Northern Ballet to bring George Orwell’s classic 1984 to the West Yorkshire Playhouse

Northern Ballet dancers in rehearsal for 1984

Northern Ballet dancers in rehearsal for 1984 - Credit: Archant

An acclaimed young choreographer returns to his Yorkshire roots for the world premiere of his ballet based on a literary classic. Andrew Vine reports. Photographs by Justin Slee

Jonathan Watkins in rehearsal for Northern Ballet's adaptation of Orwell's1984

Jonathan Watkins in rehearsal for Northern Ballet's adaptation of Orwell's1984 - Credit: Archant

It is the chilling story of surveillance, control and the betrayal of love that has unsettled readers for generations. George Orwell’s classic 1984 captivated choreographer Jonathan Watkins when he was a teenager, and now he has created the first full-length ballet based on it and which had its world premiere in his native Yorkshire.

Northern Ballet brought Jonathan’s ambitious and visually striking re-telling of the story to the West Yorkshire Playhouse, in Leeds, last month and the production is now touring nationally during the autumn and into spring 2016.

For Jonathan, 31, the production brings to life a project that has been bubbling away in his mind for half his life. It also brings him back to his Yorkshire roots. Jonathan was just 12 when he left his native Barnsley to attend the Royal Ballet School in London, which marked the beginning of a career that is winning him ever-increasing acclaim.

Orwell’s novel about Ministry of Truth worker Winston Smith’s doomed struggle against a totalitarian state which shackles its subjects under the remorseless surveillance by Big Brother struck Jonathan as perfect for his narrative approach to ballet.

Principal dancers Martha Leebolt who plays Julia and Tobias Batley is David Winston in Northern Ball

Principal dancers Martha Leebolt who plays Julia and Tobias Batley is David Winston in Northern Ballet's adaptation of George Orwell's 1984 - Credit: Archant

‘I came across it and read it, and it stuck with me from then on,’ he said. ‘When I went on to do more abstract things choreographically in the Royal Ballet, I touched on some of the themes in the book, like individuality.

‘As I developed and started being interested in more narrative work, it had been bubbling away in my mind. When Northern Ballet approached me to create something, 1984 was my only way to go, really.’

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And he believes that Orwell’s world of surveillance strikes a particular chord with today’s audiences accustomed to CCTV cameras and playing out their lives via social media.

Jonathan said: ‘The story has a lot of resonance for the times we live in, and that’s what I’m really interested in. We are living it, and purely by telling that story it feels to me that people have a hook, and it’s relevant to them.’

The ballet unfolds against a backdrop of screens that underline how Smith and his illicit lover, Julia, risk being seen and caught by the authorities.

Bringing their story to the stage has been a lengthy process since Northern Ballet’s artistic director, David Nixon, invited Jonathan to create a new work. ‘I probably read the book twice before I started on this project, and then I’ve read it lots over the past year, and done my adaptation of it scene by scene for what’s important for our production,’ said Jonathan.

‘That gets honed throughout the process by working with the designer on the set and questioning the world we’re creating, and again working with the composer on the score and on what’s going to drive the scenes and the atmosphere.

‘As all those different aspects come together it channels and focuses the story so I come into rehearsals and I have very much not only a scene by scene narrative but a musical narrative as well.

‘It’s how to tell the story in this unspoken different medium, but using dance you can show how people are controlled, and the conformity, and that contrasts with Winston who thinks he’s not being seen and he’s starting his diary.’

The production is set to an original score by Tony-nominated composer and arranger Alex Baranowski and the creative team also includes set and costume designer Simon Daw.

Jonathan trained in Yorkshire before moving to London to study, graduating and earning a place with the Royal Ballet in 2003. His talent won him the Kenneth Macmillan Choreography Award at the age of 16 and he has since created productions for the Royal Opera House, New York City Ballet and the Ekaterinburg Ballet Theatre, in Russia.

Last year, Yorkshire audiences welcomed him home and he won critical acclaim for creating Kes, a dance theatre adaptation of Barry Hines’s book, A Kestrel for a Knave, for Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. That story of how a bird of prey transforms the life of a lonely young boy had, like 1984, captivated Jonathan as a child.

The opportunity to work once more in his native county thrills Jonathan. He said: ‘I love it, because I had this wonderful experience with Kes in Sheffield last year and that was great, and to be returning and working with Northern Ballet is just brilliant.

‘I left Barnsley and went down to London when I was 12, and working there we never really travelled up north, and when I stepped away on my own it’s just been great to come back up and create something.

‘My brother has just moved near Hebden Bridge, where I’ve never been before, so I’ll be seeing some countryside for a breather. I always like discovering different areas of Yorkshire.’