People speak about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel rather as one might speak about a shrine to some well-thought-of saint: reverence and admiration are decently mingled. I, alas, found The Great Gatsby a raging bore, faintly intriguing as a portrayal of people one doesn’t want to know better, redeemed by subtly worked prose that recreated a world of lost emotion and all-too-present vulgarities. But as plot for a ballet? And at the exhausting length – two acts, each of an hour – that David Nixon takes to unfurl its narrative? And with a score confected from assorted and flimsy film music by Richard Rodney Bennett?
Sadly, I report that at its Sadler’s Wells showing on Tuesday night – it was first seen in Leeds earlier this year – Northern Ballet’s account of Gatsby proved a vexation to the spirit, with choreography fidgeting over the stage on the eager bodies of its dancers, and these dancers behaving with every semblance of belief in what they were doing.
We saw decor (skilled use of screens by Jerome Kaplan) appearing and disappearing with no less vivacity; heard a brash, short-breathed score; viewed legions of maids and manservants, men in raincoats, flappers, ghosts of American soldiery, and characters with names in the programme but little other justification, behaving with a determined air that bespeaks emotion unleashed for no discernible reason. I did not believe a word of it, a step of it, a yearning, jealous, Charleston-ing, flapper-ish Long Island Sound moment of it.
Fitzgerald’s prose evokes a self-indulgent world of illusions, disillusion. David Nixon’s earnest realisation of its narrative in choreography is laborious – and about an extinguishing hour too long – and turns the mystery of Gatsby’s passion for the tedious Daisy into un-mysterious dance. And the social milieu of the madcap 1920s is as papery as movement can make it.
Northern Ballet’s artists work with an eager and very attractive energy and devotion: their style is quick, vivid. The staging, alas, strands them in a succession of interminable scenes whose design and lighting could be put to better use. The piece is solid balsawood.