Milton Keynes Theatre
May 24, 2022
Northern Ballet’s The Great Gatsby really does look a picture. Jérôme Kaplan’s set designs are simple yet evoke brilliantly the Long Island seashore and the sumptuous mansions of the rich, while a few flats do sterling duty as New York City high-rises. Best of all, is the gas station, straight out of an Edward Hopper painting. And then there are choreographer David Nixon’s costumes: lots of sharp suits, and gorgeous period delicate, floaty dresses.
The music too, is an absolute delight. The patchwork of extracts from Sir Richard Rodney Bennett scores, neatly interwoven by John Longstaff and Gavin Sutherland, gives the ballet a real cinematic feel. While on the music, how great for once to see a proper music index in the programme, listing where each piece came from. Throw in some excellent choreography and dancing, especially in the big party scenes, and it’s easy to see why David Nixon’s 2013 ballet has proved such a hit.
There is, of course, a ‘but’, and it comes in the complicated relationships found in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age novel. Usually coming in at just under 200 pages, The Great Gatsby is a relatively short book. Even so, it packs a lot in. Translating it all clearly to less than two hours of dance is always going to be a problem. Nixon does get a handle of much of it, but unless you are familiar with the story, reading the lengthy synopsis first is definitely a good idea. Act II in particular seems to race along at speed.
While the book certainly highlights the glitz and the lavish lifestyle of the wealthy of the time, the storyline is also ridden with deep and complex emotions, and has a dark underbelly. They are there in the ballet, they just don’t come to the surface as strongly as they might.
Like the novel, Nixon tells the story from the perspective of Nick Carraway, who moves in next door to Gatsby’s mansion, danced elegantly by the light on his feet Sean Bates.
Joseph Taylor is a fine-looking Gatsby, who certainly conveys the idea that there’s an awful lot about the character that is hidden to all. We are left in no doubt that his aggressive side is not far below the surface, and that involvement with the mob is key to his wealth, however. But for all the mystery and his fine dancing, he’s not someone I found myself caring much about him one way or the other. His choreography doesn’t help, although it could also be something to do with the character’s aloofness. The simple, still, figure of him standing alone with his thoughts on the dock actually speaks more about him than almost anything.
Nixon cleverly uses ghost characters to show us Gatsby’s constant thinking of the past, of the now Daisy Buchannan, and what might have been, although it is somewhat overdone. Abigail Prudames is charming as she shows us the delicateness and fragility of Gatsby’s former love. The issue again is depth. Whenever they appear together, scenes also tend to be stolen by Heather Lehan as Daisy’s best friend and champion golfer Jordan Baker. Every movement, every line, every turn of the head oozes elegance; and the golf swing is not bad too!
Away from the ensemble scenes, the best moments, certainly the most expressive choreography belongs to George and Myrtle Wilson, brilliantly played by Riku Ito and Minju Kang. Love and longing are there for all to see. And who would have thought a dance with a tyre could say so much. It does in the hands of the light and lithe Ito, achingly desiring his loved one. And yet Myrtle is desperately lonely at heart, as Kang shows us.
The ensemble are uniformly excellent and they need to be. Set in the roaring ’20s, Nixon’s big numbers appropriately roar with energy. An ensemble dance for the men to what many will recognise as the theme music from the Sidney Lumet’s 1974 film of Murder on the Orient Express is a particular highlight. The jazzy choreography for the party towards the end of Act I is as extravagant as Gatsby’s lifestyle.
It does sometimes feel a bit too polite, and it doesn’t always get to the heart of the characters. It may be undemanding, except for keeping up with that storyline. But Northern Ballet’s The Great Gatsby is a good night out: excellent dancing, superbly listenable to music, and it really does look a treat.
The Great Gatsby continues at Milton Keynes Theatre to May 28, 2022; and is then at the New Theatre, Cardiff from June 7-11. Visit northernballet.com for details and booking links.