Martha Leebolt bringing fire to Northern Ballet’s Great Gatsby

IN bringing to life The Great Gatsby’s Daisy, Martha Leebolt realised the key is that we know very little about who she really is, writes Kelly Apter

When Martha Leebolt steps on to the stage in Edinburgh tonight, she’ll have an awful lot running through her head. As a principal with Northern Ballet, playing a lead role in the company’s new production of The Great Gatsby, there are steps to remember, musical cues to listen out for and dance partners to consider.

None of it works, however, if that extra layer – characterisation – isn’t there. With a brief from Arts Council England to produce narrative ballets, it’s crucial that Northern Ballet tells stories, and tells them well.

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Which is why, unlike the majority of ballet companies, Northern Ballet’s productions are usually created not just by a choreographer but by a director as well. The long-time partnership between artistic director, David Nixon and director Patricia Doyle has borne copious fruit since their first collaboration in 2003, the latest of which is Gatsby.

For dancers like Leebolt, having Doyle in the rehearsal room from day one is invaluable. “Patricia is on our right shoulder all the time,” says Leebolt, “suggesting ideas, telling us if what we’re expressing is or isn’t working. But she’s also really great at letting us find our own characters. It’s so important to have her there, because it’s hard to be thinking about the steps, the interpretation, what David is asking us to do, and the character all at the same time.”

Set in New York’s Long Island, F Scott Fitzgerald’s tale of 1920s hedonism and the American dream may be short on pages, but there’s no disputing the novel’s depth. Leebolt plays Daisy, the woman Jay Gatsby falls in love with at a young age, but knows he can’t be with until he becomes a man of means. A true southern debutante, Daisy is a slippery character to get hold of, both for the reader and anyone portraying her.

“She’s very difficult to play because she’s not straightforward,” says Leebolt. “At the beginning of rehearsals, when we were first creating Daisy, we weren’t exactly sure who she was. Then one day we said, ‘Maybe that’s the point of Daisy, we don’t really know who she is all the time,’ and that helped us find our own version of her.”

Playing the enigmatic title role – a character who doesn’t appear in the novel, nor come on stage, until the story is well under way – is Tobias Batley. He too found Doyle’s help invaluable when it came to peeling back the layers of Fitzgerald’s text.

“It was quite overwhelming to begin with,” says Batley, “because you start to panic about all these details in the novel that you’ve got to try and get in. Patricia was our resident expert – the guide you went to if you had any questions about the book, or guidance on where you should go with something that isn’t written in the book, to help you read between the lines.”

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For readers of the novel, the arrival of Gatsby is preceded by a huge amount of anticipation and speculation. Who is this man who throws wild parties for hundreds of guests, few of whom have actually met him? For Batley, sitting backstage for 40 minutes waiting to go on, that same sense of anticipation prevails.

“I didn’t really know what to do with myself during that time for the first few shows,” he says. “It’s hard not to separate yourself from the show before you go on stage. But you have to trust that your story is being told without you, and that the set-up is being done for you until you come on. I have to keep all that in mind, because if I were to go on stage fresh, it somehow wouldn’t have the right feeling.”

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Leebolt and Batley read the novel several times each in preparation for the show, but the woman who really knew the book inside out during rehearsals was Patricia Doyle. Helping to bring such multilayered, beautifully written words to the stage was, she says, “a huge challenge” but a very pleasurable one.

“Basically what I did was keep Mr Fitzgerald alive in the rehearsal room,” says Doyle. “I wanted his spirit to be there in everything we did. Every word counts in that novel, it’s like a jewel, it’s so honed. The book was with me the whole time, so we’d be working on a scene and I’d just look inside and find a little phrase to help us.”

Early on in rehearsals, Doyle hit upon the idea of reading sections out loud, during which the dancers would move around the room, finding their characters and the feel of the piece. “We used that system a great deal so the dancers had a lot of input into it,” says Doyle. “That way they knew who they were, why they were there and how they fitted into Fitzgerald’s story. The dancers in Northern Ballet are extraordinary, because they’re like actors – so I work with them as if I was working on a play.”

With two creative heads at the helm, a sensitive yet robust partnership had to evolve between Nixon and Doyle. “Naturally you have a few tussles,” says Doyle. “And I have to negotiate very carefully because it must be the choreographer’s vision. But after all this time, we have a very special working relationship.”

• Northern Ballet: The Great Gatsby is at Edinburgh Festival Theatre, tonight until Saturday 23 March.

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