Showing posts with label 1984. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 1984. Show all posts

Saturday, August 29, 2015

1984: a love story

The other day I was talking to Northern Ballet's lead dancer Toby Batley about his new role as Winston in Jonathan Watkins's new ballet adaptation of 1984 and what shocked me was that he said people had kept asking him in anxiety if it wasn't going to be all dark and depressing.

1984? Of course it's bloody dark, I thought, and why ever not? What's wrong with dancing the dark? How has ballet reached a point at which if it's not all tutus and glitter and fairy-tales, people are anxious?

Anyway, dancer, choreographer and composer all told me that actually it's not too dark for ballet. It's a love story. A dark love story. So is Romeo and Juliet.

I've written a feature for The Independent on the new piece and it's in today's edition.

1984 opens in Leeds next week. See it!

If you go to a ballet that tells a story, chances are that you will see a fairy tale, a pastoral idyll, or one of an apparently endless stream of different Alice in Wonderlands. Dance does offer meatier dramas – Romeo and Juliet, Manon or Mayerling, for instance – but there is undoubtedly room for more, and especially for work that tackles gritty contemporary classics. 

At Northern Ballet a quiet revolution has been taking place in the past decade or so as the company – now 45 years old – has created a fount of new narrative works, most choreographed by its artistic director, David Nixon. Among these are Wuthering Heights, Cleopatra and The Great Gatsby. But next comes a very different production: a new adaptation by the choreographer Jonathan Watkins of George Orwell’s novel 1984

Tobias Batley as Winston. Photo: Guy Farrow
It portrays, famously, a dystopian society dominated by Big Brother’s surveillance, subjugating the individual mind and experiential truths to Party lines perforce. The hero, Winston, enters into a rapturous love affair with his co-worker Julia, only to find himself trapped for betraying the system; under torture his will is broken. Though the book’s concepts are household names – thought crime, Big Brother, Room 101 – it might seem a tough story to express in movement alone; and more disturbing is the idea that some might consider it too dark for dance. Has the medium been primarily associated with escapism for too long?

Tobias Batley, who dances Winston, partnering Martha Leebolt as Julia, insists that 1984 is not all gloom. “Many people have voiced their worry that it’ll be a dark and depressing ballet,” he reflects, “but it depends what you take away from it. We’re focusing strongly on the central love story. When I read the book for the first time, years ago, that was the most important part for me. 

“There’s something incredible about this secret love between Winston and Julia,” he adds, “but it has so much power behind it because it’s uplifted by the contrast with all the darkness outside. Of course it ends tragically – but Romeo and Juliet is also terrible at the end. The saddest thing is that Winston and Julia are at the absolute height of this love, feeling it’s perfect and they’re safe, and then the floor just drops out from under them. It’s heart-wrenching when you realise that they have been watched all along. It’s a very touching role to play.”

Watkins himself first told Batley about 1984 when they were both teenagers at the Royal Ballet School: for this young Barnsley-born choreographer, the novel has been a long-standing obsession. “I wasn’t a great reader when I was young,” Watkins says, “but I was somehow drawn to this book and I remember reading it on the train on my way back from Yorkshire to White Lodge [the Royal Ballet’s junior school in Richmond Park] of my own accord. It inspired my earlier work in a wider sense. This idea of realising it in a narrative ballet has been bubbling away and I knew I was going to be doing it sometime.” 

Tobias Batley and Martha Leebolt as Winston and Julia. Photo: Guy Farrow
Then came the perfect opportunity: an approach from Northern Ballet, which encountered Watkins’s dance version of Kes (based on Barry Hines’ novel A Kestrel for a Knave) when it was staged last year at the Sheffield Crucible. “I thought 1984 would be a really good fit for them because of their dancer-actor capabilities,” says Watkins. “They’re an amazing group of artists and they’re very committed to it.” For the company’s 45th birthday gala earlier this year, he also created “a much more light-hearted piece, based on some Stanley Holloway monologues – a really quirky celebration of the north.”

“I feel that narrative dance can appeal in a much more reflective, modern way, with resonance for the times in which we’re living,” Watkins says. “That’s why I wanted to use 1984. And in the book there is that mass control of groups of people by the Party, that military uniformity of a group – what better way to show that than in dance? For me there’s lots of scope in that balletic platform.” The single most difficult thing, he remarks, was deciding which elements of the book to leave out.

“It’s nowhere near ‘too dark’,” he comments. “I don’t understand why we can’t approach a ballet like a newly written play. Why can’t it be relevant to our times now? It’s great to have escapism, but it’s also great to see something that we can reflect on. As for the times we’re living in, everyone knows there’s surveillance up to the hilt, so it feels like the concepts it touches on already can relate to your life now. That makes sense to me as an artist and a creative, regardless of whether it’s dark. Life is dark.”

