Jonathan Watkins brought his dancing career with The Royal Ballet to a premature end in order to concentrate on his choreographic ambitions: a career transition that has quickly taken this young man as far afield as New York and Texas to the west; and Ekaterinburg and Manila to the east. But, it’s in his native Yorkshire that Watkins is in repeat demand. Having recently created a dance theatre interpretation of Kes (based on Barry Hynes' book, A Kestrel for a Knave) at the Sheffield Crucible and a hilarious triptych of brief dances to comic monologues by Stanley Holloway in A Northern Trilogy, which celebrated Northern Ballet's 45th anniversary, he has returned to Leeds to create a full-length ballet, based on George Orwell's last great work, 1984.

Tobias Batley as Winston and Martha Leebolt as Julia © Emma Kauldhar
Tobias Batley as Winston and Martha Leebolt as Julia
© Emma Kauldhar
Watkins' commission is a departure from the norm for Northern Ballet, which has developed a strong reputation based upon full evening narrative dance theatre made by the company's own director, David Nixon. Nixon was not initially convinced that Orwell's dystopian novel of corrupt power was a sound choice for balletic interpretation but he was eventually won over by the young choreographer's passion and the support of the Orwell Society. The Patron of that organisation, the author's son, Richard Blair, was present at this world première and clearly very impressed with Watkins' treatment of his father's novel. 

The choreographer’s passion and commitment to the project is articulated into an exciting ballet that represents the doomed idealism of 1984 with considerable style and a clarity that matches the impactful simplicity of Orwell's prose. It is testament to the skill of dramaturge Ruth Little that it is not necessary to know the novel – or read the programme notes – to understand the ballet. Aside from his choreography, Watkins has clearly exercised a close control of all other artistic inputs to realise a concept that he has imagined since first reading the novel, aged 15. His directorial overlay has built a harmonious integration of all the elements.   

Tobias Batley as Winston and Martha Leebolt as Julia © Emma Kauldher
Tobias Batley as Winston and Martha Leebolt as Julia
© Emma Kauldher
Simon Daw's costume designs are constrained by the requirement of uniformity in the party's drab blue/grey outfits but his set designs hit the dual jackpot of ingenuity and innovation. Momentum is maintained by mobile scenery that is discretely manipulated by the performers in quick transitions and, although this reduces the useable stage space, Chris Davey's clever lighting mitigates any deleterious impact. Daw's representation of the supposed oasis of privacy in Mr Charrington's junk store as a super-tall, narrow, rickety shelving unit was very smart. For once, the integration of digital technology into a ballet works well with Andrzej Goulding’s video designs starkly manifesting Big Brother’s ubiquitous telescreens.  

Alex Baranowski's composition is that rare example of a new bespoke score for ballet that works at first hearing, providing a richly diverse tapestry as a descriptive overlay to Watkins' choreography. It has a surprising quality of Russianness, with an assortment of 19th and 20th century references. The orchestra pit in this modern theatre (built in 1990) is largely situated underneath the unraised stage, observed only through a narrow semi-circular grill, yet the orchestral sound quality appears undiminished by being banished to the basement.    

Tobias Batley as Winston in Northern Ballet's 1984 © Emma Kauldher
Tobias Batley as Winston in Northern Ballet's 1984
© Emma Kauldher
Baranowski's music establishes the controlled, industrial discipline of the "proles" in the ensemble sequences, where the brass section dominates; ascending string melodies represent the risky development of independent thought away from the prying telescreens; and the composer illustrates the burgeoning love affair (and rebellious thought crimes) of Winston Smith and Julia – respectively represented by the cello and clarinet – through their progressive duets. The first – closing Act I – has an accelerating, lustful intensity, perfectly matched by the luscious intensity of Watkins' choreography, replete with acrobatic lifts and lightning fast transitions. There is a depth of psychological expressionism in this choreography that I’ve not previously seen in Watkins’ shorter works.   

Tobias Batley and Martha Leebolt brought plausible emotional intensity to the lead roles of the rebellious party members, Winston and Julia; their relationship developed from the breakneck speed of the initial aforementioned duet to their gentle love-making (discreetly portrayed) in the supposedly secret room of Charrington's store. Javier Torres nailed the duplicitous character of the inner party member O'Brien with sinister sincerity; long-term company stalwart Hirano Takahashi brings an air of resigned indifference to the treacherous Charrington; and the rising young star dancer Kevin Poeung has an impressive cameo in a lovely classical solo as the poet, Ampleforth. Likewise Victoria Sibson as the “prole” woman Winston observes “singing” outside the junk store.   

Watkins' choreography is the powerful glue that binds all of this excellence into a cohesive whole and it is never better than in his several episodes for the party workers and proles where strong collective movement is matched by the slick unity of the Northern Ballet's corps de ballet. The versatility and clarity of this new ballet makes it an entertaining and excellent addition to the UK repertoire, proving yet again that the country's ballet tradition is not uniquely centred upon London.   

****1