Kes: Classic rites of passage story in dance

Kes in rehearsal. Picture: Johan Persson
Kes in rehearsal. Picture: Johan Persson
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Jonathan Watkins has adapted Kes into a piece of dance theatre for the Sheffield Crucible. It’s certainly a brave move, says Nick Ahad.

He is either the bravest or most stupid man in Yorkshire.

“Oh, great, thanks for that, what a brilliant way to start the most important interview I’m going to do for this show,” says Jonathan Watkins.

He’d better toughen up. That’s going to be one of the easiest openers he’ll get – it’s bound to be – the man’s turning Kes into a piece of dance theatre.

Yes, that Kes. The one that’s probably still best known as the movie adapted from Barry Hines’ novel A Kestrel for a Knave, the film that starred Brian Glover as a realistically psychotic PE teacher.

The Kes that has been taken into the hearts of Yorkshire folk for several generations, the Kes that means so very much to so very many people.

He’s turning it into a dance piece. Once he’s got over the offence at my first question, over the course of the next half hour, Watkins puts forward a case for why he is the man for the job to turn Kes into a piece of dance with all the slickness of a team of celebrity’s defence lawyers – and with a lot more integrity.

“I grew up with this story in my veins,” says Watkins.

“It’s a universal story, but actually, if you grow up around here, if you grew up in Barnsley, especially in a certain time, then you just do have a connection to the story. It’s not something you can avoid.”

That’s right. The man daring to turn Kes into a dance is one of our own. “I’m sure many people remember the film, but actually round here, most people know it through the book. It sometimes feels like everyone has a very personal relationship to the story. For me it was finding the story as a young man from Barnsley, growing up around here and then discovering dance and going off to pursue that career.”

It is, of course, the lightly worn genius of Hines’s book that it can easily serve as a metaphor for a young man from Barnsley going off to join the ballet and pursue his dream – and a thousand other incarnations in the personal ambitions of many.

Watkins was marked out for greatness early in his career. When he was just 16 he won a prestigious choreography competition while at the Royal Ballet School. He graduated into the full Royal Ballet Company, but it was clear from the start that Watkins was going to be more than ‘just’ a dancer.

Kes is a project he has had his eye on for a while. It could have been done elsewhere, but Watkins applauds the bravery of Sheffield taking it on, insisting it simply wouldn’t be right if it was done anywhere else.

Rising up to meet a challenge, one of the other motifs of the story, is very much at the front of Watkins’ mind right now – he’s got to get people to buy into Kes as a dance piece. “It’s first of all about challenging the perception of the audience about what they think they might experience when they come and see the show,” he says. “It’s difficult to talk about because I’m still making the show, but what it won’t be is a glitzy and glamorous piece of dance.”

As well as the fact that he has a genuine, heartfelt passion for turning Kes into a piece of dance, the other reason for Watkins’ confidence in this project is the fact that it has the backing of the person closest to the author. Barry Hines has Alzheimer’s – he gave his final newspaper interview to the Yorkshire Post when I spoke to him in May 2009 – but his devoted wife Eleanor has remained by his side and has given her full support to this new take on her husband’s seminal work. “Eleanor has been really behind this,” says Watkins.

“If she hadn’t have been, I’m not sure that I could have done it. She understands that I am approaching this in a way that shows I want to honour it and respect it and do this with integrity.”

So, Sheffield Theatres is on board, the author’s wife is on board and Watkins has the focus of a laser beam. There is another question – is the audience going to be on board?

While many of a certain age will have a very special place in their hearts for the story, the film and the book, will there be enough people who still care about Hines’s story? Watkins says Kes was a story that was simply always there when you grew up in Barnsley, but does it still have something to say to today’s audiences?

“It’s still really relevant today. It’s about igniting a passion and starting on a path towards something you want to do,” he says.

“It feels relevant to my life because the passion I had was for a dance. It boils 
down really to self-education, about finding the thing that you are good at or passionate about and pursuing that dream.

“That’s not really a story that ever becomes irrelevant.”