Two love triangles, one man obsessed with another’s wife, death, murder and endless parties:  what could possibly go wrong?  Northern Ballet’s production of The Great Gatsby shows how difficult it is to construct a narrative ballet.

There was plenty to enjoy: not least the dancers’ vibrant energy, secure balances, zippy turns, sharp footwork and yearning adagio.  There were glorious moments, when Martha Leebolt (Daisy) rippled across the stage in whirling chainés turns, or Tobias Batley (Gatsby) and Giuliano Contadini (Carraway) tossed her into the air so that she flew between them like a bird, her feet beating the air.

The disappointment was that the David Nixon’s ballet did not build inexorably towards its climax, and so felt, emotionally, a little flat.  The anecdotal structure, accompanied by a compilation of pieces by Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, weakened the narrative thread, and overmuch detail from the book distracted from the main themes.  Nick Carraway and Jordan Baker (played by Hannah Bateman, who shows a lovely sense of épaulement in even the smallest movements) are essential to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book because he uses the one to narrate current events and the other to explain Daisy’s back-story.  This device is unsuitable for a ballet, and so the characters remain, but largely deprived of purpose.

There were scenes that would work well independently, rather than being indivisibly united with the dramatic whole, such as the one in which Benjamin Mitchell (George), earthy and muscular, dances with a tyre, before being joined by his blowsy, restless wife Myrtle (Victoria Sibson).  The careful story telling obscured some of the main cruxes of the drama.  I almost missed the disastrous moment of revelation, when Tom realises that he might lose both his wife and his mistress, but without it, nothing makes sense.  It is a complicated story – perhaps too complicated for a ballet – but the details of who takes which car are unimportant, so long as we can see that Tom is intent on revenge because he believes that Gatsby, who has designs on his wife, has killed his mistress,  Obsession, betrayal, jealousy and murderous vengeance are all that matter.

Dance is a wonderful way to express fierce indefinable passions, and to capture what is unsaid in a book.  This production misses that opportunity by being too literal: Gatsby’s desperate desire to turn back the clock, (“Can’t repeat the past?” he cried incredulously: “Why of course you can!”) seems to be represented by Young Daisy and Young Gatsby (Michaela Paolacci and Jeremy Curnier), who appear intermittently and dance charmingly; but it is a little dull. 

Visually, the production is sheer pleasure:  Jérôme Kaplan’s elegant set, beautifully lit by Tim Mitchell, enhances the choreography with its creative use of reflecting surfaces.  There was so much that I liked about this ballet that it was sad to feel let down.  It certainly did not slavishly follow the text, and it really does tell a story through dance, but it lacks the intense focus on the emotional narrative behind the events that would elevate it to higher level.

Maggie Watson

21 May 2013