Dance is one of the most unique forms of storytelling within theatre; it’s raw, physical and often innovative in its approach. I’ve thought this throughout the last few times that I’ve seen Northern Ballet and Phoenix Dance’s productions; Northern Ballet blew me away with their adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream several months ago, and I was impressed by Phoenix Dance’s storytelling abilities in their Mixed Programme last year. Now, Northern Ballet are back with a brand new adaptation of a book I’d never think it possible to perform through dance – George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece 1984.
I’m sure many of you already know the story of 1984 – Winston Smith is a man serving under the rule of all-seeing Big Brother, who watches his and every other citizen of Oceania’s every move. They’re not allowed to write down their thoughts or go beyond what they’re tasked with doing, let alone think of rebelling against the oppressive cycle that quashes individual desire and attempts of breaking the mould. One day, however, Winston is caught in a whirlwind of love, passion and defiance when he meets a woman named Julia. He begins to try and defy Big Brother’s ruling iron fist, but at the expense of every aspect of his identity.
So there’s the story; it’s been told countless times through radio, film and on the stage, but ballet? The thought of it had me scratching my head at first, but when I sat down in the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Quarry Theatre and watched it old unfold, any thoughts of it not working were quickly dispelled. Jonathan Watkins’s direction and choreography is bold and slick, with every dancer onstage masterfully executing a sequence of moves that tells us Orwell’s timeless story. Tobias Batley and Martha Leebolt are also excellent as Winston and Julia, with their sequences of movement coming together to tell the story of a doomed love affair brilliantly.
While the dancing itself is breathtaking, the set and lighting design are also to be marvelled at with equal amounts of awe. Everything comes together to create a powerful, well-considered visual aesthetic that helps us to further visualise a world trapped in an endless cycle of inner torment and restriction. Smooth scene transitions, aided by the lighting and slick movement of set pieces, help to keep us engaged in the world and don’t shatter the fact that what we’re seeing is a representation of a dystopian world; it truly looks real and authentic.
In addition to the dancing and visual triumphs, there’s something else that stokes the fires of our imaginations – the music. Composed by Alex Baranowski, haunting melodies soar with both a lilting effect and razor-sharp feel, giving the production an all-important sense of atmosphere, which a lack of can completely kill off a piece of storytelling. In a book like 1984, atmosphere is king – and this fact is respected in this stunning adaptation.
Northern Ballet has done it again; they’ve created a piece of theatre that captures the essence of its source material and turns it into a spectacle that dazzles and raises questions. This ballet is a fine example of how every aspect comes together to blow audiences away and keep them engaged – and it does it in style, elegance and confidence.
Northern Ballet’s 1984 plays the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 12th September. For more information and tickets, visit the West Yorkshire Playhouse website.