Northern Ballet’s 1984 steps up to George Orwell’s classic

From ideological manifesto to physical manifestation, Jonathan Watkins’ realisation of Orwell’s 1984 challenges and rewards, writes Kelly Apter

From ideological manifesto to physical manifestation, Jonathan Watkins’ realisation of Orwell’s 1984 challenges and rewards, writes Kelly Apter

Government surveillance, propaganda, indoctrination and torture – hardly typical themes for a narrative ballet. For choreographer Jonathan Watkins, however, George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (often published as 1984) was a story just waiting to be told through dance.

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Set in a future Britain where disloyalty to The Party is punishable by death, loving Big Brother is obligatory, and almost every move you make is caught on camera, a most unlikely love affair springs forth. In Northern Ballet’s production, the conformity of workers toeing the party line is in sharp contrast to the sensuality of the novel’s two protagonists, Winston and Julia. And it was this juxtaposition that appealed to Watkins.

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“A lot of people think how can you possibly tell this story through dance,” he says. “But when you watch the ballet, you see that it really lends itself to that medium. I first read the novel when I was 15, and since then I have always imagined it being two different worlds: the physicality of Winston and Julia working against the uniformity of the Party.”

Costume plays a large part in that uniformity, with the dancers dressed in identical blue outfits. The key difference between the two worlds though, is surveillance. Alone in a rented room, the lovers can shed their inhibitions, and their clothes. At home and work, however, Winston and Julia are continually monitored by “telescreens”, also used to transmit messages from Big Brother.

“I knew we had to tell the story of the telescreens, and the idea of constantly being watched,” says Watkins. “At the very beginning I didn’t really know how we were going to do that, but that was part of the show’s year-long development process. We wanted to create a very visual world, where technology had a real presence – but where the digital element married up with the live action of the dance.”

How best to use technology was just one of the challenges Watkins faced. Having cut his teeth on a dance version of Barry Hines’ novel A Kestrel for a Knave (better known as the film Kes), he felt well-placed to tackle Orwell.

“It was vital that I had that other experience, because everything I learned while I was adapting Kes I transferred into 1984,” says Watkins. “Dissecting and adapting a book, working with a composer, designer and dramaturg, and being in the studio with the dancers was all part
of the process. And, of course, everyone at Northern Ballet is very used to working with novels and plays, and transferring them from page to stage.”

One of the most compelling aspects of this adaptation is the music, a specially commissioned score by Alex Baranowski played live by the Northern Ballet Sinfonia. Giving the show an almost cinematic feel, the music never stops, taking us from the almost manic Big Brother worship, through the passion of Winston and Julia, and into the dreaded Room 101.

No break in the score means no room for applause until the end of each half – unusual in a ballet, but helping to create the intensity Watkins was striving for.

“I wanted the audience to feel as though they were witnessing it, in a kind of surveillance way,” he says. “And as soon as you’re aware of clapping, you’re brought out of the action a little bit. So I wanted each act to be continuous.”

Talking to Watkins, it’s clear that he believes Orwell’s novel is as relevant now as it was in 1949, when it was first published. But even he baulked at the prospect of choreographing the 27-page “Manifesto” which appears two thirds of the way into the book.

“The Manifesto is Orwell’s political message, and some editors wanted him to take it out at the time because it stops the flow of the narrative,” says Watkins. “That bit is certainly difficult if you’re adapting it. It’s an amazing book and I wanted to be as loyal as I could with it, so in the ballet the Manifesto exists as an object which propels Winston forward. Turning it into dance would be a major challenge that I’m not sure anyone would be able to do.”

For those unfamiliar with the novel, all this talk of Big Brother, The Party and the Manifesto could feel off-putting and alien. Yet Watkins has worked hard to ensure that regardless of how much you know about 1984, there is much to enjoy – and learn – from his adaptation.

“I’m proud of what we’ve achieved with such a complex novel,” he says. “But I also think it’s open to interpretation. We’re living in a world where we’re fed so much information and under so much surveillance, at any given time there’s always something happening in the world that you can link it to.

“If you haven’t read the novel, I’m confident there is enough in the ballet for people to follow the story. If you have read it, that can only help your experience – but it’s not essential.”

One person with no prior knowledge of Orwell’s novel is Toby Batley, who plays the role of Winston Smith.

“I knew absolutely nothing about it,” he says. “I’d heard lots of terms like ‘Big Brother’ and had watched the TV show Room 101, but hadn’t realised what it meant.

“I’ve known Jonathan for years, since we were at the Royal Ballet School together, and about four years ago he told me he wanted to adapt 1984. So I read it immediately, and instantly saw the ballet in it.”

Like Watkins, Batley knew that perhaps more than most mediums, dance was perfect for drawing out the underlying story.

“People wonder if it’s going to work, because the novel is so clinical,” he says. “But actually, underneath the ideology and belief systems, there’s a very human story.

“Winston goes on a journey and there is a lot of emotion – and that’s what dance is all about, and what dancers do best, express emotions.”

• Northern Ballet’s 1984 is at Edinburgh Festival Theatre from 31 March until 2 April