The Great Gatsby
David Nixon’s retelling of The Great Gatsby is probably the finest production I’ve seen put on by Northern Ballet. Originally created in 2013, it is one in a long line of literary adaptations by the company, putting not just their dance technique but also their storytelling abilities to excellent use.
Admittedly, F Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age story isn’t the easiest to follow if you’ve never read the book or seen either of the films. Nixon’s version sensibly dispenses with the mystery surrounding Jay Gatsby’s past and true identity, and clearly communicates from the off that he and Daisy were once in love. Flashback scenes woven into the main narrative show the pair of young lovers together, while present day Gatsby mirrors his younger self’s steps.
Contrasting pas de deux demonstrate the different dynamics between the couples. Tom and his mistress, Myrtle, perform a sexually explicit duet reminiscent of those in Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling, while the relative innocence of Daisy and Jay’s love is portrayed through airy lifts and waltz steps. The final, poignant pas de trois between Gatsby, Daisy and Young Daisy illustrates the hero still clinging to his dreams before the story’s tragic climax.
However, if you mention The Great Gatsby to someone, the chances of them envisaging scenes of such emotional intensity are slim—it’s Gatsby’s decadent parties that really capture the imagination, and Northern Ballet certainly delivers on these. Fitzgerald’s fantastic descriptions come alive onstage in the act I party, as dancers in colourful flapper dresses and black tailcoats fizz around the stage like bubbles in a glass with huge leaps, jazz hands, sky high vertical kicks and the Charleston (in pointe shoes). It’s high on energy and incredibly well choreographed to appear natural and spontaneous.
If the first party captures all the glamorous exuberance of Gatsby’s champagne-fuelled soirees, then the act II party—its centrepiece a sultry tango—captures their hedonism. This reflects act II’s darker nature, where the story really comes to a head.
This shift is also conveyed in Sir Richard Rodney Bennett’s music, a gorgeous fusion of classical and jazz that in act I samples recognisable tunes such as "Charleston" and "When the Midnight Choo Choo". Yet the drama of the altercation at the Plaza is emphasised by an unconventional percussion piece.
Set design is surprisingly minimal for a story set in moneyed New York, but the use of huge sliding vertical panels is effective in creating the illusion of Art Deco architecture. Tim Mitchell’s lighting design does a superb job of bringing the set to life, whether casting long atmospheric shadows across Myrtle’s bedroom or replicating a rainbow-hued sunrise.
Somehow, this ballet manages to tick all the boxes: it conveys the plot, captures the novel’s themes of love, longing, lust and despair, and successfully weaves the 1920s aesthetic into the story—making a clear, faithful and thoroughly enjoyable retelling of The Great Gatsby.