JDCMB is Jessica Duchen's Classical Music Blog. Music & writing, with CHOCOLATE AND SILVER, in London, UK. Author & journalist JD writes for The Independent.
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Sarah Connolly, the wonderful British mezzo-soprano, was the principal speaker yesterday afternoon at a special Arts Council England event in Westminster, addressing ministers, MPs and leading arts figures on the vital nature of art for all, its place in Britain and the dangers that face its future. She has sent it to me to publish, so here it is. Read and be inspired.

SARAH CONNOLLY writes:274 years ago today, on the 14th of September 1741, Georg Friedrich Handel completed the first edition of his legendary oratorio,‘Messiah’. It is a work associated with children’s charity, and thanks to a royal charter granted to philanthropist Thomas Coram’s Foundling hospital in Bloomsbury, Handel raised awareness and money for the orphans with performances every year for decades. William Hogarth was a governor and he persuaded leading artists Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough to donate works, effectively creating at the hospital the first public art gallery. 
Sarah Connolly. Photo: Peter Warren
Once there, a visitor would see not only the best in contemporary British portraiture, landscape and maritime painting, they would also SEE the children at mealtime and hear them singing in the chapel, and perhaps donate money. This public charity helped cure the symptoms of a deeply divided London society and Hogarth was able to showcase his colleagues’ paintings thereby inventing the NOTION of art for all. Jumping forward to 1940: In Britain’s darkest hour, when 643m was spent on Defence, Winston Churchill procured a royal charter to create the Committee for Encouragement of Music and the Arts, known as CEMA, he ring-fenced 25k for that purpose. A small but significant sum, Churchill clearly understood its importance, and said, “The arts are essential to any complete national life. The State owes it to itself to sustain and encourage them ... Ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with the reverence and delight which are their due”Towards the end of the decade, CEMA changed its name to the Arts Council, local government authorised spending on the Arts and in 1951,The Festival of Britain was intended as a tonic to the nation. On London’s South Bank, the Royal Festival Hall was built, the interior designed by Robin Day who will shortly enjoy a centenary celebration in the London Design Festival.The RFH featured concerts conducted by Sir Adrian Boult and Sir Malcolm Sargent, the two most influential British conductors up until the 1970’s and benefitted from many innovative Arts programmes under the passionate stewardship of Jennie Lee who also renewed the charter for the Arts Council in 1967. The South Bank Centre continues to be at the heart of many different and inclusive projects such as Alchemy, a festival of culture connecting with the Indian sub-continent and “Being a man”, a platform which considers children’s rights to culture and growing up. The reason why I’m giving this "history lesson" is to put into context the relevance and the importance of the arts in our history as a multi-cultural, sophisticated inclusive nation, rich in humanity. Apart from music’s vital holistic importance, let’s never forget for a moment what we have in our keeping; a towering and deserved global reputation for cultural excellence in our theatres, art galleries, cinemas, ballet and opera houses, stadia and concert halls, in our performers, writers, poets and composers. It is a fragile inheritance: all this could be lost, permanently, if we don’t continue to preserve and provide an artistic educational journey for all, from childhood to university and beyond. The classical music industry is a small part of the economy, but for the health of the nation it is critical that funding continues. For too long, financial support has been seen as subsidy: in fact it’s investment with clear financial return. The economic benefits however, are significant.In 2012, 6.5 million music tourists spent £1.3 billion. In January 2015 the Department of Culture, Media and Sport issued for the first time more detailed estimates for the creative industries showing that in 2013, the gross value of the Creative Industries was £76.909 billion- that’s 5% of the UK economy. Music, performing and visual arts was estimated as being £5.453 billion, or 7.1% of the total. The number of jobs sustained by music tourism is just over 24 thousand not to mention the benefits to surrounding communities. Of the live performing organisations, the total income (roughly equal to expenditure) in 2013 was just under £550 million. Include dedicated music schools, broadcasting and recording organisations, and this total figure rose to approximately £785 million. For the number crunchers among you, these are some interesting figures with significant returns on relatively meagre investments but as your illustrious forbear – himself a painter – stressed, the importance of the arts is immeasurable.Nietzsche claimed that: Without music life would be a mistake. Robert Browning said: There is no truer truth obtainable by man, than comes of music.Many musicians work with hospices and hospitals. Manchester Camerata practitioners have been working alongside qualified Music Therapists since 2012 to deliver pioneering group music therapy sessions for people living with Dementia and their carers. A growing base of academic research shows that the projects improve quality of life, self-expression, communication, confidence and logic, enhance relationships with others, and reduce the use of medication. This is one example of social activism through the Arts, which has been a core consideration across all genres for many years.As Michael Gove rightly said, “Music education must not become the preserve of those children whose families can afford to pay for music tuition.” The coalition government’s well-thought-out National Plan for Musical Education based on the excellent Darren Henley review created 123 music hubs with funding managed by the Arts Council. Awarding the Arts Council £75 million for 2015/16, the Department of Education says, “Music services should now be funded through music hubs (which can cover one or more local authority areas) and from school budgets, not from the Education Services Grant”. Economic circumstances have put local authorities in a position where they will find it difficult and in some places undesirable to fund music education. Since music or ANY artistic subject is not planned for EBACC inclusion, a tragedy in my opinion, the only recourse to a musical education will be these music hubs which are not self-sustaining financially and highly unlikely to generate enough income to exist alone. If the government could find a way of ring fencing some local authority money for the Arts then these hubs can supply the critical oxygen to those who most need it, enticing young society into doing something worthwhile, creative and enjoyable. 

