Scott Fitzgerald’s fantastic book came out in 1925 and rarely goes away. Last year we saw the daylong marathon that was Gatz – the bold experiment of a dramatised reading of the book in one fell swoop; for me not entirely successful, but certainly worth the attempt. And this year we have David Nixon’s dance version for Northern Ballet, set to the music of the late Sir Richard Rodney Bennett. We’ve seen a few of their productions in the past, all of them excellent, especially Romeo and Juliet, which had both of us sobbing into our Sauvignon Blancs. But rather like Gatz, this Gatsby is a jolly good stab at re-interpreting the book in another format, and like Gatz, doesn’t quite work.
Nevertheless there are plenty of aspects of the performance that are a sheer joy and well worth the ticket price. Primarily, you go to a dance to see dancers dance, right? On that level it works like a dream, as the company are in really good form, their technical ability stands out a mile and they must be amazingly fit to sustain those energy levels throughout the show. Other senses are appealed to as well; the costumes are superb, especially the ball gowns of the partying ladies and Myrtle’s stunning first act creation. The orchestra are superb, and recreate Bennett’s jazz, Charleston and other film music with intensity and excitement.
There are some particularly excellent set pieces. All the dance party scenes are lively and engaging, especially when Myrtle loosens up to Irving Berlin’s When The Midnight Choo Choo; Myrtle’s death is a vivid and startling piece of dance drama; and the entrance of guests to the Theme from Murder on the Orient Express is fun and feelgood. I loved the use of the sliding panels at each side of the stage to give extra entrance and exit spaces, and also to suggest a deeper stage than that provided at Milton Keynes; all part of excellent design by Jerome Kaplan.
So what’s the problem? It’s twofold, IMHO. It’s a brilliant book, written with such control and detachment. It’s not really about Gatsby; it’s not really a romantic novel about Gatsby/Daisy/Tom/Myrtle; rather it’s a somewhat cerebral examination of the outsider, Nick Carraway, and how he never quite fits in with society around him, playing at romance with Jordan but shying away when his cold interior is threatened, and observing the savagery of other relationships from a safe clinical distance. Gatsby himself is an enigma, an illusion; and it’s hard to engage emotionally with such characters. For all its beauty and elegance, there’s not a lot here to hang your heart on. At moments of high drama and sadness in the dance, Mrs Chrisparkle likened herself to Diana Morales, who, when faced with the death of Mr Karp, felt Nothing. Because it is a rather unemotional book, the dance lacks a little splash of passion.
Which brings me on to the choreography. For the majority of the characters, it seemed to me, David Nixon has provided some elegant and attractive gliding moves; specifically lots of twirling – not pirouettes on the spot, but the kind of spinning where they move over a large area of stage; lots of open arms at second position; lots of ladies’ legs being gracefully lifted and placed back down on stage at 90 degree angles. These are all beautiful moves, and they were all exquisitely performed. The only problem is that towards the end of the show I began to find the choreography rather samey. I wanted some variation, something quirky to stand out. The only two characters whose choreography had a different vibe were Myrtle and George, and as a result I found them much more interesting to watch; earthy, raw and physical, unembellished, unsophisticated and honest. Victoria Sibson gave a fantastic, expressive performance as Myrtle, shining with exuberance in the first act, desperate and restrained in the second; and she was matched perfectly by Benjamin Mitchell’s George whose Act One routine with the tyre was so confidently executed and whose Act Two grief had boundless athleticism.
Another quibble I had with the choreography was that the show seems to want to follow the original story so faithfully that, from the middle of the second half on, the dance gets bogged down in the minutiae of the story-telling. Individual passages from the book seemed to be expressed in dance form in such a precise way that you felt inadequate if you couldn’t understand every nuance, every dance conversation. I would have preferred a broader brush technique for these scenes – but maybe that’s just me.
There’s no denying the great performances from Martha Leebolt as Daisy, beautiful and flirtatious with Gatsby whilst risking the wrath of the brutish Tom, danced with great charisma by Kenneth Tindall, whose “slapping Myrtle” scene got a round of applause that disconcerted Mrs C. Hannah Bateman invested the character of Jordan Baker with warmth and charm, and she can make a golf swing look sexy. Giuliano Contadini was an immaculate Nick Carraway, who delivered some very deft dance moves in a way that made them look really easy; and Tobias Batley was Gatsby; measured, aloof, and technically fantastic.
David Nixon’s adaptation stops eight ninths of the way through the book – Gatsby’s death makes for a startling final curtain. In one sense it was a shame he couldn’t show the final chapter and reveal what subsequently happens to George, or Tom, or Nick, or Jordan. Considering the rest of the story had been so faithfully represented, I did feel it was a sudden ending that didn’t resolve all the issues. But maybe this just goes to show that The Great Gatsby is not an easy work to adapt. It was a pretty full house and the appreciative applause lasted long and loud. There is a lot to admire in this production and is certainly worth seeing; and even if it doesn’t succeed on all levels it’s still an inventive and enjoyable production and you come away in awe of the skill of the dancers.