Manchester’s Palace theatre welcomes Jonathan Watkins’s interpretation of literary classic 1984 with the Northern Ballet
This review needs an important preface: I know nothing about ballet. However, I actually think a position of ignorance is useful when appraising this particular show.
For starters, I’m sure countless other, more distinguished publications have plenty to say about how technically accurate the dancers’ pirouettes were, though it surely goes without saying that in any Northern Ballet production the standard of dancing is high. You don’t get dubbed Europe’s best dance company for nothing. More importantly, if there’s one title that could draw philistines like myself into trying out ballet, it’s this one.
It wouldn’t be an understatement to call 1984 one of the most culturally significant books of all time. Not only has it worked its way into pop culture and the common lexicon, having invented the terms ‘big brother’ and ‘room 101’, but Orwell’s astonishingly detailed world of ultimate state control has come to resemble ours in a frightening number of ways; from government programs allowing constant surveillance, to the destruction of language by the LOL. This marriage between a work of seemingly permanent relevance and a performance type which is stereotypically old fashioned and inaccessible has the makings of either a cross cultural extravaganza or poorly judged hash of a literary great.
One aspect of the book which ballet arguably manages to capture better than many other visual mediums is the love story between Winston and Julia. Theirs is not a relationship that builds through communication: such activity is strictly banned by the party and, conveniently, banned by customs of ballet. They’re drawn to each other by those ineffable, inexorable forces that make your stomach lurch when you look at someone; love at first sight if you will.
There’s a beautiful moment when Winston first sees her whilst performing the daily hate. The frenzied crowd begin to move in slow motion and the two break out and dance together with fluidity and grace. These moments of freedom juxtapose the rigid, unified movements performed when engaging in party activity.
However, it seems that director Jonathan Watkins was also aware that this love story provided the most lucrative muse for choreography and rather over-emphasised it. It’s true that Winston and Julia’s relationship is mostly sexual; it’s in this way that they rebel against the party, but never have sex scenes taken up so much run time in an adaptation of 1984.
Criticising this aspect is problematic though, as these scenes were some of the best in the show and provided welcome relief from the constant repetition of movements that were performed under the watchful eye of big brother.
Herein lies the main problem with the production: the aspect of the book which can best be represented through ballet is the plot and that is arguably its least interesting aspect. Winston’s day to day activities are dull and repetitive and many of the scenes convey this all too well. At the same time details that we’re supposed to see through Winston’s eyes, such as the construction of newspeak and the children who are conditioned to report their parents to the authorities, are totally unrepresented. On reflection, I’m not sure they could have been.
As well as and perhaps because of this, for an art form which encompasses pure expression, it never made me feel the way I did when I first read the book. Perhaps it’s this constant outsider’s perspective, or the fact that the cast exude being in control rather than being controlled, but I was not left feeling the same claustrophobia and paranoia the novel conveys.
So, extravaganza or hash? It probably falls somewhere in between. There are great moments: the first time the ensemble dances in front of the stark brightness of LED screens is visually spectacular and the climax involving Winston’s ordeal in room 101 is interestingly choreographed and genuinely tense. These moments may be enough to draw in many a newcomer but, overall, 1984 provides an insufficient plot for a consistently entertaining ballet whilst ballet itself (at least this one) seems incapable of capturing the essence of the novel.