Goodness, Northern Ballet are an appealing company. Their dancers are cheerful, charismatic and talented; their ethos one of hard work and unflagging dedication to outreach, bringing the delights of ballet to as wide an audience as possible across their mostly northern catchment area. A new full-length story ballet based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, choreographed by David Nixon, is the perfect project for this energetic, enthusiastic ensemble – the characters are strong, the locations distinctive, the atmosphere unforgettable. But Gatsby adaptations are tricky to pull off – witness the ambivalence attending the release of Baz Luhrmann’s new movie version – at least in part because the novel, despite its obviously filmic qualities, actually derives much of its effect from an intense evocation of the intangible and invisible: moods, feelings, suspicions. Moreover, the characters are hard-to-nail cocktails of mannerisms, some of which – like Daisy’s murmur – cannot be translated into dance.

Northern Ballet dancers Tobias Batley (Jay Gatsby) and Martha Leebolt (Daisy Buchanan) in David Nixo © Bill Cooper
Northern Ballet dancers Tobias Batley (Jay Gatsby) and Martha Leebolt (Daisy Buchanan) in David Nixo
© Bill Cooper

Given these difficulties, Northern Ballet did a pretty good job with Gatsby. Their principal dancers were beautifully matched to their parts and acted flat-out. Tall, dark Tobias Batley was a handsome enigma as Gatsby, although perhaps a little too remote to evoke all our sympathy. Martha Leebolt played Daisy with a brittle smile throughout; a touch more nuance might have been nice, but the frenetic energy of her dancing was spot-on. Daisy’s husband Tom came across much better in this production than he does in the book, in part because Kenneth Tindall, although absolutely right for the part in physical presence, had far too likeable a face to be entirely convincing as the disaffected over-wealthy philanderer. Giuliano Contadidi made an eager Nick Carraway; and Hannah Bateman played his love interest, the golfer Jordan Baker, with a cool smile and fluid body. Victoria Sibson was a particularly fine Myrtle, with muscular shoulders and a brash style. Her mechanic husband George was played by Benjamin Mitchell as something more like Stanley Kowalski than Fitzgerald’s unhappy cuckold, but that was a choice fully justified by Mitchell’s gorgeous dancing: in his first smouldering solo he poured himself over and through a car tire, while his angry pas de deux in the bedroom with Myrtle was one of the best scenes of the whole ballet.

The sets (Jerôme Kaplan), costumes (David Nixon) and lighting (Tim Mitchell) were extremely well done, particularly since there are so many locations in Gatsby and the action moves fairly rapidly between them. I especially liked the long wooden jetty, which was set against a backdrop lit with consummate skill to evoke the silvery seascape of Long Island Sound, and the fairy-light-sprinkled treetops which furnished Gatsby’s garden. The lighting in general was extremely fine – the late evening phase of the outdoor party took place in the brownish, watery glow of a Long Island iced tea, while the Buchanans’ home in West Egg was cool and cream, like the billowing curtains which identified it. The Roaring Twenties are surely a gift to a costume designer; everyone in this production looked good, and the women’s dresses at Gatsby’s big party, in particular, were a delightful mix of whirling, coloured chiffons and sequins.

With so much plot to get through, the choreography was frequently subordinate to the storytelling, rather than an essential part of it. As a result there was perhaps slightly more walking around than strictly necessary, a couple of flashbacks too many, and a quite perplexing superfluity of strange men (mobsters, I presume) in near-comically villanous black trenchcoats. Those small criticisms aside, the choreography was easy on the eye (though rarely sublime) and executed with verve and style. The big showpiece party scenes sparkled: the broad smiles of the dancers and the toe-tapping live-jazz score couldn’t fail to raise a smile. The pas de deux between Daisy and Gatsby and the several interesting pas de trois and pas de quatre between the main characters were sometimes a little monotone in both dancing and emotion, but became more gripping as the ballet went on and the emotional stakes were raised. By the end of the second act, the audience was rapt with attention, watching in fascinated horror as the tension between Gatsby and the Buchanans came to a head during the sweaty New York City afternoon. The ending would have been better paced without the flashbacks – and once the curtain dropped I didn’t feel I knew any more about Gatsby than I did at the beginning.

Still, David Nixon and Northern Ballet have made a commendable effort with difficult material and created a charming, enjoyable ballet. Is it as good as reading Fitzgerald? No – but it makes for a very pleasant evening at the theatre.

***11