Northern Ballet has a longstanding repertoire tradition of narrative ballets, often based on iconic works of literature, and David Nixon’s 2013 realisation of Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby has coincided happily with a wider audience’s hunger for the nostalgic glamour of this perennial classic generated by the film version starring Leonardo di Caprio.   This production returned this week to Sadler’s Wells following its first sell-out run and garlanded with award nominations. Having missed it the first time round I seized a last minute opportunity to catch up with this popular company’s doings.

I certainly enjoyed Sir Richard Rodney Bennett’s music, a specially arranged selection of material including some great romantic melodies from his film scores and a couple of episodes from Jazz Calendar, skilfully and seamlessly stitched together by Northern’s musical team with the help of Rodney Bennett’s biographer Anthony Meredith. I did wonder whether the range of different styles incorporated from this protean composer mitigates against overall coherence of narrative and sense of period style; and although very touching to hear the composer’s own subtle rendition of the closing song, it seemed to belong in a different time. But it was a treat to hear the music played live by the excellent Northern Ballet Sinfonia, conjuring up luxurious sounds that belied their economical ensemble.

Jérôme Kaplan’s set design is a combination of minimalist plain white panels and drapes, and a wooden boardwalk; dropcloths of windows suggesting an ambiguous world shifting between reflection and transparency. These provided neutral frames for successions of period furniture and props, and glamorous costumes, shimmering and floating flapper frocks and marcelled hair to die for. But having the men in the nattiest of evening wear or three piece suits with canvas ballet slippers made it look as though they were walking round in their socks; jarring between period realism and balletic convention.

And this detail was symptomatic for me of a wider apparent lack of choreographic awareness throughout of the particularity of ballet as a means of expression, a need to look at its peculiarity and assess what it actually conveys, which is far from literal realism. It simply isn’t convincing to convey angst and grief with a perfectly held developé to the side. In David Nixon’s choreography generic gesture and facial expression seemed pasted over classroom steps of carefully academic execution, dramatic credibility subordinated to a beautiful body aesthetic.  With the honorable exception of the stylish Lucia Solari who lounged comfortably in her elegant costumes the main protagonists rarely overcame their dominant ballet dancer physicality and schooling to find an individual character in the quality of their movement. Despite manipulation of a tyre the elegantly extended lines and elaborate anguished floorwork of Matthew Topliss could not convince me of a boorish mechanic. A willing ensemble threw themselves into the frenetic partying, but the charlestons were too often infected with tweeness and balletic distance.

At a structural level there seems a similar lack of realism as to what kind of narrative information wordless dancing can convey, and how literary works translated to dance consequently need adaptation and a change of focus. I did not read the synopsis before, but if one didn’t already know the story I suspect you would gain little idea of the detail it included from the onstage action.  Entering with suitcases may suggest a journey, but whose – his? hers? theirs? For anyone not sitting relatively close, throwing a small object at someone was incomprehensible – impossible to distinguish it as a car key, and even if one could, how are we to know whose, or (given a plot twist which hinges on swapping of cars) which car’s? How would we know of the existence of two cars when we only see one? Apart from one recognizable repeated phrase cumbersome flashback sequences required signature blue light to indicate dream or reminiscence, the two dancers involved patently not the principal protagonists.

A packed house applauded enthusiastically, as who would not in admiration for a company of attractive dancers in aspirational endeavour to lush music?  This superficial work assumes far too much suspension of disbelief, falling back on old-fashioned theatrical clichés and the safety net of audience prior knowledge rather than plumbing the dance itself for emotional depth and telling human detail. It is possible to use a balletic language imaginatively to illuminate nuances of individual character and sentiment.  Choreographers of narrative works might usefully examine the tradition of effective storytelling in dance developed by de Valois and visible in the works of such as Ashton, Andrée Howard, Tudor, MacMillan and Cranko.  For a lesson in storytelling and evoking period style through danced embodiment and gesture, de Valois’s The Rake’s Progress should be required viewing: for how to dance tangled feelings in glasses and a waistcoat, see Anthony Dowell as Kulygin in MacMillan’s Winter Dreams; and for a masterclass in how to combine convincing period costume (including credible footwear), exquisite and inventive balletic material, and the expression of complex human relationships and emotions, close study of Ashton’s A Month in the Country is prescribed.

Susie Crow

26th March 2015


Read Maggie Watson’s review from 2013 here:

See Anthony Dowell as Kulygin with Darcey Bussell as Masha in Kenneth MacMillan’s Winter Dreams here:

See Nicola Katrak as the Betrayed Girl in de Valois’ The Rakes Progress here:

See the first part of Ashton’s A Month in the Country here: