Norwich: Northern Ballet stage sassy take on The Great Gatsby
- Credit: Archant
It is stylish, sexy, sultry and sassy. The classic tale of loneliness and obsession The Great Gatsby is being transformed into a dance production by Northern Ballet just weeks before the highly-anticipated cinema version premieres. JOHN BULTITUDE finds out why it is a labour of love for creator David Nixon
LOVE, obsession, jealousy and power. These, coupled with some of the most stylish writing in modern literature, makes F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby a must-read for many.
One person who fell in love with it while studying the book is Northern Ballet’s artistic director David, inspired by the themes of hedonism and obsession.
Set on New York’s Long Island in the heady 1920s, it follows the friendship between Nick Caraway and his mysterious neighbour Jay Gatsby, renowned for having the best parties. As the two men get to know each other, Nick realises Gatsby’s image is more style than substance, unlocking a tale of loneliness, obsession and tragedy.
“It was probably one of my favourite novels when I was at school and I was about 17 when the movie with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow came out,” says David.
“I remember going on a class trip to see it because we were studying the book that year and I can remember being absolutely blown away by it. In fact, it was one of my only English essays I got a perfect score on, because I was so into it.”
When it comes to choosing the elements he enjoyed, the music and style are definitely top of the list.
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“There was a lot of dancing going on because of the nature of the period with the jazz and the charleston. It was also very glamorous, with a lot of good characters in it. The more characters the better for me.”
It’s not just down to personal taste, David thinks the title really appeals to audiences.
“People won’t venture out to a title they don’t know. They are attracted often by that rather than the dance or the production quality and those popular titles aren’t plentiful. You start to find yourself a bit limited but still want to create new work which, in turn, is important to the company. It made me think ‘what are we going to do’.
“There were two that came to mind and The Great Gatsby was the one I chose. It was a good piece to write a scenario for and it was dance-able. It was also selected at a time that it was proving popular again although, when I chose it, I didn’t know about the new movie.”
Sharing preparation duties with theatre director and actress Patricia Doyle, the writing didn’t come easy.
“Gatsby was particularly hard because when we started to sit down and write, we would end up just sitting and talking. With Gatsby, the language is just so wonderful in the book and you have to think about translating that into another genre.
“I also use the film for some visual inspiration but I don’t translate movies. It is definitely the book and the essence of the book. It is also important to say we are not doing the novel on point. We are doing the adaptation in dance of that story.”
David says Northern Ballet company are perfect for a production like this.
“It’s a youthful story. It features lots of young people for the most part, especially when you have the party scenes, and that is good. It is also a piece that will appeal to people of all ages. It really resonates across the board.”
The dancers have also enjoyed creating the roles. Hannah Bateman has been working on the part of Jordan, Carraway’s girlfriend for much of the novel.
“She was a really interesting character, particularly for the time period of the novel as she had real personal strength and put herself on a par with the men in the story,” she says.
“She is also a professional golf player and she knows how her world works. She isn’t manipulative but she knows how to protect herself within her group of friends and she also loves a good bit of gossip, as well as having an almost masculine strength.”
One of the big challenges has also been capturing the essence of Fitzgerald’s opulent language and translating it for the stage.
“I love the detailed descriptions of the parties. I’d love to go to a party like that,” says Martha Leebolt, who helped create the role of Daisy Buchanan, whose affections are torn between two men.
“That is what is difficult about this – getting the story across when it is such a ‘wordy’ book. We’ve spent a lot of time on this in rehearsals and David will often go over something lots of times before we get to the definitive answer of how to show it on stage.”
The look of The Great Gatsby will also be a lot simpler and more contemporary than some of Northern Ballet’s previous productions, with lots of open spaces for the dancers to perform in plus some beautiful backdrops and scenery.
It may be contemporary but some sets are pretty detailed, with the background to one of Gatsby’s party scenes seeing 23,000 artificial leaves being tied to some camouflage netting.
Carpenter Jonny Mills has his own favourite scene.
“The most impressive sight will definitely be the garage scene with the bright red petrol pumps. It’s been a lot of fun to build and will involve some really interesting props as well. Inspired by Edward Hopper’s famous painting Gas, it also acts as a setting for Gatsby’s famous yellow car.
“The car itself took us about two weeks to build. All of the practical considerations are taken into account such as weight, durability and safety before we put it together with whatever materials we can lay our hands on.
“It’s great to get your teeth into building something like the car and we’re really pleased with the results. It really illustrates the 1920s era of glamour and style and is a highlight of the set.”
Completing the look are the costumes, which give an added dash of flair.
Dancer Tobias Batley, who follows the like of Robert Redford and Leonardo DiCaprio in playing Gatsby, said: “I’ve got more costumes in this than any ballet I have ever done. There are about five different suits just for me, so it is pretty hectic backstage.”
Overall, audiences in Norwich are in for a treat, according to David: “The Great Gatsby is probably F Scott Fitzgerald’s best novel and it is wonderful that everyone involved expresses themselves so poetically.
“You listen to music like Richard Rodney Bennett’s compositions and that excites you too but it frightens you at the same time. I suppose working with such quality pushes you to do a better job. I am scared to death of the project but I am excited too.”
The Great Gatsby runs at the Norwich Theatre Royal from April 30-May 4.