Review: Northern Ballet - 1984 - Sadler's Wells

Performance: 24 - 28 May 2016
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Wednesday 25 May 2016

Northern Ballet - '1984'. Photo: Emma Kauldhar

Performance : 24 May 2016

Jonathan Watkins is one of an especially fine group of young choreographers to have emerged from dancing careers at The Royal Ballet in recent years. Watkins brought the curtain down on his own dance career prematurely, in order to concentrate on his choreographic ambitions: but while others (Liam Scarlett, Alistair Marriott, Ludovic Ondiviela to name but three) have largely stayed close to the Royal Opera House, Watkins’ career trajectory has quickly journeyed from New York and Texas in the west; to Ekaterinburg and Manila in the east. However, Yorkshire is Watkins’ home county and soon after having made Kes for the Sheffield Crucible Theatre and the amusing, bite-sized A Northern Trilogy for Leeds based Northern Ballet – he has returned to that city and company for his first full-length ballet.

The choreographer has been waiting a long time to realise his chilling, bittersweet vision of a Britain transformed into Oceania’s Airstrip One in Orwell’s dystopian, science fiction. At the age of 15 Watkins first read Nineteen Eighty-Four and has been imagining it as dance theatre for much of his adult life. His long-standing passion for articulating the story in dance theatre has translated into a tightly-delivered, exciting ballet that represents the naïve – and doomed – idealism of the novel with considerable style and a clarity that resonates well with the impactful simplicity of Orwell’s prose; an achievement certified by the fulsome support and praise of The Orwell Society, led by the novelist’s son, Richard Blair.

The narrative fluency of the ballet must also be due to the skill of dramaturg Ruth Little. My companion gave testament to the fact that no prior knowledge of the novel, or programme notes, was needed to follow the detailed action of the ballet. The only iconic reference that she missed was the terror induced by hungry rats in the cage fitted to Winston’s face in Room 101 (thankfully, the ballet leaves the starving rodents to be implied rather than seen)!

Watkins is credited as both choreographer and director and – in this latter capacity – he has encouraged a seamless integration of all artistic contributions to build a holistic representation of Orwell’s nightmare vision of a future, seen from the immediate post-war standpoint of 1949. Simon Daw’s costume designs capture the drab blue/grey uniformity of the party’s uniforms, which offset the simple beauty of a polka-dot, pink shift dress, worn surreptitiously by the heroine (Julia); his set designs are slick and ingenious with a warped tower of books and objects to represent the supposed interior exile of Charrington’s junk shop; and momentum is driven by quick-change mobile scenery that is discretely positioned by the performers to ensure smooth and effective transitions between inter-leaved scenes. Chris Davey’s lighting design maximises this effect and Andrzej Goulding’s telescreens and video designs provided both the sinister, ubiquitous presence of Big Brother’s eyes “watching you” and the backstory of Winston Smith’s role in the Ministry of Truth’s department of history revisionism.

The same tight momentum came from the orchestra pit in Alex Baranowski’s bold, bespoke composition for the ballet, providing a rich tapestry of character motifs and memorable melodies. Baranowski provides a controlled, industrial setting for the ‘proles’ in the main ensemble sequences, where the brass section dominates; lyrical string melodies represent the exhilarating jeopardy of independent thought away from the prying telescreens, leading to the accelerating intensity of the burgeoning love affair (and rebellious thought crimes) of Winston and Julia – respectively represented by the cello and clarinet – through their progressive duets.

The woodland pas de deux that closes Act 1 is absorbing, intelligent choreography, beginning with gentle romantic enquiry and building into the erotic lusciousness of full-on, partnering, replete with lightning-fast lift transitions and a torrential flow of moving these two bodies as one. It is an arresting duet from start to finish, juxtaposing acrobatic movement with psychological expressionism and provides a perfect ending to an act in the same emotionally-exhausting manner as the Balcony scene ends the opening act of Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo & Juliet.

Tobias Batley brought depth to the complex role of Winston, superficially phlegmatic and impassive but secretly, internally-exiled from the ever-present Oceania/Big Brother mania; and Martha Leebolt was equally convincing as the duplicitous Julia – a character who publically espouses the mantra of Big Brother as a member of the fanatical anti-sex league but is desperate for sexual fulfilment. Together, Batley and Leebolt brought a persuasive emotional intensity to these key principal roles; their relationship developed from the lustful intensity of the aforementioned act-closing duet to their gentle intimacy in the supposedly secret room of Charrington’s junk shop.

Hirano Takahashi mixed a perfect cocktail of resigned indifference and sleaziness for the treacherous Charrington. The role of the mendacious O’Brien – the Inner party member who poses as a counter-revolutionary to trap Winston and Julia – is perhaps under-sketched but nonetheless, Javier Torres brings a sinister sincerity to the real host of Room 101 (with no offence to Frank Skinner). I also enjoyed Victoria Sibson’s lonely cameo as the ‘prole’ woman Winston observes ‘singing’ outside the junk store. Watkins provides several powerful dances for the party workers and proles – all of which are relevant and well-placed within the overall text – where his challenging demands for complex harmony of movement is excellently achieved by the slick unity of the corps de ballet.

This London premiere of 1984 came hot on the heels of the company’s recent well-received world premiere of Cathy Marston’s Jane Eyre, proving yet again that Northern Ballet continues a tradition of developing a regular, rich production line of narrative ballets that put a heavy emphasis on the values of theatre as well as ballet. Both the company and Jonathan Watkins have scored an outstanding success with 1984.

Continues at Sadler’s Wells until Saturday 28 May

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He is a regular contributor to Dancing Times and also writes for, and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is chairman of the dance section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK and of the National Dance Awards. Twitter: @gwdancewriter

Main photo: Emma Kauldhar

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