Another more feasible route would be if Ofsted was instructed to reward schools for their Arts achievements. An Outstanding grade cannot be given to a school with a poor Arts programme. Lower achieving schools can also raise their profile this way. It's a win win. I was privately educated until my mid teens but without a doubt, I received the best schooling and musical training at a State funded sixth form college in Nottingham in 1980. My experienced teachers, all of them excellent performers were infinitely more qualified than those at my former school, and I would not be here but for their inspirational guidance. I speak for my fellow students too; one of whom is a multi Grammy Award winner as a classical music producer and another is a vocal coach to the stars in London’s West End. In the present climate, State funded schools are struggling to focus on the Arts and from KS4, curriculum based arts are set to vanish and we will lose an enormous tranche of influence, talent, comment and life-experience. I feel we have a duty to all children from all social backgrounds to share our rich artistic history and to think creatively. This is surely what Winston Churchill meant when he said “the Arts are essential to any complete national life”. Roosevelt said in his New Deal, “Art is not a treasure in the past or an importation from another land but part of the present life of all living and creating peoples”What musicians want is a snowball effect, retro-education: when the child learns so does the family. It could be called the Billy Elliot effect. We really are the envy of the world on many levels, punching so far above our weight in the Arts, Broadcasting and Entertainment that it is a source of puzzlement to us (and to the outside world) why there is not more recognition of this. Last week, Marin Alsop said, “It’s our responsibility as musicians and audiences to build bridges. El Sistema already has nearly a million kids (world-wide) playing music”. At the LNOPs she said, “the power of music is to unite us and to bring out the best humanity has to offer”.Orchestras, theatres, opera houses, art galleries, festivals, like the Deal Festival in Kent, the Philharmonia, Glyndebourne, The Hallé, El Sistema-UK run by Julian Lloyd Webber, the Royal Northern Sinfonia “In harmony” projects based around The Sage, Gateshead, the BBC's successful and engaging 10 Pieces project and many others receive invaluable financial grants from the Arts Council. Musicians put their utmost into helping those who haven’t the means to pay for tuition or who struggle to rent an instrument. 

