“It’s not really a conventional romantic base for a ballet but that’s not really what I’m interested in at the moment,” explains Jonathan Watkins, talking to Big Issue North in the middle of a hectic rehearsal period with Northern Ballet for his version of 1984, which premieres in Leeds on Saturday.
“For me, at this point in my career, I want to make stuff that feeds in to our social consciousness now – that’s important to me as an artist. I think we need to reflect the times.”
An exciting talent, the 30-year-old Barnsley-born one-time dancer won his first choreographic award aged 16 at the Royal Ballet School and is gaining a name for choreographing unusual ballets that disturb the classical idea of the art form.
Northern Ballet artistic director David Nixon saw Watkins’ first full-length ballet, a version of gritty coming of age tale Kes in Sheffield last year and, after working with him on the company’s 45th anniversary gala, asked him to come up with ideas for a new work.
“I’ve always thought that it would make a really good modern ballet because you’ve got a lot of activity going on but it’s just a few focused characters. Also because of Winston’s journey against the system and all his internal thoughts that he writes down, that’s depicted in the production as a more fluid emotional movement that goes against the rigidity and uniformity of the party members, so it’s always had a visual construction in my mind as a dance piece.”
Watkins admits he’d been looking for an opportunity to realise it but Northern Ballet took some convincing. That’s perhaps not surprising given Orwell’s “two minute hates” and cages of rats as a torture device, but despite the company’s early reservations he says the dancers are perfect for telling the story.
“They’re all really brilliant dancers who all have a theatrical sense and they’re used to doing full length ballets based on books, so working from text.”
His creative team includes dramaturg Ruth Little, who Watkins worked with on Kes. She has worked with the dancers on vocal improvisations of parts of the book that help the creative process but won’t make it into the finished production.
“In the book they’re screaming and shouting and chucking stuff,” explains Watkins. “So there are tasks and things you can do to get into that frame of mind: shout and scream and ask – how does that affect your body?”
He promises that the finished production will be more fascinating and immersive than disturbing.
“It’s a very visual screen-controlled world so that’s quite something to see and I hope it feels like – because of the nature of the story and the very nature of seeing a production – you’re almost part of it.”
He concludes: “It’s not a happy ending but I think in the bleakness there are questions that come out of it. You know – what would I do?”
1984 premieres at West Yorkshire Playhouse, 5-12 September before touring nationwide
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