1984

George Orwell, choreography by Jonathan Watkins, music by Alex Baranowski
Northern Ballet
The Lyceum, Sheffield

Tobias Batley as Winston and Martha Leebolt as Julia Credit: Emma Kauldhar

This stunning dance version of Orwell’s iconic novel is a synthesis of the arts. Jonathan Watkins’s adaptation of the original provides a clear narrative structure, while offering opportunities for contrasting dance sequences by the principals and corps de ballet.

In Orwell’s dystopian view, society is controlled by the elite of the Party, headed by Big Brother, who expect unquestioning conformity from workers brainwashed during Hate sessions against the Party’s current enemy and brutally punished by the Thought Police if they step out of line. The Proles, who live on the outer fringes of society, are not worth saving.

The corps de ballet shows the workers engaged in monotonous, repetitive tasks (constrained, abrupt, mechanical) or in the feverish anger of the Hate sessions, all fists and open-mouthed, silent shouting. Even their pairing has an undertow of violence.

The group re-forms to present the Proles, whose weakness and lack of assurance is demonstrated through softer, non-angular movement and a tendency to support one another when threatened.

Alex Baranowski’s rhythmic, often raucous, richly textured and percussive score provides distinctive "musical forms, melodies and rhythms" for the different groups and individuals involved.

The music and choreography of the love sequences allow the lovers, Winston and Julia, to melt into each other, in contrast to the controlled separateness of the workers.

As Winston, Tobias Batley has the open-eyed, slightly startled look of a Harold Lloyd or a Buster Keaton, as if the world in which he finds himself is beyond his comprehension. He is vigorous and masterful in the work sequences and sensitive, lyrical and passionate in the love scenes. His eventual decline into a non-person is harrowing.

Martha Leebolt, following her wonderful Cleopatra last year, brings an initial steeliness to Julia. But the character mellows as the relationship with Winston blossoms into love, and the pas de deux between them seem hauntingly effortless, as they leap into one another’s arms and cling together.

Javier Torres as O’Brien, formally dressed in suit and waistcoat, explores the ambiguity of the role and is an unsettling and dominating presence as the action develops. He represents the ruthless and callous efficiency of the Party in the final scene.

Hiranao Takahashi is convincing in his dual role of provider of illicit items coveted by Winston and eventual betrayer and loyal agent of the state.

What is most exciting is the coherence of the production. Watkins’s direction and choreography perfectly complements Baranowski’s music, which is vigorously performed by the orchestra under conductor Nathan Fifield.

The visual aspects of the performance, set, costume design, lighting, sound effects and video sequences create a convincing and frighteningly dystopian setting, but also provide a suitable background for the more lyrical sequences.

When Winston and Julia first make love, it is under two huge intertwined trees, symbols of the natural world so absent from the harsh grind of their daily lives. When they strip off their compulsory uniforms, they become individuals capable of genuine feeling.

Some familiarity with the novel would be helpful before seeing the production, but the programme provides a clear account of the narrative and characters. Anyone whose expectation of ballet is based on traditional performances will find this a thrilling re-interpretation of an iconic text.

Reviewer: Velda Harris