Jonathan Watkins – Choreographer, on his new 1984 for Northern Ballet

Jonathan Watkins.<br />© Johan Persson. (Click image for larger version)
Jonathan Watkins.
© Johan Persson. (Click image for larger version)

Jonathan Watkins is creating a full-evening version of Orwell’s 1984 for Northern Ballet, the company that does more than any other to popularise story-telling in dance. The premiere is only 3 weeks away and we wanted to know more…

Premiere: 5 September 2015 in Leeds followed by touring to Nottingham, Manchester, Sheffield, Southampton & London.

5 Questions to Jonathan Watkins about his new 1984 for Northern Ballet

How does this production come to be – you picking 1984 and the link with Northern Ballet?

I’ve been inspired by the book since I read it when I was 15 at The Royal Ballet School and it has been bubbling away in my mind as an idea for a full-length ballet ever since. When David Nixon invited me to create a new narrative ballet for the company, this was really the only title that I could imagine doing.

Northern Ballet dancers in rehearsal for <I>1984</I>.<br />© Justin Slee. (Click image for larger version)
Northern Ballet dancers in rehearsal for 1984.
© Justin Slee. (Click image for larger version)

You have a custom score from Alex Baranowski – what style of music and soundscape should we expect? And how do you work together – do you say what you need minute by minute, bar by bar?

I have worked with Alex in quite a few different capacities now: an abstract ballet, a film and Kes, a full-length dance piece we did last year at Sheffield Theatres. It was after the latter that our collaboration really hit its peak and when considering who to work with on 1984 there was no question over who it should be. There were many stages of the process which started with long conversations about the piece and my vision. Alex then had some time to work on specific musical themes, inspirations and certain moments within the piece. This gave us something to work from, question and move forward with. In the meantime I was working on the ‘scene by scene’ adaptation directly from the book and producing what I call my ‘Narrative Action Script’. It’s this structure that the composition works from and then follows many months of backwards and forwards as each scene focuses and the details within them develop into a framework that I can see serves the narrative. In terms of style, I would say that it is an orchestral score that mixes traditional melodic writing with more modern, textural, rhythmic and minimalist ideas.

Are you sticking closely to George Orwell’s book, and how do you find working with a Dramaturg (Ruth Little)?

Yes, very much so. It follows Winston Smith’s journey, trying to find a way of rebelling against the party and the system in which he is living and sees his relationship with Julia, a co-worker, develop away from the watchful eyes of Big Brother, or so they think! I asked Ruth this question and her reply echoed my thoughts about how we work together.

‘We meet regularly and exchange thoughts, images, texts and ideas by email. Our dialogue is open and very wide-ranging and I think as a result we quite often sneak up on the questions at the heart of the project. We’re both very curious about process – about what happens in the margins, and recognise that the best ideas may come from unexpected places. So there’s a constant exchange of materials and experiences as sources of inspiration or provocation, both before and during rehearsal. Jonathan does a great deal of preparatory research and sketching out of ideas, and communicates his overall intentions for the work very clearly, so there’s a strong sense of orientation when we go into rehearsals, but also an openness to the unexpected and unpredictable, and that feels to me like a very fruitful way of working’- Ruth Little

Jonathan Watkins in rehearsal for <I>1984</I>.<br />© Justin Slee. (Click image for larger version)
Jonathan Watkins in rehearsal for 1984.
© Justin Slee. (Click image for larger version)

You were a dancer and choreographer at the Royal Ballet until 2013 – a big thing to flee the nest: how have you found the change to being a full-time dance-maker?

I am grateful for my time with The Royal Ballet and the ‘nest’ was an extraordinary place to dance and learn a variety of skills that are involved with creating work. It was time to take the leap and have the opportunity to fly in order to pursue my own creative path which I am thoroughly enjoying and challenged by. It is great to work with many other companies as well as putting together new groups of dancers for specific projects.

Martha Leebolt and Tobias Batley in rehearsal for <I>1984</I>.<br />© Lauren Godfrey. (Click image for larger version)
Martha Leebolt and Tobias Batley in rehearsal for 1984.
© Lauren Godfrey. (Click image for larger version)

So what’s next for you and what’s your biggest dance wish?

I am doing my own project-based work, a short film that I have written and also continuing to make one act ballets. In terms of wishes, I have been fortunate to realise two of my biggest recently with Kes and now 1984. I have one or two more that I would like to tackle, so hopefully that will happen under the right circumstances. I would also like to revisit and share my production of Kes with more audiences at some point in the near future.

About the author



  • It is brave and ambitious to try to translate 1984 into a ballet. It is primarily a work of political and moral philosophy. It is not easy to convey verbal concepts into dance ; which can be superb in expressing emotion, moods, personal relationships, but not intellectual ideas.

    • Well we wish him most well – and there’s gotta be mileage in the big brother concepts. I remember seeing Christopher Bruce’s “Swansong”, about political torture, early in my dance going career and thinking “My goodness, ballet can cover anything.”

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