Exclusive: Behind the Scenes of Northern Ballet’s The Great Gatsby with Tobias Batley, Martha Leebolt and Lily Amy

Last week, Performance Reviewed went to see the London première of Northern Ballet’s breathtaking adaptation of The Great Gatsby at Sadler’s Wells, a production choreographed and directed by David Nixon, with co-direction by Patricia O’Doyle. Amidst the glittering visuals and evocative music by the late Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, Tobias Batley (Jay Gatsby) and Martha Leebolt (Daisy) delivered performances that left the audience in raptures. We returned to Sadler’s Wells the next day to sit down with the pair and discuss the production, joined by the show’s stage manager Lily Amy. Read on for Gatsby-mania, torn costumes and pre-show rituals!

Tobias Batley as Gatsby and Martha Leebolt as Daisy in The Great Gatsby. Photo by Bill Cooper
Tobias Batley as Gatsby and Martha Leebolt as Daisy in The Great Gatsby. Photo by Bill Cooper

What have been the most difficult parts of adapting such an iconic novel through the medium of dance? Obviously, the film is coming out this week and I personally see it translating more easily into that medium. What for you guys has been the most challenging aspect?

Martha Leebolt: On the whole it has been difficult but there was no particularly hard part.

Tobias Batley: We’re kind of used to doing this and on the whole I think we’re pretty good at it. (laughs)

Lily Amy: There was a lot of translating text

TB: Yeah we start off doing it almost as a film in the studio with no dancing and David (Nixon) will watch that and take parts he likes from it.

ML: The text becomes vocabulary.

TB: And we talk in the studio, we use the text. Sometimes you have stuck-days but there’s no point where you really panic about it.

As characters, Daisy and Gatsby are these famously complex personalities and there are so many subtleties within the text. Did you have to go about the character development in a different way than usual?

ML: Yeah. we read the book, and watched the film. The co-director Patricia Doyle is an actress so she helped us a lot. You’re not sure; although the character is set for you, you have to come to your own definition of who Daisy or Gatsby is and you don’t reach that until you are close to Opening Night. There’s so much that goes into it, depending on the scenes and how you want them to build. You can’t have Daisy as crazy at first and then all of a sudden have her as this popular person. You have to build and see how the scenes go along. You do the whole ballet before realising who the characters are.

You guys have danced together before in Cleopatra, did that help in terms of having a pre-existing chemistry and dynamic?

TB: Yeah, as you say we’ve danced together before and so technically there weren’t any problems there, which is a good place to start. We take it from there.

ML: A lot of the Pas de Deux moves are quite difficult.

TB: Yeah, they’re deceivingly difficult! Often the bits that look easy are the hardest bits and the bits that look difficult are little or just strength, so there’s nothing complicated and no risk of something going wrong.

TB: David’s strength in choreographing is his Pas de Deux so he has confidence in that. He often starts with the Pas de Deux because it’s his favourite.

ML: When we first started with the Pas de Deux, [Tobias] got the character right away whereas I found it a bit harder, I was struggling to find who she was and I only came later to get it. But that was after how many months?

That whole idea of making it look effortless when it is actually this huge physical effort really underpins ballet. As the stage manager, how was it- in light of the scale and decadence of the party scenes, for example- to keep everything under control?

LA: Well you mentioned the challenges of the novel and one of the huge ones was the number of different locations through the book, so trying to create all these different sets. It’s such a lavish era and the props actually started very minimal, just creating the suggestion of the space, but as rehearsals got underway it became about the champagne trays and the vases of roses. It was so much fun to do.

TB: They’re very impressive- the drinks and the chocolate cake.

LA: (laughs) That’s glued-down biscuit tins and poly-filler!

Northern Ballet dancers in The Great Gatsby. Photo by Bill Cooper
Northern Ballet dancers in The Great Gatsby. Photo by Bill Cooper

There was definitely something cinematic about the show- often with ballet it’s about the dancer and their body but with this ballet you were really acting.

LA: There’s something so minimal about scenes like the dock with the green light but at the same time, Myrtle’s apartment is a replica apartment.

