Northern Ballet’s take on The Great Gatsby is a stylish adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel.
Everyone is going gaga for Gatsby right now; it’s the era of the moment. The resurgence is influencing fashion, making its mark in Hollywood and inspiring new London fringe theatre shows. So, my invitation to see Northern Ballet’s latest blockbuster production seemed perfectly timed!
The story focuses on American life straight after the First World War, when the United States and much of the world experienced huge economic expansion. This surging economy meant easy money, hard drinking (flying in the face of Prohibition) and lavish parties.
Peripheral narrator Nick Carraway moves east to New York’s Long Island in the spring of 1922. Here, he rents a house in a wealthy but unfashionable area populated by the ‘new rich’ (those who have recently acquired their money, lack established social connections and are prone to garish displays of wealth). Soon, he is drawn to mysterious neighbour Jay Gatsby – a millionaire with a secret past and a penchant for lavish parties and beautiful women.
Nick spends time with his second cousin Daisy and her husband Tom Buchanan and meets Tom’s mistress Myrtle (married to mechanic George Wilson). Our protagonist then has a tentative romance with pro-golfer Jordan Baker and gets to know Gatsby – reflecting upon just how empty life among the wealthy can be. Ultimately, behind the optimism and frivolity of the decadent jazz age, hypocrisy and shallow recklessness pervade.
Artistic Director David Nixon had the surely daunting task of translating the much-lauded book to ballet. He is passionate about creating innovative full-length ballets and attracting new audiences. Consequently the company is known for its stunning story-telling (past successes have included adaptations of Peter Pan, Beauty and the Beast and Wuthering Heights).
My fellow audience members and I were expecting to have a “roaring” good time as the curtain rose on a story of wartime romance, mobster violence, excess, regret and fatal love affairs.
Those familiar with the novel will instantly recognise the distinctive personalities of the main players as the characterisation is exemplary. Movement, gestures, costume and interactions ensure that well-educated outsider Nick; arrogant Tom; pretty but superficial Daisy; beautiful but cynical Jordan; hard-grafting garage mechanic George Wilson; vivacious Myrtle and mysterious Jay Gatsby are immediately identifiable and maintain their personas throughout.
In the novel, Tom is described as “sturdy” with a “rather hard mouth and a supercilious manner”. On the stage it is at once apparent that Tom (portrayed on opening night by Kenneth Tindall) is the “baddie” of the piece. His “woman in New York” is Myrtle Wilson, who the prose describes as having ‘an immediate perceptible vitality about her as if the nerves of her body were continually smouldering’. In light of this, Victoria Sibson as Myrtle gives a stand-out performance. She dances with a reckless abandon, filling the stage with her desire to break free from the social class she has married into (seeing Tom as not only a lover but a step up from her mechanic husband).
This husband (portrayed by Benjamin Mitchell) gives his own impressive performance in a series of contemporary solos, with the addition of props which include a tyre and suitcases. The defining choreography for Daisy (Martha Leebolt) focuses on her pretty, prim and proper socialite standing (plenty of delicate arms and graceful chaîné – connected – turns).
This contrasts cleverly with the choreographic motifs which lend themselves to Jordan (Hannah Bateman) and her assertive, assured personality. The athletic Jordan (clothed in a stylish trouser suit adorned with butterflies and matching head band) moves in a much more relaxed way to the dainty Daisy (exquisitely costumed in silk).
Nick Carraway is the first-person narrator in the book, slightly on the outside of the social group, looking in. A pas de trois between Jay Gatsby (Tobias Batley), Daisy (Martha Leebolt) and Nick (Giuliano Contadini) perfectly captures the essence of Nick’s role.
As a narrator, Nick is both disapproving and admiring of Gatsby’s excesses. He finds himself romanticising events and becoming swept up in the nostalgia – although seemingly the innocent bystander, Nick is actually integral to the story. Nick ensures the reunion of Daisy and Gatsby and his reflections upon events are what cement the themes of the book (social class, love, deceit, memory, morality, the American Dream). Fittingly, the pas de trois just before the end of Act 1 beautifully shows Nick safely seeing Daisy reunited with Gatsby.
Similarly, in the novel there are imaginings and acts of re-telling as Nick presents events as they appeared to him at the time. There are also sections where he offers his own interpretations of the story’s meaning and the motivations of the other characters. So in this production, the use of a “Young Jay” and a “Young Daisy” in memory sequences allows the narrative to explore the past in a similar way.
Generally, turning ballet dancers into 1920’s partygoers is a clever move. The fashion and etiquette of the time involved polite partying with poise and oodles of style – conduct easily mastered by Northern Ballet’s dancers. They perfectly embody the roles of high society flappers and well-groomed gents to illustrate Gatsby’s extravagant parties. Still, Nixon pushes his dancers, using movement and rhythms influenced by the dance crazes of the time. So, we see a dazzling Charleston and a sensual, balletic Tango (performed in hold and en pointe).
It is always a pleasure to watch male dancers perform, particularly in joyous group scenes. Company dancer Sean Bates is from Milton Keynes and trained at the Royal Ballet School and he did us proud with some powerful jumps and strong grand jetés (leaps) as a party guest.
Jérôme Kaplan’s stunning sets and Julie Anderson’s chic costumes faultlessly depict time and place – particularly in creating the contrast between the elegant soirées and dingy garage. My only criticism as a fan of the book is that the infamous car does not play more of a part.
Turning literature into dance is a fascinating but intimidating concept, particularly with a novel like ‘The Great Gatsby’, which boasts a complicated literary plot with many themes. The prose is specific, imbued with observations which convey the longing for dreams that are, in truth, better dreamt than experienced in reality. Interpretation of literature into ballet must use these words and the tone for inspiration.
Fortunately, Northern Ballet always delivers when it comes to performing narrative pieces and the production definitely encapsulates the spirit of ‘The Great Gatsby’. Still, I would strongly advise that those completely unfamiliar with the story consult the programme. The brief synopsis will ensure the sublime dancing and stylish scenes are fully appreciated. With inspiration from such a classic novel, Nixon’s creative ability and a company of talented dancers, the end result is totally absorbing.
*Production photography by Bill Cooper.
Northern Ballet’s The Great Gatsby continues at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 20th April 2013.
Georgina Butler is a journalist, a dance writer and a dance teacher who specialises in teaching classical ballet. She previews and reviews productions, writes features and interviews people from the world of dance.