Dancing in front of Big Brother

Northern Ballet, 1984' Photo Emma Kauldhar.jpg
Northern Ballet, 1984' Photo Emma Kauldhar.jpg

Last year Jonathan Watkins’ dance theatre version of Kes at the Sheffield Crucible earned rave reviews and now he has adapted another cult classic novel, 1984, for Northern Ballet which tours to the Lyceum.

This first full-length adaptation of George Orwell’s renowned work has generated similar excitement after its world première in Leeds last month.

Orwell’s 1984 was the only title I could see myself doing

In the production, Ministry of Truth worker Winston Smith lives in a world of absolute conformity, his every action scrutinised by Big Brother. While outwardly conforming to Party doctrine, he is secretly disillusioned, illegally documenting his thoughts in a diary.

When one day he receives a love note from Julia, a colleague he suspected of spying on him for the Thought Police, the pair instead begin an illicit affair leading a dangerous double life, putting physical desire above Party discipline.

As their romance develops and they prepare for an act of political rebellion, Winston and Julia discover that Big Brother is always watching and no-one can be trusted, least of all themselves.

The Barnsley-born choreographer says: “Nineteen Eighty-Four has been a constant inspiration to me since I first read it at 15. It is a powerful and thought-provoking allegory that now, more than ever, has resonance with the times in which we are living.

“When I was approached by David Nixon to create a ballet for Northern Ballet, 1984 was really the only title I could see myself doing because it has been in the back of my mind for so long.”

It is nevertheless a bold choice. “We’re used to a certain kind of story being visualised through ballet or dance but 1984 is a little different to that expectation,” he concedes. “I also think that people find it hard to imagine how 1984 can be adapted into a ballet but for me it’s a simple story of someone trying to go against the system and, along the way, finding this woman that he feels is similar to him. Together they unite with different people for strength in numbers and go against the system.”

Apart from a few characters omitted by necessity and the expansion of a couple of incidents for theatrical purposes, Watkins insists that in general the ballet stays true to the narrative of the book almost scene by scene.

It is set to an original score by Tony-nominated composer and arranger Alex Baranowski, who recently worked with Mercury Prize winning band The xx. “I have worked with Alex in quite a few different capacities now: an abstract ballet, a film and Kes last year at Sheffield Theatres.

“It was after the latter that our collaboration really hit its peak and when considering who to work with on 1984 there was no question over who it should be.”

And Kes is not forgotten. “I would like to revisit and share my production of Kes with more audiences at some point in the near future,” he says.

* 1984 is at the Lyceum Theatre next Tuesday (October 20) to Saturday (October 24).