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SheilaC

Northern Ballet: Jonathan Watkins’ 1984, Leeds and on tour, 2015

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The ballet was very warmly received, especially by those in the front rows and by the members of the company, who were in the best seats (meaning I couldn't couldn't book the seat I wanted!). Both the music and choreography were rather repetitive, perhaps necessarily so, given the theme of the book, although there are some nice solos for Martha Leebolt, as Julia, and one interesting pas de deux for Leebolt and Batley, which impressed people not very familiar with Macmillan. It's a fairly close depiction of the plot of the novel but cannot convey the philosophical complexities fundamental to the work. People unfamiliar with the novel may be confused  about what is going on, unless they have bought the programme and managed to read the plot. The choreography for the Proles, and their costumes, were not sufficiently contrasted to those of Winston and his colleagues, and the Prole Woman is not characterised accurately- the audience might feel that Winston fancies her, while in the novel she fascinates him by her vulgarity rather than sexuality. But the dancers are very well rehearsed and individual dancers are convincing, Toby Batley and Martha Leebolt, in the leads but also Javier Torres who gives a chilling performance, very clearly danced.

 

After Leeds, the ballet will be performed in seven theatres, culminating in London, Sadler's Wells, next May.

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Jonathan Watkins’ 1984 had its premiere last night at the  West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds. Wanted to start a thread for people to talk about it.

It strikes me as particularly significant as the first time in some very many years that NB(T) have had a new full evening piece created on them that wasn't by David Nixon and that diversity is a welcome and wonderful change.

Still collecting all my thoughts but overall I thought it went well enough and was true to the companies dramatic traditions - anybody looking for a wildly different Wayne McGregor dance vocabulary will be disappointed, but I suspect the audience would rebel at such a jump in narrative style. There are some nice duets, set in a well thought through set with good lighting and video projections. Videos are de rigour on stage at he moment, not always to good effect, but here it fits well with the story. Good performances from Tobias Batley and Martha Leebolt in the lead roles and glad I was there.

Great to see that most of the national papers were there to review a 'not the usual suspects' commission. Amen to that.

Edited by Bruce
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Jonathan Watkins’ 1984 had its premiere last night at the  West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds. Wanted to start a thread for people to talk about it.

 

 

I started this on a new thread in the proper place - hence my words - so why this has been put out of it context I know not.

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Sheila posted her comments on the News thread, so I moved them here as the more appropriate thread.

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Sheila posted her comments on the News thread, so I moved them here as the more appropriate thread.

 

Forgive me but Sheila did not start this thread (which the record appears to now show) - I did. And I used introductory words that don't make so much sense when they are presented out of the context I posted in.  Not the end of the world (with this exchange documenting things) but a mods comment when moving posts would have been useful.

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I was at the first night and have got a couple more performances booked at WYP and in Manchester.

 

These are my impressions from the first night.

 

I will be honest, when NB announced their new work was to be 1984 I was filled with dread.  I saw the film in 1984 and had no good memories of it at all.  I read the book a couple of months ago and felt a bit more hopeful.  I went to the 1984 Revealed event and a day of open rehearsals and felt even more hopeful but you can't get away from the fact that it is a meaty, downbeat subject with no happy ending.

 

So...  Jonathan Watkins production of 1984 is an outstanding piece of dance drama!

 

Having read the book, I expected the crowd scenes to have a repetitive feel to them as people, on the whole, are not depicted as individuals.  The choreography is interesting and yes, it is repetitive but that fits in well with the context.  The music is also pounding and repetitive and again that fits in with what I had envisaged for this piece.

 

The set and the lighting are very clever and give a great impression of the dystopian world where everyone is constantly being watched.  The movement is generally confined to a tight triangle of light which gives a really claustrophobic feel and makes the stage look really packed in the crowd scenes even though only 18 dancers are used in the production.

 

Overall this production has, in my opinion, distilled the essence of the novel into a 2 hour dance drama.

 

I agree with Sheila that the movements for the Proles are not really very different from the movement of the Party but that is a minor quibble.

 

There is a beautiful duet for Winston and Julia in the countryside that ends Act 1.  Julia has a couple of lovely solos and they have several touching moments together in Act 2.  The moment where they realise they have been watched the whole time and betrayed by someone they had placed trust in is positively heart-stopping and from then to the final seconds I just forgot to breathe!

