New Film Creates a Kes for Today
When choreographer Jonathan Watkins was seeking inspiration for a new dance piece he didn’t need to look far. Growing up in Barnsley during the 1980s and 1990s, he and his friends were brought up on Barry Hines’ seminal novel A Kestrel for a Knave – which was set in the same town in the sixties.
Telling the story of disaffected youngster Billy Casper, who discovers a purpose in life when he finds a young kestrel which he trains, the book was a best-seller and was made into the hugely successful film Kes by Ken Loach in 1969.
In 2014 Jonathan premiered his dance theatre adaptation of Kes in Sheffield where it was widely praised by audiences and critics alike. But, having been partly inspired by Loach’s classic film, Jonathan was keen to explore how his production could be shared with a wider audience by being recreated through a camera lens.
His long-held dream will be realised this autumn when the film Kes Reimagined is premiered at Leeds International Film Festival and then screened by the BBC. The unique work combines a compelling musical score, projected imagery, graceful movement, and heartrending performances to create a special and fast-moving experience.
Jonathan moved to London when he was 12 to join the Royal Ballet School and rapidly developed a talent for choreography, winning the Kenneth Macmillan Choreography Competition when he was just 16. And he took his love for the tale of Billy and his kestrel with him.
“This story was always in my heart and my head because I grew up in Barnsley – Kes is the story that everyone in Barnsley knows,” he says. “Everyone has seen the film, they’ve studied the book at school. I’m not just from Barnsley but from one of the little villages in Barnsley where, watching the film growing up, you would recognise so many places you knew.
“Kes really is embedded into the DNA of Barnsley – and feels like it belongs to the people of the town. This was my natural first port of call for a story I wanted to tell in a theatrical way. It’s an interesting, poetic and challenging story to tell through dance.”
Following its successful run at The Crucible in Sheffield, Jonathan was keen for Kes to spread its wings, and reach new audiences in an ambitious and creative way. It was while choreographing his next production, an award-winning adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 for Northern Ballet, that he worked with dance director Ross MacGibbon and The Space. It was at this point that the conversation about how the work could be turned into a film began.
The Space supports greater digital access to the arts and helps cultural organisations across the UK to use digital technologies to reach wider and more diverse audiences.
“I was really pleased and proud of what we’d created with Kes and I felt so strongly about the piece I wanted to share it with as many people as I could,” Jonathan recalls. “So I began discussion with The Space about the idea and we started looking at how we could then capture Kes on film.”
But Jonathan was keen not to simply film a performance of his show.
The project saw Jonathan working with award-winning Ross and video designer Daniel Denton who drew on research from Barnsley Archives. It also involved some changes from composer Alex Baranowski to his original score. The project has taken more than a year to reach fruition with the actual filming being four days in August of this year, following two weeks of rehearsal.
“It has been really exciting to take the original theatre piece and adapt it for screen – moulding and editing it to capture it on camera so that it has become a different experience for audiences,” Jonathan says.
Reimagining Kes for screen audiences has brought together the beauty of the stage production with the new eye of a camera lens.
“The core essence and spirit of the stage adaptation are all the same,” explains Jonathan. “In the theatre there were also scene changes which we don’t have to do – the beauty of film is that you can cut to the next scene so it’s more fast-paced on screen than it was in the theatre.
“It was brilliant to re-visit and re-examine how the story comes across on film and to think about how it will be experienced in this new way. It’s so amazing working with an accomplished director like Ross, as we have been able to tailor it for camera rather than just capturing what was already there. It’s been really interesting for me and the artists to not just revisit the show, but to breathe new life into it.
“It’s a simple story at its core… someone being opened up to another world. It’s a universal message about breaking out of your box. I believe dance is great at painting that picture, where someone goes from being restricted by their environment to opening up through an emotional, physical journey, so that new horizons are set.”
Much of the cast from the original production reprised their roles while the kestrel is brought alive by puppetry created by Rachel Canning and performed by Laura Careless.
Kes Reimagined premieres at Leeds International Film Festival on November 7 before being screened in Sheffield, Halifax and Newcastle-upon-Tyne. It will also receive a BBC transmission later this year. And this autumn is a special anniversary for Billy’s story as 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the release of Loach’s original Kes.
“I knew it would be a really good thing to get this film project off the ground for the celebration and anniversary,” says Jonathan. “It’s a modern classic and it’s always good to re-examine these stories, to explore why it made such an impact.”
And Jonathan is convinced this story can have as equal an impact today as it did 50 years ago.
“I’m so grateful and inspired by the book and the film but I’m also interested in the idea of what’s the new Kes, a Kes for today. I want to make it fly again.
“The book is based in the late sixties and there was commentary then which is still relevant now. Back then in Barnsley there was a one-track career plan of going from school and into the mines. It’s interesting to contrast that to how we are now when the mining has gone but there’s still a great need for industry and jobs.
“In this story we see a young person that hasn’t got a good home life, who feels isolated and not connecting with school but somehow through sheer luck drops on something in a wild bird. There’s a great message in it in terms of finding your path and what you’re passionate about. You hope people can find their individual passions to follow into careers and jobs.
“Kes has never been autobiographical for me but I think that I found a passion in dance, theatre and telling stories that has led me to where I am – that’s my kestrel. It’s really important to ignite enthusiasm in young people and for them to follow that passion – whatever it may be.”