Northern Ballet: 1984 | Edinburgh Festival Theatre | Rating ****
Those who have read George Orwell’s 1949 novel, 1984 may well wonder why on earth choreographer Jonathan Watkins would even attempt a ballet adaptation. How could a world filled with hate, torture and oppression sit comfortably in a genre usually associated with pretty dresses and smiles?
The answer is it doesn’t – sit comfortably, that is. But then comfort is not an emotion Watkins is trying to evoke. Orwell’s book depicts a terrifying future where our time, and our minds, are not our own. People look the same, do much the same things and never question why.
The central character, Winston Smith (played here with incredible sensitivity and gravitas by Tobias Batley) dares to step outside the party line, defying the ban on free thinking, writing and falling in love by doing all three in quick succession.
All of which Orwell puts into words beautifully, and Watkins follows suit by giving the dancers identical costumes and movements, all sharp angles and full of fury. The daily Two Minutes Hate finds everyone using their entire body to communicate loathing; followed by calm, triangular arms to symbolise the collective love for Big Brother.
After 20 minutes of this, the love affair between Winston and Julia is like pure silk wafting over the skin. Stripped down to their underwear, and free from the constant ‘telescreens’ watching their every move, the couple burst into an urgent pas de deux that’s dripping with sexuality.
The juxtaposition between their intimate private life, and the very public living demanded by Big Brother, is the moment you realise that dance is the perfect vehicle for this story. The feeling of hope Orwell imparts at this stage in the novel, is echoed loud and clear by Watkins – making Winston’s descent into the torturous Room 101 all the more tragic.
Watkins worked closely with composer Alex Baranowski during the ballet’s creation, and they both tell the story together. Each key character is assigned their own instrument (a cautious cello for Winston, bold and sensual clarinet for Julia), and the entire score drives the show along with an almost filmic intensity.