s use of the strict regimen of classical ballet to create the highly ordered movement of the Ministry’s workforce.
Even more powerful are the intimate duets for Winston and Julia, verboten lovers who are dancing on a metaphorical razor’s edge. Thinking themselves free of the gaze of Big Brother, they give themselves to each other with a genuinely moving passion, which is danced gorgeously by Tobias Batley and Martha Leebolt.
Gone is the stiff angularity of the Ministry. As they discard their Party uniforms, the lovers’ humanity bursts out of them in a beautiful, spontaneous disorder.
There are some minor blemishes in the piece. The soldiers who arrest Winston and Julia would be more sinister if they were not wearing Frank Spencer-style berets.And the rebellion would be more credible if it was not represented so literally, and so repetitively, by images of street protest.
Such weaknesses are peripheral, however, to an ambitious, compelling and, ultimately, moving new ballet.
At West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds until September 12, then touring until May 28, 2016. For tour information, visit: northernballet.com
This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on September 6, 2015
© Mark Brown