Northern Ballet in 1984

Charlotte Kasner is at Sadler’s Wells, London
May 24, 2016

Literature and ballet are not always a comfortable mix but of all our ballet companies, Northern Ballet are the most likely to pull it off. With the best of adaptations – Northern’s Great Gatsby for instance – the essential elements of the book are distilled. Indeed, some things worked much better: the raw emotions demonstrated directly and the relentlessly flashing light at the end of the dock, instantly and insistently visible.

Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four presents its own special problems. So much of the novel is concentrated on thoughts and the way that language is manipulated, neither of which translates easily into movement. The dancers in Jonathan Watkins’ ballet are helped greatly by Simon Daw’s terrific set and Andrzej Goulding’s video design. Pylons sprouting satellite dishes and yet more video cameras surround the stage and tower over the dancers while the main screen flashes alternate images of Big Brother’s slowly blinking eyes and the ever-changing visage of this week’s state enemy. There is a definite 1930s feel to the video, alternately clear and pixelated, the enemy face morphing nationalities but always in bilious yellow, reminding us of Kaiser Wilhelm’s ‘Yellow Peril’. “HATE, HATE, HATE” it beams to rouse the citizens and sublimate their rebellion into fear of the ‘other’.

Tobias Batley as Winston and Martha Leebolt as Julia in 1984Photo Emma Kauldhar
Tobias Batley as Winston and Martha Leebolt as Julia in 1984
Photo Emma Kauldhar

Of course there are doubters, not least Winston Smith and Julia. This is where the production falls down. In the book, Winston is described by Orwell as a poor specimen of humanity, scrawny, unfit and unhealthy. He is typical of the run-down men that scraped through the First World War and the great depression – and may even be something of a self-portrait by the dying Orwell. Tobias Batley is nothing like that. He never seems part of the world which he inhabits, however reluctantly. It doesn’t help that he seems to stand a head taller than Javier Torres’ O’Brien – and most of the other men. He is athletic and restless and Watkins has chosen choreography for him that makes him resemble a deer trapped behind a high hedge. Martha Leebolt’s Julia is rather more successful although the pivotal passing of the love note that triggers the relationship is obscure. She is a strong character but has no chance to suggest the more dominant Julia of the novel where she perhaps resembles Orwell’s wistful idea of a perfect woman.

Winston and Julia’s pas de deux are beautifully danced but over-long. Limbs shoot out in long lines almost as if they need to escape the central corpus as much as the protagonists wish to escape the state. Alex Baranowski’s score underpins the dance in an interesting way, making use of surprisingly bucolic themes for oboe and cello that contrast with the surroundings. There is much use of cor anglais and bass clarinet too.

Tobias Batley as Winston Smith and Martha Leebolt as Julia in 1984Photo Lauren Godfrey
Tobias Batley as Winston Smith and Martha Leebolt as Julia in 1984
Photo Lauren Godfrey

1984 is at its most successful in the ensemble scenes where the repetitive jerking ports de bras and motif of échappés recall Chaplin’s Modern Times. Allegiance to Big Brother is signalled by the dancers making a triangular shape with their arms which is echoed on the screens. The screens provide a clever device for explaining the censorship and re-writing of history that epitomised Britain in the 1940s for Orwell.

The proles are depicted in dark red as opposed to the blue of the workers. Winston keeps his vision of the ‘free’ prole girl alive as the betrayal begins to make his world crumble around him and she dances out of his reach. Julia is arrested in her bright pink dress as the pair are reading the subversive book of the opposition. Winston is strapped to a chair, recalling the ending of Terry Gilliam’s tribute to the novel, Brazil. However, whereas Sam’s torture and end in Brazil are devastating, Winston just grinds on to his inevitable downfall, no real emotional connection having been established. Even the rats are downplayed as Winston heads towards his final betrayal in Room 101, except of course, he cannot utter the words “Do it to Julia.”

It is only from knowing the original text that much of the action makes sense. Act Two is better than Act One in that it has more action and energy. On the whole however, 1984 mostly misses the mark.