Interpreting the Gatsby era through dance

Tomorrow night Northern Ballet unveils the latest work from artistic director David Nixon. Arts correspondent Nick Ahad watches the choreographer in rehearsal.

The Great Gatsby.  Photos: Justin Slee
The Great Gatsby. Photos: Justin Slee

A young French ballet dancer is standing in front of what looks like an X Factor panel of judges.

The dancer finishes a short choreographed piece and looks to the ‘panel’ for approval.

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“You have a great face, you’re very charming but you’re just not making use of it,” says David Nixon, who is clearly the leader of this panel. If this was the X Factor, he’d be Simon Cowell.

The French dancer returns to a small area of the Northern Ballet dance rehearsal studio and is replaced in the performance space by an Italian dancer. He completes his turn.

“That was very well co-ordinated,” says Nixon, adding, when the dancer appears bashful: “Enjoy the compliment.”

Having seen a French and Italian dancer, he then calls to the mass of dancers standing behind him: “Mr Bates, would you like to come and represent England?”

This is Northern Ballet’s rehearsal room for The Great Gatsby, a new show created by the company’s artistic director David Nixon and the scene gives a good indication of what Northern Ballet is like these days.

It is a company made of dancers from around the world and is led by a man who is respected by those around him. Nixon earns that respect by having a vision – and he’s going to need it if he’s to take the company along with him on the journey he’s about to undertake.

He is about to turn The Great Gatsby into what he hopes will be a great ballet.

Why? At the end of the morning rehearsal and before an afternoon run through of the ballet, Nixon is trying to work his way through a scone for his lunch while talking about his vision for Gatsby.

“Why not?” says Nixon. He seems genuinely perplexed that it is not immediately obvious to anyone that the great American novel is the perfect story to adapt for a ballet.

Well, for a start it’s a great piece of literature. Sure, they can sometimes make for a decent film, but the language in the F Scott Fitzgerald novel is all. Can it really work as a dance piece, without that language?

“You’re thinking about it too hard,” says Nixon.

“It’s about those wonderful costumes and the parties and the spirit of the 1920s. That is perfect for a ballet.

“We were on a bit of a tight deadline with what to programme for this part of the season and titles are hard to find. I had to decide between Chaplin and The Great Gatsby and this seemed like the entirely obvious choice. Chaplin would have one very major role and would have needed a lot of figuring out. This has at least seven great roles in it, and I have some really wonderful dancers in the company, all of whom are capable of filling those roles.”

Back in the rehearsal room, half an hour earlier, once the male dancers had performed the piece they will dance tomorrow night on the stage of Leeds Grand as part of the corps de ballet, Nixon turned his attention to a duet.

The dancers in the duet are Myrtle and her husband George Wilson, It is a sensuous, dangerous piece of dance – representing a showdown between the married couple – and it is a moment that doesn’t appear in the book. Nixon, who has form in this kind of thing, has taken liberties. The company he runs has, since the days of its founder Chrisopher Gable, had a reputation for putting narrative at the heart of its performances. Nixon carried on the tradition with his versions of Wuthering Heights, Hamlet and his award-winning A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

He’s doing the same with The Great Gatsby.

“A lot of the story we’re telling never appears in the book. We’re telling the behind the scenes story of The Great Gatsby if you like,” he says. Nixon is not the sort to worry about the opinions of the purists.

“I’m not putting the exact book on stage – that would be impossible anyway,” says the Canadian-born, widely respected choreographer.

“We obviously take some of the story and some of the book and then in other places it’s all about finding the right spirit, telling the story, the narrative, as clearly as possible.”

Nixon is collaborating once again with Patricia Doyle, a director he worked with on Cleopatra.

She provides the eye of a theatre director over the top of Nixon’s vision as a choreographer. It makes for storytelling that is full of clarity.

In the rehearsal room there are minute tweaks as the dancers move through their steps. The scenes that Nixon admits to being nervous about before the rehearsals began – but the ones he has enjoyed immensely – are the party scenes, integral scenes to the story of enigmatic millionaire Jay Gatsby.

Nixon admits that the delayed movie of the book, directed by Baz Luhrmann and starring Leonardo DiCaprio due to come out while his own version on tour, is a nice case of serendipity.

“We had planned this before we knew about the movie,” he says. “But I am not unaware that it is pretty good timing for us.”

Why is the great American novel suddenly so back in vogue with audiences and creatives?

“It’s to do with the time. In fact, it’s not just the movie and our ballet, contemporary fashion is borrowing heavily from that period, the 1920s. I think it is something to do with the sense of austerity we are experiencing – people want to remember a better time and celebrate it, just as they do in the book.”

Audiences will know for sure tomorrow, but Nixon appears to have done it again.

The Great Gatsby, 
Northern Ballet, Leeds Grand Theatre March 2-9. 0844 8482700, then touring. Full details,

The great American novel

F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel is not only considered his finest, but one of the finest in American literature.

Set in 1922, although published in 1925, it captures the hedonism of the roaring 1920s, as America headed out of the First World War and into an unprecedented period of prosperity.

Narrator Nick Carraway is intrigued by millionaire Jay Gatsby and by his lifestyle and is curious to understand where his money comes from. The book captures, like no other, the ‘Jazz age’ of America in the 1920s, where bootlegging made moneyed individuals of those who were able to take advantage.

It has been filmed on five separate occasions.