We need audiences in the future, we need passion from politicians to lead by example, so come to our concerts, we’d love to see more of you and just ask us to help with any idea, however humble, because, "were it not for music," said Disraeli, "we might in these days say, the Beautiful is dead".
Sarah Connolly
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Jonas Kaufmann is going to be the first non-Anglo-Saxon to sing Rule, Britannia at the Last Night of the Proms. This morning he turned on the charm for the BBC Breakfast interviewers, who look rather thrilled throughout. Here's the clip:

Meanwhile, a fan site on Facebook brings us this priceless tract about the Dolce&Gabbana outfits he will sport for the occasion. I'm sure something has been lost in translation, but am still pondering the likely effects on the crowd of black lace slippers, 'English' flag, and 'frog'.

"The Last Night of Proms" is the most important on screen musical event in the world, with over 11 million viewers featured on the BBC Channel from the UK, USA, and Australia as well as across Asia and most of Europe. For this special occasion the German renowned tenor, Jonas Kaufmann will wear Dolce&Gabbana.The concluding event of the concert season composed of eight weeks where a full symphonic orchestra held concerts even twice a day, will take place the 12th of September at the Royal Albert Hall in London.
Jonas Kaufmann will be the first non-Anglo-Saxon voice to interpret "Rule, Britannia!".
For this occasion, Jonas will wear two Dolce&Gabbana looks: in the first part of the concert Jonas will wear a 3-piece Martini Suit in jacquard wool, with a pique plastron tuxedo shirt in white, polishing the look with slipper shoes in silk faille.
While interpreting "Rule, Britannia!" Jonas will flaunt a long velvet jacket with black lapels detailed with black and white polka dots, satin ties and black silk frog, a double-breasted wool vest with black tuxedo pants. The look is completed by slipper shoes in black lace, a gold brooch with the English flag expressly created for the event and a black silk bowtie.Jonas Kaufmann will be the first non-Anglo-Saxon voice to interpret "Rule, Britannia!".For this occasion, Jonas will wear two Dolce&Gabbana looks: in the first part of the concert Jonas will wear a 3-piece Martini Suit in jacquard wool, with a pique plastron tuxedo shirt in white, polishing the look with slipper shoes in silk faille.While interpreting "Rule, Britannia!" Jonas will flaunt a long velvet jacket with black lapels detailed with black and white polka dots, satin ties and black silk frog, a double-breasted wool vest with black tuxedo pants. The look is completed by slipper shoes in black lace, a gold brooch with the English flag expressly created for the event and a black silk bowtie.
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Dame Fanny Waterman with the 2015 finalists
I know, I know, about 200 miles up the M1... It's also - partly - on Radio 3. But in a world where the Tchaikovsky Competition live-streamed absolutely everything, and so will the fast-approaching Chopin Competition (you can follow it here, courtesy of the Chopin Institute, Warsaw), and the Rubinstein Competition in which Trifonov took part is alive and well and living on Youtube, and plenty more, the once mighty Leeds International Piano Competition is being kicked into the long grass for lack of such resources.

Once upon a time we used to see the finals live on BBC TV. Now we get edited highlights on the radio - bits and pieces, essentially - and...this is what the website says:

Through our partnership with BBC Radio 3 and BBC Four, audiences will be given the opportunity to watch the finalists of the Competition performing from Leeds Town Hall on Friday 17th & 24th September, and Friday 1st October. If you cannot wait until then, you are able to hear the full semi finals via Radio 3 online player for the next 30 days. 

But the finals are...tomorrow and the day after.

Last time, the Leeds produced two genuine rising stars in 1st and 2nd place - Federico Colli and Louis Schwizgebel. Louis was snapped up by the BBC New Generation Artists scheme; Federico gave a QEH debut recital that drew 5-star rave reviews from virtually every critic in town (including me). Plenty of great pianists have taken vital steps into the public eye via the Leeds. But now we may have to wait a while to find out whether there's anybody comparable.

It is all about money, of course. Live-streaming costs ££s. But it does seem that the UK's most prestigious music competition has been relegated to a level of assumed interest that lags far behind the TV spectacle of people baking cakes and watching paint dry.

