George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four was published over 65 years ago, but seems prescient and relevant to every new generation of readers. Its ideas are so powerful that it has influenced every portrayal of dystopia ever since. It has been adapted for film, television, radio and stage, and inspired musical interpretations from pop to opera. Last month, a new stage adaptation completed its run at London’s Playhouse Theatre. Paul Greengrass, Director of the Bourne films, is developing a new film, (the first since Michael Radford’s version, starring John Hurt, was released in the actual year 1984). And now there is 1984: The Ballet from Jonathan Watkins and Northern Ballet.

The ballet premiered to positive reviews last month in Leeds and is now touring. It plays at Manchester’s Palace Theatre from Wednesday 14 to Saturday 17 October, then goes on to Sheffield Lyceum (Tuesday 20 to Saturday 24 October) and on to Edinburgh, Milton Keynes and Southampton before reaching London’s Saddlers Wells next May.

A large part of Orwell’s last book is concerned with how language and the written historical record can be controlled to limit the ability of people to think and challenge the existing order. David Nixon, Northern Ballet’s Artistic Director, acknowledged audiences might find it a challenge imagining how words from the page can be interpreted into movement on the stage. Tobias Batley, one of the dancers who plays the central character of Winston Smith (and who coincidentally was born in 1984), said that at its heart 1984 is a love story which ends tragically – classic ballet material.

Choreographer Jonathan Watkins said the themes of rigid control and freedom, which are central ideas in 1984, immediately suggested the control the choreographer has over a dancer’s movements. Watkins draws on contemporary dance as much as classical ballet, and uses multimedia in what is the latest in a series of dramatic adaptations by Northern Ballet. Music comes from Tony-nominated composer Alex Baranowski. He recently worked with the band The xx and previously worked with Watkins and Northern Ballet on Kes, based on Ken Loach’s 1969 film and Barry Hines’ book A Kestral For A Knave.

Watkins was also behind The Machine, which was part of Manchester International Festival 2013. So, with set and costume design by Simon Daw, 1984 is as much a contemporary mixed media event as a ballet and given the continued relevance of Orwell’s masterpiece, it will undoubtedly appeal to an audience who might not ordinarily see a ballet.

Background photo by Guy Farrow.
David Dunnico is a documentary photographer from Manchester.
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David Dunnico