Watkins began his career with the Royal Ballet in London, but left two years ago for freelance pastures new. His work draws on a cocktail of influences, mingling his first-rate ballet training with the impact of film and theatre. On his website you can watch several short dance films that he made a few years ago for Channel 4, bringing the language of ballet right into the here and now. One, entitled Sofa, portrays a dance epiphany for a beer-bellied bloke during a solitary night in; another visualises the interior world of a young man listening to music while waiting for a bus. His Kes (“Everyone in Barnsley knows the Ken Loach film,” he remarks) made a powerful impact, not least for the sheer audacity of the idea. 

Through his passion for spoken drama Watkins got to know the composer Alex Baranowski, who was working on a range of productions at the National Theatre, as well as writing music for films such as Hamlet, starring Maxine Peak, and the BAFTA-nominated McCullin. The pair have collaborated on several projects, including Sofa amd Kes; for 1984 Baranowski has created a new 100-minute score. 

He and Watkins worked intensively together on the scenario, he says, batting musical and dance ideas back and forth by email and in coffee shops for a good year. “Musically we were very conscious of not being big and down and dark, especially with the cells before Room 101,” says Baranowski. “There’s a relatively long scene with the prisoners who’ve been accused of thought crimes and so on, whom Winston meets. We chose to be quite minimalist, using textures of sounds and noises – rather than, for instance, relentless minor chords and big drums. We rewrote each scene about three times, trying to figure out the best way to tell the story. Sometimes Jonathan would send me a video of the movements he was working on and it’s amazing to find that when I’ve put in a little beat or a drum or a clarinet flourish, he’ll work that into the movements. It’s wonderful to work with a live orchestra and I’m using it for all it’s worth, with all its different noises and textures.” 

And so a new generation of choreographers and composers like Watkins and Baranowski may now reinvent narrative dance for the 21st century, unafraid to engage with the grittiest and darkest of dramas. Bring it on.

1984 opens at the West Yorkshire Playhouse on 5 September, then tours. For full details and booking, visit

Monday, March 12, 2007

Speaking of new music...

In the light of the Gant/Wordsworth debacle, here's another take on attitudes to new work of debated quality.

In today's Independent, I have an interview with Simon Keenlyside, who is singing Prospero in the revival at Covent Garden of Ades's smash-hit opera The Tempest, which opens tonight. I believe he's one of today's most fascinating baritones, a man with a brain as astute and analytical as any scientist, maybe more so than some.

Some of you may remember that Keenlyside took the leading role in Lorin Maazel's 1984 at Covent Garden a couple of years ago. Now, that opera must have been among the most critically reviled creations to hit the London scene this decade, partly because Maazel was known to be funding its staging himself, partly perhaps because some people knew something that others of us didn't until we heard it. I was willing to give it a chance, but Tom and I were both so disappointed with the music that we voted with our feet at the interval. But the production team and the cast nevertheless gave that opera everything they had. The standards were world-class in every respect. One audience member has since assured me that it was the best evening he'd ever spent in the theatre.

I asked Simon Keenlyside about 1984 in the interview, but in the end decided not to include the topic in this article, since space is limited and of course we were focusing on The Tempest which is a very different kettle of Calibans. His answer was still very interesting. I don't generally include what you could call out-takes of interviews here in blogland, but under the circumstances, I will - because he found countless positive things to draw out of the experience. Here is a slightly edited transcript:

JD: I saw you in 1984 and thought you were magnificent, but I must admit I had some problems with the piece.

SK: My job, if I accept the job, is – what’s that expression? Put up or shut up... If you’re booked to do a job, why would you want to pull the carpet out from under your own feet? If you’re on a stage, you’ve got to commit yourself 100%. And I’m not going to comment on the music, you wouldn’t expect me to of course, but I once read an old soldier saying that he always went to a man’s weaknesses through his strengths, so I’ll go as far as the strengths. I thought it was a good evening in the theatre. Whatever you think about the piece, I found a lot of worth in it and found it very enjoyable to do. Also I had Robert Lepage to deal with, which was an absolute privilege. Maazel is a brilliant man – just to be under his baton is a privilege. I’ve never seen anyone with such control, such ability to run a recipe like that and still have room in his head to talk to you. It’s great... Besides, people pay a lot of money for those tickets, and how can I argue my corner about opera, about music, if I think 'These people have paid a lot of money, they‘re in an uncertain state and we’re not committed to it?' I think most people are committed on stage, even if you didn’t like it. All of us have to take part in productions we can’t bear, we have no control but we’ve still got to give it our all...

UPDATE, 5.55pm: Over at On An Overgrown Path, Pliable casts some extremely interesting light on the background to the Gant/Wordsworth story. It seems that the political leanings and writings of the work's commissioner, R Atkinson frere, may be not irrelevant and will be highly uncomfortable, not to say repugnant, to much of the British arts community. Pliable applauds Wordsworth's decision. He may be right.