Northern Ballet: The Great Gatsby – review

Grand Theatre, Leeds

Story ballets are the bread and butter of Northern Ballet's repertory, and it's easy to see why choreographer David Nixon was tempted by The Great Gatsby. The clothes, the jazz, the dance music, the fatal love affair – much of F Scott Fitzgerald's novel seems tailor-made for ballet. As a fiction, however, Gatsby works through a subtle balance of irony, concealment and point of view. It's all in the language, but language, of course, is difficult to choreograph.

For much of the first act, though, Nixon has a very good stab at it. He's given masterful help from designers Tim Mitchell and Jérôme Kaplan, whose skills with lighting and scrims shuffle the action adroitly between different scenes and time zones. To a collage of jazz music, we're shown Daisy and Gatsby's reunion played out against memories of their wartime love affair, and against intimations of the mobster violence that brought him his riches. Just as swiftly, we're initiated into Gatsby's moneyed lifestyle, as the action cuts between the verdant grounds of his house to such claustrophobic interiors as the Wilsons' garage and Tom Buchanan's grim little New York love nest.

In pure dance terms, the first act is equally successful. Many of the principal characters are vividly cast, especially Kenneth Tindall as an aggressively chunky Buchanan, and Giuliano Contadini, a precise, narrow Nick Carraway (the book's narrator). In the visceral, vernacular dance he creates for cuckolded mechanic George Wilson, and in his clever abstraction of busy street activity in Manhattan, Nixon's choreography really flies.

But things fall apart in the second half. Nixon struggles to give depth to the Daisy-Gatsby affair: while Martha Leebolt is a blithe and impetuous Daisy, Tobias Batley has no distinctive material to work with as Gatsby.

Even in their love duets, the choreography fails to rise above a one-note ecstasy; that may well be because Nixon has had to wade through so many accumulating complications of plot. The combination of jealous lovers and lurid deaths, the final confrontation between truth and illusion – all these are too unwieldy to translate into ballet terms. Halfway through, it becomes clear that Nixon and his team need the courage to cut themselves loose from Fitzgerald's original structure. There's a rather good ballet in this Gatsby, but it hasn't yet found its way on to the stage.

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Contributor

Judith Mackrell

The GuardianTramp

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