 

As we have come to expect from Northern Ballet, the dancers give 110% commitment to their roles; the 2-minute hate scene is particularly effective.  There is also a beautiful moment when all the dancers are watching the message on the screens and Winston and Julia surreptitiously hold hands before moving away from each other.  Of the crowds, Hannah Bateman and Vicky Sibson stand out.

 

Toby Batley's performance as Winston was a tour-de-force; he was totally subsumed into the role.  His on-stage partnership with Martha Leebolt is rightly legendary and they were just breath-taking together.  Martha was sublime as the rebellious Julia.  Javier Torres was outstanding as O'Brien; it was so easy to see how Winston and Julia were taken in by him.  His brutalisation of Winston was terrifying.  Just to note that there is no really graphic violence.  Hiro Takahashi was excellent as Mr Charrington.

 

We were thrilled to learn later that George Orwell's son had been in the audience.

 

To sum up, it is not an easy subject but it is an outstanding and compelling dance-drama production.  I am looking forward to Thursday afternoon and a different cast and then both performances on Saturday.  It will also be interesting to see how this production translates to a traditional proscenium stage.

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It was a great premier, every member of the company on stage that night danced their hearts out for us and I am SO glad I was there to see it :)

 

Couple of my thoughts: 

 

- The ambiguity of Big Brother's existence didn't translate well, one thing that has always struck me when reading the novel and watching the John Hurt movie (which I unashamedly love!) was just how terrifying an idea can be. In this case the idea of Big Brother, its not actually conveyed whether he really exists but this adaptation didn't appear to take that into account. It was just a given that BB existed, it wasn't questioned at all.

 

- I found the PDDs a little tedious and a bit too MacMillan in their movement vocab, sweepy and romantic if tinged with urgency, but tedious all the same. Since I know the source material very well I just felt that these scenes jarred with my interpretation of the relationship between Winston and Julia and they pulled me out of the piece and into mind chatter. Their union was not a political act in this ballet and for me the movement vocab for Julia was just too elegant and dignified...

 

- Javier Torres and Hiro Takahashi were superb in their respective roles of O'Brien & Charrington. Javier was as menacing as a classic Bond villain (Bond ballet anyone?) and Charrington's isolation and other worldliness was brilliantly conveyed by Hiro, his reveal chilled me the most even though I knew it was coming!

 

- I thought there was a nice distinction between the movement for the Proles and the party members, the Proles were more intimate and softer in their bodies. And Vicky Sibson was sublime in her role of Prole Woman (I thought her solos were just vulgar enough)

 

- Room 101 and the resulting brainwashing of Winston Smith were perfectly pitched. Simple but dramatically effective theater!
 

- There was a nice little motif in the score when Julia first appeared on stage at the start of act 1, and I kept an ear out for it afterwards but didn't hear it again. Like the PDDs some elements of the score just felt out of place and overall it was disappointing! I think some nice use of silence would've been more effective for certain scenes. 

 

I'm looking forward to seeing how the production transposes onto the Lyceum stage! 

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I saw the cast led by Isaac Lee-Baker, Dreda Blow and Ashley Dixon this afternoon.  Of course it was the same choreography but they looked very different!  Isaac seemed more naive than the world-weary Toby and I think the effect on his duets with Julia was to make them look softer.  It was another outstanding performance.  I am seeing both performances on Saturday, so will reflect on how my feelings may have changed from the start of the run.

 

A review of this cast from the Huddersfield Examiner.

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I saw today's matinee and was very impressed - a doubleplusgood adaptation of what must be one of the novels least likely to be turned into a ballet. It managed to distill the essence of the book, although a couple sitting in front of me who hadn't read either the novel or the programme were baffled by the Two Minutes Hate! I think more could have been made of the endless war with Eastasia/Eurasia - the Hate Week scene in which the Party orator switches between one enemy and another, represented by a change of colour on the video screen, didn't really work for me. However, I loved the ending in which Winston was literally 'erased' from the stage and from history.

 

And is it just me or did anyone else think that Goldstein's face bore more than a passing resemblence to the 'V for Vendetta' mask?!

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I saw 1984 at West Yorkshire Playhouse on Friday evening. Batley, Leebolt and Torres danced Smith, Julia and O'Brien respectively.

 

I am still making my mind up about the ballet.  I saw it while my senses were still overwhelmed by the marvellous things I had seen in Amsterdam three days earlier and I probably didn't do it justice. Indeed I am not sure that I could do any work justice until Amsterdam wears off.   I hope to see 1984 again in Manchester and then I will review it properly. 

