Jann Parry sees Northern Ballet's The Great Gatsby in London
|Title||The Great Gatsby|
|Venue||Sadler's Wells, London|
|Date||16 May 2023|
The problem for choreographers of a narrative ballet is the synopsis. Should they expect audience members to buy a programme or read up the story on the internet in advance? Many don't: there isn't time to socialise, buy drinks for the interval, find seats before curtain-up. So, must a plot without words be as simple as a fairy story or as familiar as a famous book or play? That would be absurdly reductive – and not everybody knows or remembers a literary source.
In tackling F Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel The Great Gatsby, David Nixon and his dramaturg Patricia Doyle have relied on a detailed scenario that takes up two pages of the programme. It's essential reading. Although the jazz age setting is delectable, the plot is convoluted. It's
essentially a love story with similarities to that of Prince, now King Charles, with Camilla. Jay Gatsby fell in love with Daisy when both were young and untied. He went off to war and Daisy, tired of waiting, married someone else. Gatsby pined, longing to regain her.
Unlike Charles, he didn't marry. Instead, he grew rich by dubious means and set up a mansion on Long Island, across the bay from where Daisy lives with her husband, Tom Buchanan, and their young daughter. A green light flashing across the water signifies her siren call to Gatsby in his fevered imagination. He doesn't dare meet her until an acquaintance, Nick Carraway, sets up an encounter. Nick is the morally conflicted narrator in Fitzgerald's book. In the ballet, he is a naïve witness to the events he sets in train.
Sean Bates as Nick is a cheerful innocent, gradually becoming aware of complicated relationships while he has a fling with Jordan Baker, a competitive golf player and Daisy's best girlfriend. Joseph Taylor's Gatsby has to remain an enigma in Nick's eyes, wearing a mask of indifference until his obsession with Daisy is revealed. (At one point during a riotous party, Gatsby makes the mime gesture of restoring his ‘mask'.) Both men are given virtuoso steps to indicate their different personalities, Nick bouncy and Gatsby a yearning romantic. The besotted lover of Daisy, he is the equivalent of Des Grieux to her ambivalent Manon.
Like Manon in Kenneth MacMillan's ballet, Daisy must decide between two men, her first love, Gatsby, and her protector, Tom (Gavin McCaig as her faithless husband). Two dancers embody Daisy, Rachael Gillespie as the amorous girl in a long skirt and Dominique Larose as the adult flapper. There's also a younger Gatsby, Harris Beattie, in a soldier's uniform. If you're up to speed with the plot, the frequent flashbacks are clearly indicated. The class differences between the two men are not so apparent. Once-poor Gatsby is now the nouveau riche upstart: Tom Buchanan represents old money, however unpleasant his behaviour.
The central love story is complicated by subplots involving gangsters – men in black from Gatsby's dodgy past – and an adulterous affair between Tom and Myrtle, a lustful lowlife married to a garage owner-mechanic, George Wilson. George Liang makes Wilson a compelling character in what seems at first a minor role. The action shifts between locations on Long Island and New York, with a corps as smartly dressed servants moving sets and props between scenes. The best use of a prop is the tyre with which Wilson busies himself in an acrobatic solo while his wife heads off to a love nest with Tom Buchanan. The most puzzling mini-props are the car keys exchanged in Act II between Tom and Gatsby, leading to a fatal accident. The device of the keys and their significance, vital to what happens next, is hard to grasp on a busy stage. The outcome is going to depend on who was driving whose car when Myrtle was killed as she ran outside the garage. Do consult the scenario.
The plot unravels quickly and bewilderingly. Gatsby is assumed to have been the driver, although – spoiler alert – Daisy was responsible. Gatsby's idealisation of her was always an illusion. Their big pas de deux comes at the end, when Gatsby fantasises that he is reunited with her to a mournful ballad by composer Richard Rodney Bennett, whose music is used throughout the ballet. Though the duet is ecstatic, it's an overlong reprise of what we know already: Gatsby has been hopelessly in love with Daisy, who has, in fact, rejected him for her husband.
The production looks great, in elegantly spare sets by Jérome Kaplan and glamorous costumes by Nixon and assistant designer Julie Anderson. The ballet was created in 2012, shortly before Richard Rodney Bennett died. His music was assembled and orchestrated by John Longstaff from Bennett's many compositions, including the film score for Murder on the Orient Express and the 1968 ballet Jazz Calendar. The Great Gatsby compilation, played by Northern Ballet Sinfonia and conducted by Jonathan Lo, drives the heady action of the ballet, with startling contrasts between plangent piano and blaring brass. Nixon's versatile choreography, often as hectic as the bright young things who dance it, varies between genres: classical ballet steps (lots of them), jazzy ballroom dances, fun routines with singing and shouting, sexual rutting for Tom and Myrtle, a Romeo and Juliet encounter for Gatsby and Daisy.
The first night cast of Northern Ballet dancers (guest artists follow later) performed with zest, party girls strutting on pointe, men bounding and spinning exuberantly. Maids and butlers carried out their tasks punctiliously, vanishing discreetly when not needed. Gatsby and Daisy remain unknowable and unsympathetic despite Nixon's best efforts at investing them with a back story. Fitzgerald's intentions in his take on American society in the 1920s are too elusive for a ballet. As a theatrical production, however, The Great Gatsby works fine, its lasting image that of Gatsby standing alone on his dock, gazing in longing at the enticing green light. Until it's all over.
Jann Parry, former dance critic of The Observer (1983-2004), has written for many publications as a freelance, and has contributed to radio and TV documentaries about dancers.
She is the author of the award-winning biography Different Drummer, the life of Kenneth MacMillan (2009).