Upon hearing of Jonathon Watkin’s reinterpretation of 1984 in the form of a ballet I was both intrigued and instantly sceptical. How could the medium of dance possibly be used to convey Orwell’s oh-so-futuresque world of telescreens and Big Brother? The idea is reminiscent of overly ambitious amateur Fringe shows claiming originality through edgy lighting and minimalist costume, and yet I scampered down to the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, before it was too late for a ticket faster than Maria scampered down to church after that heavy day’s singing on the hill.
If I wanted my bourgeois suspicions to be confirmed, I was in for a severe disappointment. The usual trip to the ballet for me consists of glorified stereotypes; men in tights and wafer-thin women swathed in Tchaikovsky and tutus, me unable to decide which dancer to focus on and becoming ridiculously distracted by the unavoidable presence of “the bulge”. Yet this ballet swaps swans for spies and leotards for suits in a move which renders it infinitely more relatable, and it is here the director hits gold.
In spite of its irrefutable athletic impressiveness, ballet does not lend itself easily to artistic translation, in that those who forget to read the synopsis often struggle to keep up with the plot. This inaccessibility makes complex political threads, like that of Orwell’s 1984, difficult to convey, culminating largely in the view that ballets are for the most part outdated and uninteresting, a view taken especially by the younger generation. Regardless of expense, very few of my friends would suggest a trip to the ballet on the same level of excitement as one might suggest a trip to Nandos.
In departing from the rigidity of the conventional classic ballet, Watkin’s production breaches the generational divide by gifting an air of modernity which ballet so often lacks; the audience of this production is not limited to the fluffy-white-haired and women. Accompanied by a spectacular score composed by Alex Baranowski, Watkin’s choreography combines the traditional arabesques with a synchronisation of satisfyingly geometric moves to portray the totalitarian regime. The presence of the ever-watching government is depicted by TV screens on the stage showing a pair of eyes actively watching, occasionally blurring out as the characters seek refuge in hidden places.
The most potent scene of the ballet is undoubtedly the last scene of Act 1, in which Winston and Julia, danced by Tobias Batley and Martha Leebolt respectively, begin their affair in the countryside. Simon Daw, director of set and costume design, strips both the characters and set of all extravagance, laying the stage bare to expose the raw passion of the pas de deux. Interlocking branches arch over the couple, who have traded Ministry suits for pastel underwear, allowing their muscular grace to cast a spell over the audience in a dance as physically as it is emotionally powerful.
Having read the novel and the synopsis in the Northern Ballet programme, I had little difficulty following the Brotherhood resistance plot comprising Act 2, though those typically unacquainted with ballet or the book may find themselves grasping at straws to understand the intricacies of the plot. What the ballet inevitably lacks in plot clarity, however, it more than makes up for in innovation. With an increasingly relevant subject matter, a strong score and a company of indisputably talented dancers, Watkin’s 1984 makes for a surprising, but highly enjoyable interpretation of the novel.
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