|George Orwell, Author of 1984|
Northern Ballet 1984 West Yorkshire Playhouse, 11 Sept 2015
In many ways Jonathan Watkins's 1984 was a howling success. Literally for there were whoops and cheers from the audience as well as lots of clapping. Several individuals rose to their feet. And it was easy to see why for Watkins pressed all the right buttons. Act I ended with just about the most explicit sex scene I have ever seen in ballet. The bedroom scene in Macmillan's Romeo and Juliet is demure in comparison. A lady in the audience described that scene as "erotic" in the question and answer session with Watkins that followed the show and she was right. There were also brilliant visuals with the telescreens and an easy listening score from Alex Baranowski. Not quite sex, drugs and rock and roll but the nearest you can get in classical ballet.
No wonder this ballet has received such positive reviews:
"This is gripping storytelling" according to The Stage
"Northern Ballet's terrific new production" gushes The Guardian
"...an ambitious, compelling and, ultimately, moving new ballet" says The Telegraph.And the tweets on the first night from members of the audience whose opinions I trust were even more generous.
So why aren't I searching my vocabulary for superlatives? I desperately want to do so because I love Northern Ballet and its dancers. Knowing how hard any dancer has to work from my feeble efforts at the barre I feel the deepest gratitude for their just stepping onto stage. I also have warm feelings towards Watkins - particularly after seeing his Northern Trilogy at The Sapphire gala and the mixed programme (see Sapphire 15 March 2015 and Between Friends - Northern Ballet's Mixed Programme 10 May 2015). There was definitely excellence in the choreography and the dancing by Tobias Batley, Martha Leebolt, Javier Torres and the ensemble. I have already commended the designs and score. And yet I left the West Yorkshire Playhouse asking myself "Is this it?"
It is horrible to write such things for I feel disloyal to the art form, company and dancers I love. I felt very much the same after seeing Christopher Wheeldon's The Winter's Tale for the Royal Ballet the first time (see Royal Ballet The Winter's Tale 14 April 2014) but eventually warmed to it after seeing it in the cinema and on TV (see The Winter's Tale - Time to eat my Hat 29 April 2015), I hope the same will happen with 1984 after I see it again in Manchester with the Swiss friend who brought the ballet to my attention (see Für Andrea - more Information on 1984 26 July 2015). Like The Winter's Tale the advance publicity that this ballet has received raised my expectations to impossible heights. I was also spoilt on Tuesday by watching some of the best dancers in the world at the Dutch National Ballet gala in Amsterdam and actually speaking to some of them at the party afterwards.
Another thing that bugged me is that 1984 was launched in the week that remotely controlled unmanned aircraft despatched two British citizens in Syria on the orders of the Prime Minister (see Cardiff jihadist Reyaad Khan, 21, killed by RAF drone 7 Sept 2015). That news followed by reports of surveillance by GCHQ (see GCHQ's surveillance of two human rights groups ruled illegal by tribunal 22 June 2015 Guardian) and the WikiLeaks revelations made me think that Big Brother has actually arrived. We even have telescreens nowadays for every laptop is equipped with a webcam and microphone. Orwell's novel was a satire of the increasingly authoritarian state of the 1940s where such things as targeted drone strikes and data mining were impossible but we are there now so why not update 1984 as a modern satire?
Watkins's ballet had a very retro feel. Indeed I was reminded of Gillian Lynne's re-staging of Helpmann's Miracle in the Gorbals (see A Second Miracle 23 Oct 2014) and Ninette De Valois Job). I asked Watkins whether that was deliberate in the Q and A after the show. He replied that he knew Job but not Miracle in the Gorbals and if he was inspired by anything it was the cinema. He mentioned the Lego Movie several times in the session as well as Ken Loach's Kes which Watkins has also transformed into dance (see Kes on Jonathan Watkins's website).
Setting the ballet in 1948 rather than the present seemed to me to be a missed opportunity; but then who am I to say or even think such things. It was entertaining. As I said, there was excellence in the show. The folk who attended the Q & A took it at face value and really enjoyed it. Don't let my reservations put you off seeing it.