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Music by Alex Baranowski

Choreography by Jonathan Watkins

Northern Ballet

Palace Theatre, Manchester

14 October 2015

Tobias Batley and Martha Leebolt as Winston and Julia in 1984. Photo by Emma Kauldhar.

Tobias Batley and Martha Leebolt as Winston and Julia in 1984. Photo by Emma Kauldhar.

It was difficult to see beforehand how this one would quite work out.

I mean, what a subject to choose! A ballet based on George Orwell’s bleak dystopian novel, 1984. You’d suppose it could either be happy-go-lucky and light, and so lose the flavour of the book, or be dreary and downbeat and therefore not much of a ballet. For dance should always be uplifting, in my view.

Those were apparently the two available options, but no there was another path. Here in summary is how Northern Ballet did it: they made the flowering of Winston and Julia’s love for each other so wondrous and lyrical, so intense and intimate, that it overwhelmed all, pushed all the grim, grimy London darkness that we had been seeing up until then aside. This was at the close of the first act, the opening of the second. You forgot for the moment that Winston might well be being duped even here. And at the end, when the last spark of Winston’s humanity had been extinguished, those moments of passion acquired an awful, tragic poignancy. They haunted you. The result was a ballet at once moving and memorable and, impossible as it seemed beforehand, true to the spirit of the book. A highly impressive adaptation – and an instructive lesson about theatre too. The choice of 1984 was wholly vindicated.

The production had a lot going for it. The principal dancers, not least Martha Leebolt as Julia, were splendid. Alex Baranowski’s at times industrial-style score (at times not) stood out. Andrzej Goulding’s video design so impressed my companion that I’m now supposed to study some book on precarious visualities, otherwise I won’t be able to appreciate it fully. Jonathan Watkins’ spectacular choreography told the tale without speech or text of any kind, and I very much look forward to his next adaptation, which will no doubt be One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. He would certainly make it work.

1984 is showing at Manchester’s Palace Theatre until 17 October 2015 then tours throughout the UK. Full details are here.