Friday 27 May 2016

1984 – Northern Ballet, 25 May 2016, Sadler's Wells

Northern Ballet brings Jonathan Watkins’ ambitious take on Orwell’s famous novel to London this week. A brave move perhaps to take on the challenge of conveying a story that is so embedded in the written word through a non-verbal art form. Big Brother’s eyes are fixed not only on the dancers but often also on the audience, Simon Drew’s designs creating a circular experience. The look of the piece, for me, is one of the strengths of the production – minimal sets with sharp lines transform easily into various locations, screens ever present, watching. The dancers for the most part in blue uniforms, dancing as one under the control of Big Brother transform from obedient workers to angry crowds.

The subtlety of the movement separates the brainwashed from the rebels, the occasional view of a free, loose dancer in deep red/brown costumes contrast beautifully to those trapped within the system. Winston and Julia are conspicuous by their fluidity of movement, a thin strip of red around her waist marking her out as a rebel. The corps de ballet moments are aesthetically pleasing, their virtuosity clear amongst the uniformity. It is, however, Winston and Julia’s passionate pas de deux that captivates. Seemingly free from the constant surveillance their movement becomes lucid, they embrace with the ferocity that the breaking of restrictive chains brings.

Their fantasy cannot last long however, and act two brings a darker tone to the evening. The climactic scene in Room 101 is perhaps not as intense as one might hope but it is not without its merit. Tobias Batley makes Winston’s terror palpable and the vision of Julia’s form tantalizingly close in his moments of despair is moving. The dancers as ever give a sterling performance and the cold set and music help to build atmosphere. Perhaps it would have been a more powerful scene had the other characters been more developed earlier in the evening.

As a relatively short piece it could benefit from slight additions to bring extra depth and detail. Although familiar with the story I felt it would have been confusing for those who weren’t. A greater sense of intimidation and claustrophobia would enhance this telling. The play of the same novel performed at the Playhouse Theatre last summer left me feeling somewhat traumatised, this ballet allowed me space to enjoy some lovely choreography but did not have such a lasting impact. As commented earlier, dance is a difficult medium to translate 1984 into and although not perfect this is certainly a quality work.

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