 

In the meantime I attended a Q & A with Jonathan Watkins after the show and this is my summary of what he said:

 

After Northern Ballet's performance of 1984 at the West Yorkshire Playhouse on Friday Jonathan Watkins agreed to answer questions from members of the audience.  The session took place in the Quarry auditorium where the ballet had been informed.
 
I had read up about Watkins earlier in the year because I liked his A Northern Trilogy and seen a number of videos in which he had appeared on YouTube. I was aware that he came from South Yorkshire, that he had trained at the Royal Ballet School and that he had danced with the Royal Ballet between 2003 and 2013. It occurred to me that Ernst Meisner, one of my favourite choreographers, would have been one of his contemporaries.
 
The session was opened by a lady whose name I forget but who I believe must have been Selina McGonagle for she introduced herself as Northern Ballet's Director of Learning. As she was chairing the session she reserved the right to ask the first question which was on how the concept of the ballet had changed since her first discussion with Watkins about the ballet several months ago. Watkins replied that there had been change largely to reflect the input of the dancers whom he praised very highly and the other members of the creative team. I got the impression that he had an outline in his mind but the ballet had developed organically.
 
As the chair had warned us that we had time for only 3 or 4 questions I stuck my hand up next.  As I said in My First Impressions of 1984 12 Sept 2015 the ballet had a very retro feel and I asked him whether that was intentional. I am not sure whether he asked for amplification or whether I volunteered it but I was thinking specifically of Miracle in the Gorbals and Job. Watkins knew Job but not Miracle even though it had been re-staged recently by Gillian Lynne.  He replied that that had not been his intention but he had been exposed to many influences through his training at the Royal Ballet School and his work in the company. If he was influenced  by anything it was the cinema. He mentioned several films that he admired including Kes which he had translated into dance and theLego Movie. Indeed he mentioned the Lego Movie several times in different contexts in the Q & A.
 
The next question was on why Watkins had chosen 1984  and whether he had any other works in the pipeline. He replied that he had read the book as a teenager and had been affected by it. He had contemplated how it could be translated into dance for some time. The same had happened with the Ken Loach film Kes which he first saw about the same time. That film resonated with him because it was set in the area in which he had spent his childhood. Last year he had the chance of stage it for The Crucible in Sheffield. By staging Kes and 1984 he had achieved two longstanding ambitions. He did have other projects in mind but he did not want to announce what they were for the time being.
 
A lady behind me congratulated him on his love scenes which she described as "erotic". He acknowledged her praise and remarked that those are scenes that many people like best.
 
He was asked about his collaboration with the composer and whether he specified the music he needed. He confirmed that that was the way he worked.  He described the music as "a character in itself."
 
A gentleman congratulated him on his use of colour.  Watkins replied how the colours of the party members and proles had been chosen. They started with brown and developed into orangey reds.
 
A lady with a North American accent who was there with her daughter mentioned her daughter's amazement that the story had been told without a spoken word. I couldn't help reflecting that was the whole point of ballet and indeed all dance drama.  Watkins accepted that praise graciously.
 
He was asked several detailed questions about the transposition of the story and the characters from the book, why there were no children in the ballet and how he had maintained the tension of the story in the ballet. The last question prompted him to ask whether the audience felt he had maintained tension and he was told that he had.
 
All in all I found Watkins a very likeable chap with a good sense of humour.

 

 

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I would have liked to have asked him if the triangles created by the lighting, and the triangular Party salute, were inspired by the fact that in the novel the Ministries of Love, Truth and Plenty are described as huge pyramids towering over London.

 

The question about children was a bit odd as the only children in the book are the two awful Parsons kids and - in flashback - Winston's younger self and his sister.

 

The retro feel of the ballet was inevitable given that in the world of 1984 society hasn't progressed beyond the austere post-war years of the late 1940s. I was relieved that Watkins hadn't updated the technology and clothing.

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I would have liked to have asked him if the triangles created by the lighting, and the triangular Party salute, were inspired by the fact that in the novel the Ministries of Love, Truth and Plenty are described as huge pyramids towering over London.

 

The question about children was a bit odd as the only children in the book are the two awful Parsons kids and - in flashback - Winston's younger self and his sister.

 

The retro feel of the ballet was inevitable given that in the world of 1984 society hasn't progressed beyond the austere post-war years of the late 1940s. I was relieved that Watkins hadn't updated the technology and clothing.

