Review: Northern Ballet - The Great Gatsby - Sadler's Wells

Performance: 14 - 18 May 2013
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Tuesday 21 May 2013

Northern Ballet dancers Tobias Batley (Jay Gatsby) and Martha Leebolt (Daisy Buchanan) in David Nixon's 'The Great Gatsby'. Photo Bill Cooper.

Performance reviewed: 15 May 2013

With the impeccable timing that eludes almost every major character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, Northern Ballet’s production of The Great Gatsby concludes its UK tour at Sadler’s Wells just as Baz Luhrmann’s 3D movie goes on general release.  Indeed, this London premiere of the ballet occurred on the same night that the film opened the Cannes Film Festival.  

Fitzgerald’s novel had a slow start to literary life, selling poorly in the year of its publication (1925) and only becoming a classic after the author’s death in 1940. But that initial slow burn popularity accelerated to make the novel an essential icon of America in the roaring twenties and Gatsby’s enduring popularity, boosted by the publicity for Luhrmann’s film, ensured sell-out audiences for this London run.

Northern Ballet’s Artistic Director, David Nixon, is easily the most prolific choreographer of narrative ballets at work in Britain today (if not the world).  The number of his original full-length ballets extends well into double figures and he has a penchant for taking big stories from literature and interpreting them in movement (Wuthering Heights, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Dracula and Hamlet are all in his back catalogue).
In terms of the complexity of human relationships and the subtle symbolism in Fitzgerald’s writing, The Great Gatsby offers a serious challenge to the choreographer.  And praise is due to Nixon for expertly presenting an accurate sketch of the novel with a clarity that enabled those of us having only a passing acquaintance with the book to keep up, whilst not offending the aficionados for whom it is The Great American Story. It’s a fine balance to achieve and Nixon and his team have done it well.  I went with someone who has loved the novel since school and revisited it many times as an adult.  In my experience this is often a platform from which to find faults, but not so with my friend, who followed every second avidly and with an expert understanding.  The unfortunate counterpart would be someone without any prior knowledge of the plot, in which case investing in a programme and cramming in the detail of the lengthy synopsis would be an essential pre-requisite. 

The downside of this authenticity is that the story had to unfold at a breakneck pace, which made the detailed building of character (even for the principals) a tough ask.  There are two marriages blighted by adultery, two other love affairs, sundry other interlaced friendships, all overlaying the central theme of Gatsby’s lost love for Daisy Buchanan.  The broader context of events taking place in the long hot summer of 1922 – full of flamboyant parties and idyllic, hazy days – is a little lost in translation although some key symbols are well defined, such as the green light on the opposite side of the bay that beguiles Gatsby as a beacon for his beloved Daisy, who lives across the water.   Sinister men in greatcoats hang around the periphery and hint at Gatsby’s wealth coming from ill-gotten gains (although I was confused when one mobster beats up a party guest, since I couldn’t place the relevance to the text). 

Jerôme Kaplan’s set designs capture the mood with a delicate touch and the coalescence of Sir Richard Rodney Bennett’s music seems more bespoke composition than patchwork compilation.  Whether excised from film scores (extracts come from Nicholas and Alexandra, Murder on the Orient Express and Lady Caroline Lamb), his symphonic work or popular songs, it all works as if intended for these purposes.  The composer was consulted on the musical choices but sadly died (on Christmas Eve, last year) before seeing the final outcome.  It seems to me to be an appropriately elegant elegy.  The ballet’s epilogue to the gorgeously haunting song “I Never Went Away” presents an especially emotional conclusion. 

The ensemble gave an appealing portrayal of the roaring twenties, injecting the core discipline of classical ballet with tastes of the dance crazes that flavoured the flapper age (from Charleston to Tango) although it was far tougher for them to fill their characterisations with any great depth.  This was hardest of all for Tobias Batley in the title role and Martha Leebolt as Daisy although their mutual chemistry sparked in the delicious pas de deux that closed the first Act (to the Lullaby from Rodney Bennett’s Partita: 2). Some of the other main characters remained relatively anonymous and the strongest dramatic performances were those of Victoria Sibson (as Myrtle Wilson) and Benjamin Mitchell (as her cuckolded husband, George).  Their gymnastic version of a bedroom pas de deux was a passionate highlight of the choreography.    

The production never gets beyond a superficial evocation of the story’s extremes, either in the roaring flamboyance of extravagant parties or the seedy undercurrent of crime and adultery.  But, just as Kaplan’s sets give an uncomplicated flavour of the age, so we might say that the ballet as a whole presents a headline summary of a great novel, which nonetheless provides an enjoyable evening’s entertainment.   

Graham Watts writes for, Dance Tabs, Dancing Times 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.

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