Northern Ballet are no strangers to the literary adaptation, having already brought from words to toes Dracula, Wuthering Heights and even the challengingly un-dance-friendly epic Great Expectations. But perhaps it’s this familiarity with taking complex stories and adapting them into choreography that makes their Gatsby, while glittered with moments of tragic glamour, end up feeling frustratingly safe.
The late Sir Richard Rodney Bennett’s sexy, swelling Gershwin-esque score borrows from contemporary sources, sets the scene with Noirish pastiches and is the stand-out star of the production. With all those swaying lusty melodies and vampish Charlestons it’s surely impossible not to be carried on the thread of a flapper dress back to the roaring 20s East Coast with all its snooty hypocrisies and shady gangster dealings. But these 20s don’t seem to roar so much as politely clap.
Opulent as Gatsby’s party is, with its servant-squadron and women in pastel dresses, there is none of the book’s bad-behaviour decadence. Similarly the sweltering tensions between Tom Buchanan and his lover Myrtle Wilson are drawn out cartoonishly, brushing aside the pathos of Myrtle’s hopes for this doomed cross-class affair, or the boorish snobbery of Buchanan who will never leave his wife for a garage owner’s moll. It all feels a bit too plainly narrative, acting out each scene without relishing or trying to probe under the skin of the relationships in the way that Scottish Ballet’s adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire did so well.
That said, there is a wealth of brilliant dancing going on, with Isaac Lee-Baker (as Myrtle’s husband, George) and Dreda Blow (as Daisy, the object of Gatsby’s affection and obsession) creating characters that ooze from every twitch and back arch. The duets between Gatsby and Daisy are beautifully placed, in front of a giant panelled mirror that projects distorted wispy reflections back at them: either their past desires or the present they wish they were?
The point at which the story really takes flight however is in the Park Plaza scenes, expressed as a building set of tableaux where the invisible passages between the freeze frames hint at bubbling tension with far more menace than miming it all out would ever produce. It goes to show that sometimes, just as words unspoken can carry more power, when it comes to storytelling, perhaps so can phrases undanced.