With choreography, direction, scenario, and costume designs by David Nixon CBE, music by Sir Richard Rodney Bennett CBE, set design by Jérôme Kaplan, and lighting design by Tim Mitchell, the ballet has – since 2013 – become a staple of the company’s repertoire.
The ballet, based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel of the same name, chronicles the ill-fated romance between the enigmatic and Trimalchian Jay Gatsby (Joseph Taylor) and the beautiful yet blithe Daisy Buchanan (Dominique Larose). But beneath this rather solemn facade, the story more deftly deals with desire and transience.
For those familiar with the story, it’s a formidable one to tell, yet the company achieves a tonal command of Fitzgerald’s lyrical prose and finds a way to move the plot along in a cinematic fashion with clever abstractions.
For the most part.
Review of Northern Ballet's The Great Gatsby
Like the novel, the story pivots around the perspective of Nick Carroway (Sean Bates). Such was the intent, anyway.
Lamentably, this is lost throughout the show, and our sweet “narrator” instead comes off as an awkward interloper at times. This is in no way to disparage Bates’s portrayal of Carroway which is superlative but rather to commend Northern Ballet’s attempt at translating Fitzgerald’s brilliance.
The ballet begins by introducing the seven principal characters – all of whom are faithfully represented throughout. First to appear is the seemingly naive Nick Carroway with who, owing in part to Bates’s infectious smile, you can’t help but fall in love.
Next come the Wilsons, a couple whose fate is blighted by greed and ignorance. Myrtle (Helen Bogatch) is, at no fault of Bogatch, an exceptionally unlikeable character who makes it clear that she does not fit in the definitively deglamorized world of her husband’s garage. In this role, Bogatch commands attention and endows the character with a proper airy hauteur.
George (George Liang), on the other hand, all but begs for pity as he takes out his frustrated physicality on a tire in a sinewy pas de deux of sorts.
The unsmiling yet jaunty Jordan Baker (Heather Lehan) is next to arrive and quick to flex her powerful golf swing… at every chance she gets.
Lehan, more so than the others, shows an unwavering commitment to her role.
She delivers each step with absolute conviction and poise while at the same time not shying away from slouching, sitting splay-legged, strutting with her hips jutted out in front, and otherwise leaning into the more masculine subtleties of her character.
Following Jordan, the Buchanans are not far behind. Tom is danced by Gavin McCaig who aptly captures the character’s fearfully cool haughtiness and machismo. Like the deep bellowing beats against which he dances, his movements are well-grounded.
As Daisy, Larose is the paragon of perfection who, even in moments of solemnity, floats mesmerizingly about the stage without effecting the slightest sound.
Finally, in waltzes the namesake of the production – Jay Gatsby – whose introduction is flanked with a nefarious feel. What Taylor lacks in facial expressiveness, he more than makes up for in technical mastery and the marvelously nuanced way in which he compels his character to move – apprehensive and antsy, never quite still.
Although no dancer was less than spectacular, one in particular enraptured the audience – Freyja Doucet from Central School of Ballet. Doucet portrayed Pammy Buchanan, Daisy and Tom’s daughter. Her scenes were few and fleeting, but she never failed to inspire an audible show of warmth from the audience with each.
When it came to the ensemble numbers, I was ready to be wowed by a certain level of early-twentieth century extravagance, but I’ll admit that they were lackluster.
For starters, the music is more polite than roaring and does little to complement the carefree frivolity achieved in Nixon’s choreography.
Worse, the costumes – also by Nixon – are dully embellished and in no way evince the “exquisite Chanel-inspired” quality of the costumes hinted at in the program. Where was the glitz? The glamor?
On the flip side, I guess one could argue that the lack of opulence serves to direct attention toward the actual dancing which was dazzling in and of itself.
Also, while it was not the most evocative scene, I would be remiss to not mention the buzzy New York streets scene from act one which may go as unregarded as anything special for many but for me was the more transportive.
Matching the overall minimalist set design, the stage for this scene was dressed only in several plain panels and quotidian street signs, the latter of which serve to locate the scene unmistakably in the streets of New York.
The panels act as de facto labyrinth throughout which the dancers – outfitted in dreary shades of grey, black, and beige – tightly weave. With small, swift steps and eyes cast down, the dancers clearly convey the heavily hurried and often isolating nature of the city.
In this scene, the choreography, costuming, and score came together in total harmony.
While a concerted effort was made to squeeze just over 47,000 words into a two-hour production, I still found the narrative to be a bit unbalanced overall, lingering a little too long on the exposition.
Where the first act moved at a fair pace, the second act felt rushed and gave the audience no time to grapple with the rest of the story’s emotional turbulence. The death scenes, for instance, are rather lucid but come and go too abruptly. It was as if the audience was only just starting to feel sorry for Tom and George when BANG. Another dead. Curtain closed.
Of course, choices had to be made, but cutting out the entire conclusion of Fitzgerald’s story was a bold one. Even for a familiar plot, I found myself wanting more. But that’s the morale of the story, I guess.
Overall, it was an exciting evening that showcased the company’s technical prowess and aptitude for inventive storytelling.
Jillian Verzwyvelt is a freelance writer who focuses on arts, culture, and travel. Originally from Lafayette, Louisiana, she trained at Lafayette Ballet Theatre before moving to Fort Worth, Texas to pursue bachelor’s degrees in economics and communication studies from Texas Christian University. Here, she discovered how to translate her passion for the stage to the page. Jillian is now working toward a dual master’s degree in global media and communications from the London School of Economics and Political Science and the University of Southern California.