The Northern Ballet is a dance company famous for their narrative productions and so in taking on ‘The Great American Novel’, they set themselves an incredible challenge.
Add to this that their ballet opened at Sadler’s Wells this week amidst widespread ‘Gatsby-mania’ and only three days prior to the premiere of Baz Luhrmann’s blockbuster-budget film adaptation, and you have a company faced with a really quite daunting task.
However, this is a production of incredible beauty and skill- not only in terms of David Nixon’s choreography and the dance performances but in the music of the late Sir Richard Rodney Bennett and in Jérôme Kaplan’s set design. Whilst trailers for Luhrmann’s film appear to be heavy with the glitter of the Roaring Twenties, Nixon’s production has a real lightness of touch, much more akin to Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 film adaptation, with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow in the lead roles. Coppola’s film is famous for its play with light and Nixon takes this concept and pushes it further than before; the gauze of the set for Gatsby’s mansion becomes symbolic of the façade of his wealth, the lightness of Daisy’s chiffon dresses reflects her fragility and instability, whilst in the Wilson’s garage George Wilson’s tensions with the cheating Myrtle throw shadows over the stage. Even the music has a lightness to it, allowing it to fizz in party scenes and lilt with the delicacy of these flawed human interactions, most poignantly in the actual ballet score which is imbued with inner sadness of the eponymous character.
In the roles of Gatsby and Daisy, Tobias Batley and Martha Leebolt are impressive not only physically but also in the way they so inhabit their roles, guided by co-director Patricia Doyle. Their performances are well-observed and fuel the narrative arc of the show, showing real research into two of the most famously complex characters in modern literature. Kenneth Tindall as Tom Buchanan was particularly impressive and well-cast for the role, as was Victoria Sibson whose physical energy was perfectly matched for the relentless ambition and passion driving Myrtle throughout the narrative. The scene in Act Two between Myrtle and her cuckolded husband George Wilson (Benjamin Mitchell), was an especially powerful piece with a complete convergence of choreography, costume, lighting and music. Mitchell was a stand-out dancer throughout the show for the power and visceral nature of his performance although whether this was suited to a character described as “spiritless and anaemic” in the book was a different question and not one for Mitchell himself to be accountable for. His solo scenes with a tyre as his only prop resonated deeply and had a beautifully simplistic and primal quality. The final scenes between Gatsby and Nick were also exceptional, as was the party scene at Myrtle’s apartment with the dancers moving from ecstatic, singing decadence to cold, hollow shock at Tom’s outburst. The use of voice and of other dance styles (Charleston, Jazz, Tango) really allowed the dancers to create a full world around the production.
This is a story that will be utterly inescapable over the coming months and it is for this reason that the Northern Ballet’s production is so exciting. Against all the surface buzz and shimmer of the Hollywood film, this production storms to the core of the story by bringing the focus back to the characters themselves, by way of the physical performance of the dancers. The decadence and aesthetic quality of the story can’t be- and isn’t- ignored but the real power of this show comes not from the glitter of the party scenes but the skill and visceral passion of the dancers. This is a ballet that will, like the novel, become a classic.