Step up, philanthropists. We know you're out there. We have our spies in the City who tell us that there is more money sloshing around in certain bank accounts in this country than they would ever have believed possible. It's become all too clear in the last 30-odd years that there is really no such thing as a financial "trickle down". But there is such a thing as "winkle out". It takes skilled fundraisers to do the winkling. Perhaps when Leeds's new directors take over from the great Dame Fanny Waterman - they are the double-act of pianist Paul Lewis and BBC producer/New Generations head Adam Gatehouse - their first move should be to appoint a Head of Winkling whose first task will be to raise enough funds to live-stream the next competition complete. This is in no way to denigrate the tough work that no doubt goes on in the contest's fundraising department already - it's tough work and I take my hat off to those who are good at it - but I personally would love to see priority being given to developing Internet capabilities and it really has not happened this time.

Here is the full programme for the Leeds final. Three Rachmaninov concertos, including two performances of No.3. A spot of Beethoven, Brahms and Schumann. Looks like business as usual. http://www.leedspiano.com/content/finals-programmes-announced

Meanwhile, the first night of the finals clashes with the Last Night of the Proms. Great...
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Yesterday I composed a piece of minimalist music. Maybe I've heard one piece of it too many of late, and it occurred to me that perhaps Philip Glass should have patented his style so that other people couldn't pinch it and do it less well than he does. In any case, he has distanced himself from the term 'minimalism', and I don't blame him, and I rather wish others would do the same.

The recipe for my piece involves purling baseline going up and down in triplets across a minor triad, alternating tonic with subdominant, switching around every two bars though sometimes extending longer or contracting to a more rapid harmonic rhythm, pedal point at the bottom. Add a counter-rhythm - a syncopated pulsation a bit like Morse code (e.g., dit-dit-daa-daa-da-de-dit-dit-daa-daa-da-de etc). Place a few sustained notes oozing in and out high over the top. Then add a counter-tenor with his own line that woogles in and out. Ooh yes. Mustn't forget the counter-tenor. Mix in a sample of recorded read text or a line of a folk song and repeat at irregular intervals. Finally, place over beautifully filmed images that may involve urban blight or war damage. Continue for ten minutes. (Or maybe it just feels like ten minutes.)

I thought this up when walking home from the station (c 4 mins), and when I got in I tried parts of it on the piano, humming a sort of imitation counter-tenor bit and imagining the folksong addendum - for argument's sake, I picked Scarborough Fair, but only the first two lines of it, of course (any more might risk requiring actual thought) - while the news was on on TV, with sound off.

The stupidest thing of all is that it sounded, briefly, like a real piece, and it "fitted" many of the images we saw.

I am not a composer. I do not imagine music from scratch. This bald fact suggests to me that actually what I'd produced wasn't music and I didn't write it.

Isn't it time for a change? This style was flourishing in the 1980s and now it is 2015. It was at first, as some might put it, 'historical necessity'. It was necessary for the world of art music to re-establish a solid, immovable sense of tonal root after decades in which harmonic and indeed rhythmic structures ceased to exist; arid, disorientated decades in which the audience was basically told to naff off if they didn't like what they heard - and did so in droves. Then statement and restatement, mantra-like, soothed and bludgeoned us into knowing that we're here, now, repeating and repeating. Daily routine, ennui, chain stores, peace of a kind. We know where we are.

Some composers who started in minimalism have moved light years away from it; others have used it as a jumping-off point into far more interesting work. Others just keep on keeping on keep on keeping on just keep on keeping on keep on keeping on keep on keeping on just keep on keeping on just just just...

Please send chocolate.
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After visiting Gstaad (my review of this is over at Amati.com) I took an interesting train journey across the country to check out the latest developments in the mighty Lucerne Festival, which is still the big sibling to every other festival in Switzerland. It has introduced free pre-concert concerts: totally relaxed events, but with no compromise on the music-making. What I love about Lucerne (among many other things) is that although it could easily rest on its laurels, it never does so. 

