Northern Ballet’s 1984 begins with a literary act of rebellion: Tobias Batley’s Winston enters an antique store and buys a blank diary. During this dreamlike opening scene, Chris Davey’s lighting shines a spotlight on the solitary protagonist. It is critical that Winston is first seen alone; the result is he never seems part of the oppressed masses of Oceania. He is somehow different, one to watch.

Such staging complements the magnificent dancing. Batley and Leebolt make a stunning pair: the culmination of their pent-up passion at the end of Act 1 is a jaw-dropping display of two dancers at the height of their prowess.

It is exactly this emphasis on watching that ensures George Orwell’s novel works so well on stage. The audience, always watching and judging the action, are forced to examine the similarity between their voyeurism and the omnipresent Big Brother. Orwell’s text is a meditation on the consequences of a totalitarian, technological society. Northern Ballet’s set cleverly emphasises the technological: Big Brother’s eyes are projected on screen at the back of the stage, always watching, always blinking. In the moments when Winston and Julia (Martha Leebolt) believe themselves to be free from this gaze, the telescreens blur with indistinct images, but the dancers’ reflections are still glimpsed in the reflections of the surveillance cameras.

Aesthetically, 1984 relies on contrast: the uniformity of the blue Ministry of Truth workers juxtaposed with the red sash worn by the rebellious Julia. The geometric, cubist Ministry interior versus the vibrant, liberating meadow in which Julia and Winston consummate their relationship.

Such staging complements the magnificent dancing. Batley and Leebolt make a stunning pair: the culmination of their pent-up passion at the end of Act 1 is a jaw-dropping display of two dancers at the height of their prowess. Jonathan Watkins’ choreography is sensual, dramatic and touching. Crucially, Watkins excels in the big moments but also understands the importance of the small. The recurring motif of the couple holding hands is truly poignant; this is a production that triumphs human interaction as solidarity against adversity.

The production successfully depicts the Party oppression: the clockwork, unified movement of the Ministry workers is disturbing and Alex Baranowski’s score ensures the viewer can never be wholly swept up in the romance: discordant chords jar the romantic strings. Effectively, Simon Daw’s costumes emphasise the story’s timelessness: the A-line skirts, victory rolls and breeches evoke Orwell’s 1940s more than an ultramodern future.

Unfortunately, whilst the denouement retains its sense of the nightmarish, the intricacies of the plot and the intensity of the threat become lost in the mayhem and disorder. The required plot exposition make the finale less effective than the impressive previous scenes.

Nevertheless, Northern Ballet’s 1984 remains a passionate, dramatic and beautifully danced reworking of George Orwell’s prophetic classic.

Reviews by Francesca Street

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The Blurb

Winston Smith lives in a world of absolute conformity, his every action is scrutinized by Big Brother. However, when Winston meets Julia he dares to rebel by falling in love.

Based on George Orwell's masterpiece and created by Guest Choreographer and former Royal Ballet dancer Jonathan Watkins, 1984 will change the way you think about ballet.

The brand new score from Tony-nominated Composer Alex Baranowski, who has recently worked with award-winning band The xx, is played live by Northern Ballet Sinfonia.

Pushing the boundaries of contemporary ballet, see this critically acclaimed new show as it tours Edinburgh, Southampton and London through spring 2016.

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