TB: There’s also something so cinematic about that era- it was just on the cusp of the Golden Age of Hollywood and even at Myrtle’s party there is an actress. In fact, everyone in that scene has a character and knows exactly who they are- there’s  a used car salesman, a boxer. That’s how we workshop and develop.

LA: The car salesman wanted some business cards and we looked up the address of an actual car garage in New York in the 1920s and put that on the card. Martha mentioned Patricia Doyle and she’s really amazing for background detail- not just the story but the politics and context of the time.

The Northern Ballet is well-known for these big narrative ballets, does that storytelling aspect increase your awareness of the audience?

ML: It’s part of sharing what you’ve created. I think it’s such a long process to come up with a really great narrative ballet so there’s always the question of whether the audience will get that- every step has a meaning and I think that delivers overall.

TB: It’s like there’s two sides to it- everything we do has to connect with the audience but it’s not non-narrative where you can really interact with them. We have to keep to certain characters.

LA: We go into it in so much detail, it’s interesting to put yourself into the shoes of someone who doesn’t know every last step and detail and see it through their eyes. Do we still manage to translate the story?

It’s interesting as a company how Northern Ballet really allows the public behind-the-scenes and where once ballet was a distant art, we are now able to see videos of you in rehearsal and backstage. Does that idea of fantasy and reality inform the way you perform and stage the show.

LA: Absolutely, it used to be that ballet was something very beautiful and far removed on the other side of the Proscenium Arch and now we’re all about communicating it.

TB: It has to grow with the times because otherwise, and this sounds depressing, but your audience is going to grow old and die! You have to keep the audience interested and that’s how you manage it these days.

What about being in a ballet that is part of such a cultural wave right now- the film, the soundtrack and now the ballet!

ML: It couldn’t have come at a better time for us

LA: Gatsbymania! There was such a fizz last night and something so exciting but we’re just coming to the end of our run now.

TB: People just seem to love this era- it’s glamourous.

ML: Also, something new- a lot of British people I spoke to didn’t really know about Gatsby where as an American you have to study it at high school. Here, it’s the unknown! You see the commercials and it’s sparkly and beautiful!

Having worked with the decadent Roaring Twenties, Art Deco aesthetic, do you now as a stage manager want to do something more minimalist and stripped back?

LA: Well, I love the variety. With a production like this, you have to become a kind of weird expert in the culture of the time. For the newspapers, we went back and sourced original articles and so you become really absorbed in the details.

Tobias Batley as Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby. Photo by Bill Cooper
Tobias Batley as Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby. Photo by Bill Cooper

How long did you have to get used to the costumes and props before Opening Night?

TB: Well, with the props and costumes for this we started using them maybe a week before? We have model props during the process but the costumes take much longer.

ML: The costumes were a bit of a worry because things like the blue dress I wear later on were originally for the Pas de Deux in Act 1, but we did one filming of it and the dress just started to fall apart because of all the partnering around the waist. It’s hard if all the costumes are falling apart a week before Opening!

I always imagine that because of the nature of dance and it being so tied to your body and your movement that it must be hard to separate yourself from your profession. Is there a sense of stepping into the role each night or do the lines blur? What is your pre-performance routine?

TB: It’s difficult because often we’re doing so many things at one time and one production will require your body to work in a different way.

ML: For this show, I start getting ready around 6, and my wig goes on at 6:45.

TB: I always have a little power nap and then a hot shower to wake up again!

ML: That’s an easy warm-up!

What has been the highlight of the production?

TB: For me it’s been doing it during this whole Gatsby Culture at the moment. That’s added a lot of excitement to it and it’s been great to get to know a story I wasn’t really that aware of.

ML: My highlight was at the end of the first week- it had been so frantic getting everything together and during the end of Act I, I went out and had a look at it and it was really incredible to see it from the audience’s viewpoint.

LA: It really felt that all the different aspects really converged on Opening Night and that is so satisfying, just to marry all these things together and create something so beautiful!


Special thanks to Northern Ballet and to Sadler’s Wells.

Author: Will Ballantyne-Reid

Will is a London-based arts editor covering everything from classical dance and comedy, to fringe opera and fashion.