Pirouettes on Airstrip One

Tobias Batley as Winston in Jonathan Watkins' production of 1984.
Tobias Batley as Winston in Jonathan Watkins' production of 1984.
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The first ever ballet adaptation of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 is about to get its world premiere in Leeds. Choreographer Jonathan Watkins talks to Sarah Freeman about realising his childhood dream.

There were two books which made an impression on the teenage Jonathan Watkins. The first was Kestrel for a Knave; the other was George Orwell’s 1984. It’s probably no surprise that Barry Hines’ 1968 novel struck such a chord. The tale of a young working class boy who finds escape from his troubles both at home and school by training a kestrel was set in the mining communities of Barnsley where Watkins himself grew up.

“That story is in my veins,” says the 31-year-old, who found his own escape through dance. “It’s in the veins of a lot of people who grew up where I did. It’s hard not to feel a connection to it. It’s something you just can’t avoid.” Over the years Watkins, who won a prestigious choreography competition while he was still a student at the Royal Ballet School, regularly returned to the by now well-thumbed copies of both novels and each time he did the idea of adapting the books he loved so much for the stage grew.

Last year, he got a chance to put the theory to the test. Having notched up an impressive CV, working with renowned British, Russian and New York companies, just five years after he made his main stage debut Watkins was settling into a seat at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre at the opening night of his dance version of Kes. The show premiered to rave reviews, with the dark and often gritty pages of Hines’s novel effortlessly transferring to the stage – as one reviewer put it, it was a production to “make your heart soar”.

Less than 18 months on and clearly buoyed by the success of making his first childhood dream a reality, Watkins is back in Yorkshire. This time he’s moved a few miles up the M1 to Leeds where he is working with Northern Ballet to produce the first ever full-length ballet adaptation of 1984.

“I first read 1984 when I was 14 or 15 years old and, like Kes, it made a real impression on me. It’s about how we behave when we think we are being watched, it’s about conformity and it’s about how we can try to break out of the boxes other people want to put us in.

“What makes it such an incredible work is that whenever you pick it up, it always feels like it’s relevant. As someone said to me only the other day, it doesn’t feel like it’s about 1984, it feels like it’s about now. Certainly there is a real resonance with how we live our lives in 2015.

“The rise of technology means that whether we realise it or not we are all monitored more than we ever have been and what Orwell did was take the idea of surveillance to its logical and terrifying conclusion.”

For anyone who hasn’t read 1984 – and there can’t be that many given its almost permanent presence on the school curriculum – the story is simple. Written in 1949, Orwell envisioned a world 35 years into the future where every aspect of life in Britain, renamed Airstrip One, was controlled by the Party.

Into this world comes Winston Smith. He works at the ironically named Ministry of Truth rewriting records of the past in accordance with the official, sanitised version of events. Like everyone else, his life is constantly monitored, but away from the gaze of the surveillance cameras, Winston has a secret diary and a secret love, Julia. However, it doesn’t take long 
for these small acts of defiance to come to the attention of the Thought Police and when Winston is sent to Room 101 to confront his worst fears, it seems that not even love can prevent the system from breaking him.

The Penguin paperback runs to 360-odd pages and Watkins admits that the adaptation process was a laborious one.

“Of course I knew the story, I’d read it so many times, but I needed to know every detail. So I sat down, read and re-read it until I was at the point where I could have probably recited it word for word. After that I began mapping out each of the scenes so I had my own storybook for the piece.

“There was a film version of the book starring John Hurt and Richard Burton and the play has been staged a thousand times, but I had a blank canvas – as far as we are aware no-one has ever tried to do it as a ballet.”

There may be good reason for that. When anyone presents a new version of a classic novel, the somewhat inevitable response is that it doesn’t capture the spirit of the original.

Watkins, however, was undeterred. It is, he says, the story, not the medium which is all important. He met the company of Northern Ballet for first rehearsals five weeks ago and with media interest in the production high, ever since he’s been juggling pulling the show together with a steady round of interviews.

“I’m not going to complain, it’s fantastic that people seem so interested in what we are doing here, but it has been quite intense. I can just about see the light at the end of the tunnel, but there have been nights when we have all walked out of here on our knees. Bringing a story that people love so much does have its challenges. It was the same last year when we did Kes.

“Yes, hopefully it brings a different kind of audience to the theatre, one which might not otherwise book tickets for the ballet, but when you say: ‘Ok, we are going to turn Kes into a ballet’, people understandably don’t know what to expect and I guess they are a little dubious that you can pull it off. I remember the first night of Kes, as soon as we got to the pub scene you could visibly notice a change in the atmosphere, it was almost as though the audience collectively said: ‘Ah ok, now we get what you’re trying to do’.”

Watkins will be hoping for a similar moment of enlightenment, come next week when the curtain goes up on 1984, and with Northern Ballet stalwarts Tobias Batley and Martha Leebolt dancing Winston and Julia, he says, he feels the production is in safe hands.

“I worked with Toby on a piece for Northern Ballet’s recent 40th anniversary gala. Martha is a complete joy to be in the studio with and this really is an amazing group of dancers. By the time you get to first night, you shouldn’t be in the position where you are having to watch through your fingers. I’m not saying that I will be entirely relaxed, of course there’ll be nerves, but there comes a point during rehearsals where you hand the work over to the company. It’s all about trust.”

Behind the scenes the team has been working on the costumes, lighting and score, with Watkins trying to achieve a timeless quality to the production.

“I didn’t want the audience to sit there and think: ‘Oh, this feels like it’s the 1980s’ or ‘This must be a contemporary setting’,” he says. “It’s the story, not the setting which is important, but yes, of course we want to create something which looks beautiful.”

After its premiere at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, 1984 will go on tour, but Watkins is already thinking about other projects. “I’ll have realised a long-held dream by adapting both Kes and 1984 and I do feel very privileged, but there is always something new to work on. There are a couple of other books I’d really like to have a go at. I’m not going to say which ones, though, that would spoil the surprise.”

Northern Ballet’s 1984, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, September 5 to 12, then touring. 0113 213 7700, www.wyp.org.uk

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