Northern Ballet’s Gatsby Raises Questions

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Richard Rodney Bennett CBE (orch. Longstaff, Sutherland), The Great Gatsby: Artistes of Northern Ballet, Northern Ballet Sinfonia / John Pryce Jones (music director/conductor), Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London, 14.5.2013. (JO’D)

Nick Carraway: Giulano Contadini
Myrtle Wilson: Victoria Sibson
George Wilson: Benjamin Mitchell
Jordan Baker: Hannah Bateman
Daisy Buchanan: Martha Leebolt
Tom Buchanan: Kenneth Tindall
Jay Gatsby: Tobias Batley
Young Daisy: Michela Paolacci
Young Gatsby: Jeremy Curnier

Choreography, Direction & Costume Design: David Nixon OBE
Co-Direction: Patricia Doyle
Set Design: Jérôme Kaplan
Lighting Design: Tim Mitchell
Music Advisor: Anthony Meredith
Ballroom Instructor: Howard Bullock
Costume Design Assistant: Jule Anderson

‘You can’t repeat the past,’ Nick Carraway, the narrator of F.Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’, tells the character who gives the book its name. ‘Why of course you can!’ is the latter’s reply. For the past five years he has been preparing to do just that by acquiring wealth and a lifestyle to go with it in order to win back the woman he loved but was too poor to marry.

In the most haunting and effective moments of Northern Ballet’s version of the story, the past and present are on stage at the same time as Gatsby and Daisy (now unhappily married to the pugnacious Tom Buchanan) dance alongside their younger selves; he in a First World War uniform, she in a dress that is five years closer to the fashions of the nineteenth century. The older Gatsby reaches back to both these figures, but they remain at a blue-lit distance. At one point there are even three versions of the younger couple, standing on the other side of a large window like reflections that Gatsby believes he can make real, but which we know he can’t.

The sense of nostalgia is one aspect of the book that this production clearly conveys. Elsewhere it can seem to borrow too much from the ‘Gotta Dance’ sequence in ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ (Nick Carraway arriving in New York with a suitcase), or the ‘Girl Hunt Ballet’ in ‘The Bandwagon’ (the mackintoshed gangsters that Gatsby employs to make his money). Class difference is largely ignored. (It is a pity that Gatsby is never seen wearing his pink suit.) Nick Carraway is no longer the narrator, just a character. This means that the people around him have to be taken at face value, as it were.

The dancing is fast-paced and energetic during the party scenes, while in the more intimate exchanges the precisely executed footwork becomes the dialogue that the characters speak. At times, though, it is as if a certain rawness or seediness were missing. This may be due, in part, to Sir Richard Rodney Bennett’s music, which can sound like inoffensive but rather monotonous pastiche. It may also due to the fact that ballet dancers are, as a rule, young and attractive. So, with his carefully ripped T-shirt, dungarees and provocative way with tyres, George Wilson (the garage mechanic husband of Tom Buchanan’s mistress, Myrtle) is more like the Herb Ritts photograph than the sickly, faded figure he is in the book (and was applauded as such). And Nick’s ‘old Finn’ cook becomes a girl in a lace cap. Any rawness there is centres around the character of Myrtle who falls flat on her face (a moment of real shock in a ballet) when punched in the face by Tom, and who runs out to her death in the road when her husband tries to lock her up.

For all the things that it does well (the performances, the costumes, Gatsby’s yellow car), this production still begs the question: ‘Is a ballet version of The Great Gatsby really possible?’

John O’Dwyer