 

Someone did ask about the salute and triangles. I forgot to mention it in my summary because I ran out of space on the back of my cast sheet and didn't take a full note of his reply. To the best of my recollection Watkins said that it was inspired by the book and the depictions of the Ingsoc sign in subsequent dramatizations and illustrations.

 

Yes, I also found the reference to children strange because I couldn't remember any from the novel. I thought I must have forgotten that detail when the question was raised. 

 

I am not sure that it was necessary to set the ballet in any particular era though I agree that there is no reason why it should not have been the immediate post-war years.  The thought did cross my mind that we now have telescreens (monitors with webcams), data mining and the power to bump off people with unmanned aircraft which was not the case when the novel was written. It would be possible to stage 1984 as a satire of out times if a choreographer or anyone else wanted to do so. Not that they need to, mind.  It's just a thought.

 

There was an interesting programme on the wireless which I listened to earlier today called "I was .......George Orwell's pupil". Apparently Orwell taught at a little prep school in Hayes in the 1930s and one of the boys recounted his memories of his old schoolmasters.

 

I have to confess that Orwell is not one of my favourite authors. I read his books with gritted teeth when I was younger and 1984 was my least favourite of his novels.  It has been many years since I last read the book and I am not tempted to take it off my shelves again.

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Just come across this Youtube link via twitter:

 

Edited by Janet McNulty
Edited to correct link
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I will be honest, when NB announced their new work was to be 1984 I was filled with dread... 

So...  Jonathan Watkins production of 1984 is an outstanding piece of dance drama!

 

I saw today's matinee and was very impressed - a doubleplusgood adaptation of what must be one of the novels least likely to be turned into a ballet.

 

I was wondering how effective 1984 would be as a ballet & have held back from booking a ticket. Especially as it follows a tough act in Headlong's recent theatre production of 1984, which I thought was outstandingly good. 

 

Thanks to the positive press reviews & everyone's feedback so far on this thread, I've now booked a great seat for when they visit The Mayflower, Southampton next May.

 

Be interesting to see how well this sells, as I was at The Mayflower on the opening night of NB's last visit with Wuthering Heights & it wasn't very full, sadly. :( (Though a friend went to the Saturday matinee & said many more seats had sold.)

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I'm seeing 1984 again in Manchester in a couple of weeks.  I hope it looks as good on a proscenium stage as it did at the wonderful West Yorkshire Playhouse.

 

I was even more gripped by the production by the final Saturday than I had been at the start of the run.  Both casts had really grown into the roles.  The ending is incredibly moving.

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The BBC cameras were recording last night's performance (which caused some seating chaos and a late start) and I believe they are also filming Saturday afternoon's performance.

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I saw the first three performances in Manchester this week - the first time I had seen the production on a proscenium stage (as opposed to the intimacy of the WYP setting).

 

In some respects I thought it worked better and in others not quite as well.  The screen effects were much more startling even than they had been at WYP. The dancers did not seem to be dancing in such a tight triangle so some of the claustrophobic feeling was lost, but that is a minor quibble.  It definitely works in the proscenium environment!

 

Over three performances I saw two casts - Toby/Martha and Isaac/Dreda.  Both partnerships have grown even more into the roles.  I have been noticing more too - it's definitely a production that bears repeated viewings.

 

Toby Batley proves over and over again that he is one of the best dance/actors around.  He totally inhabits the role of Winston; he manages to change his whole stance to one of world-weariness and dejection to one who finds hope with Julia, O'Brien and the thought of The Brotherhood and then is utterly defeated by his betrayal.  Martha Leebolt is another dancer who inhabits her roles.  As Julia she makes it clear that she is the one taking the lead initially in the relationship.

 

For me, the end of the duet in act 1 sends shivers down my spine - after the ecstasy of finding each other and as they are walking to the back of the stage Julia and Winston look back as if they are unable to believe they are not being overlooked.

 

The final scenes continue to be very moving and bring a lump to my throat.

 

I am intending to see more of 1984 next year!

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So, Janet, what - apart from its intimacy - is the difference between the WYP and normal theatres?

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NB tend to use a thrust format there and the performance space is level with the front row of the audience.  You are very close indeed at the front (even when the orchestra is visible).

 

They now start the performance space slightly further back than when they first started appearing there.  When they did Dangerous Liaisons first time around, the dancer performing Danceney (sorry if spelt wrong) ended up sitting on my friend's feet at one point!

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