How do you tell a story without words?
I love things to do with the 1920s, but I’ve never yet managed to read The Great Gatsby or see the films. I also love dance, but I’m so accustomed to spoken plays that I’ve often wondered how easily you can convey a storyline with no words at all. My understanding of the English National Ballet’s production of Romeo and Juliet to the famous Prokofiev score (which includes the music from The Apprentice for the uninitiated) was probably more down to knowledge of the plot. So I decided to conduct an experiment and see the first half of this ballet without reading the synopsis or character list – just watch.
Thankfully, Northern Ballet are very good storytellers: When I read my programme at the interval, I was quite pleased to have picked up about 70-80% of what was going on, and was able to piece together the rest from the synopsis (of course it would’ve been far easier if I’d read the programme first). Jay Gatsby throws legendary parties at his New York mansion, but the only thing he’s ever wanted is Daisy, the girl he met before he became an officer in the First World War. Daisy is in a loveless marriage with Tom Buchanan, who is having an affair with another man’s wife. When Daisy’s cousin Nick moves into the cottage next door to Gatsby, old feelings come to the fore.
If there’s one thing ballet does well, it’s representations of imagination and memory. There is a great use of symmetry and repetition as we see Jay Gatsby (Giuliano Contadini) and his younger self (Matthew Koon) dance various phrases simultaneously throughout the show. Equally we see this in Daisy (Antoinette Brooks-Daw) and her younger self (Rachael Gillespie). There is a lightness and hopefulness in the younger versions, contrasted with palpable sense of loss in the same movements by Brooks-Daw and Contadini. The body language between Daisy and Tom (Ashley Dixon) is very telling of their failing relationship and his mean, scowling posessiveness. Lucia Solari is effervescent as Daisy’s coquettish golfing friend Jordan Baker, and Joseph Taylor brings a little bit of physical comedy to his role as garage owner George Wilson.
Even when you’re not following the storyline, you can sit back and enjoy the spectacle of the multi-roling ensemble cast. The large party scenes ooze glamour and decadence. They dance the Charleston with wild abandon (those iconic moves are no mean feat in pointe shoes) – it’s the sort of joyful choreography that has you grinning like an idiot and wishing you were up on stage dancing with them. All of this is completed by a stunning minimalist set of moving panels and a few deco-inspired pieces that descend from above. The evocative lighting compliments each scene pefectly, hiding shadowy figures in the darkness until the right moment, making apartments seem cosy and accentuating the huge space, adding and ethereal touch to the memory episodes, particularly when Gatsby and friends stare out across the bay at a flashing green light on the far shore.
If you’re looking for an alternative place to start with ballet (rather than Swan Lake) this is a gloriously easy-to-follow production filled with stunning choreography, beautiful costumes and a toe-tapping jazz-era score. Can I see it again, please? Perhaps this time having read the book (or even just the synopsis).
The Great Gatsby is on until Saturday 28th March at Sadler’s Wells, Roseberry Avenue, London, EC1R 4TN. For tickets and more information, go to http://www.sadlerswells.com/whats-on/2015/northern-ballet/