My report is in today's Independent, but in the Observations section which isn't online. Director's Cut below. 

Lake Lucerne - from a former visit. It rained too hard for photos this time.

Torrential rain is driving down upon Lake Lucerne, but despite the soggy conditions a sizeable queue is forming outside the KKL (the Concert and Convention Centre Lucerne). Music-lovers bearing all shades of macs and umbrellas crowd under the waterside building’s substantial overhang, waiting to be admitted to the Lucerne Festival’s latest innovation: 40 Minutes, essentially a short pre-concert concert. But it’s a performance with a difference. It’s absolutely free.

Michael Haefliger, the festival’s artistic and executive director, intends this brand-new series to offer the public “music without borders”. “We want to attract everyone,” he says, “without any limits.”
It would have been easy for this long-established Swiss festival, founded in 1938, to rest on its plentiful laurels – after all, it is fairly evident, looking around Lucerne, that there is no lack of cash here. Yet Haefliger, surrounded over the years by such vital figures as the composer Pierre Boulez and the late conductor Claudio Abbado, has continually instigated new developments to refresh and renew the artistic programme and its audiences. This is the latest – and it seems to be working. Word has spread fast. Performances are held at 6.20pm in the KKL’s smaller concert space, and when the doors open it is chockablock in a matter of minutes.
The ambience is radically different from the more formal concerts in the main hall. The normal seating is complemented by some bean-bags at the front, which are rapidly snaffled by a few alert children. When the audience comes in the orchestra is already on location, the players wearing mufti and chatting to one another or practising quietly; present, too, are soloist and conductor, again in everyday clothes, ready to perform just one piece.
But there’s no compromise on quality. I am hearing the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, conducted by the 86-year-old grand maestro Bernard Haitink, with violinist Isabelle Faust the soloist in Mozart’s Violin Concerto No.5. This is as world-class as anything in the entire festival. First, the music journalist Malte Lohmann, acting as host, interviews Faust and Haitink for the audience, discussing with the former the agonies and ecstasies of playing Mozart and with the latter his special relationship with this orchestra.  
Perhaps the key to the success of 40 Minutes is that the atmosphere is informal, the tone relaxed, but the artistry incomparable. There’s talk, but no talking down. 
Monitoring may be needed to see whether 40 Minutes helps to recruit new audiences for the big concerts too, but the demand is obvious, and with no excuse not to come in and give it a whirl, it’s hard to imagine why anyone wouldn’t. Lucerne doesn’t need to give away concerts for free – but it has the luxury of being able to do so, and one hopes that the effort will pay dividends in the long term, encouraging first-timers with nothing to lose. Other venues could do worse than follow suit.
The Lucerne Festival continues until 13 September. http://www.lucernefestival.ch

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András Schiff plays Bach at the Proms. Photo: Chris Christodoulou

If we didn't have the BBC, guys, we wouldn't have this: András Schiff playing the Bach Goldberg Variations at the Proms, fabulously filmed, televised yesterday and available to watch on the iPlayer
for 29 more days, here. I was away in Switzerland on the day itself, 22 August, and am glad to be able to experience it after the event.

It's playing in which not just mastery but wisdom, balance and humanity shines out of every note of this intimate music, in which the Royal Albert Hall is somehow transformed into András's living room - and in which a state of grace seems to surround the pianist and, with him, us, the listeners. In the introductory interview with Kirsty Wark, András explains that it doesn't matter whether or not you are an atheist or religious, or in what way; Bach was, and you have to enter that zone if you're going to play his music. In he goes. And during those 70 minutes of the Bach's duration, the world changes.

Do yourself a favour. Hear it today. 

UPDATE: The filmed version of this performance is unfortunately not available outside the UK, but readers overseas should hopefully be able to access the audio-only recording on the iPlayer, here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b066zjyt
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I offer some strong words today over at Amati.com about the refugee crisis - and inspiration from organisations such as Musicians Against Borders who are collecting musical instruments to donate to those stranded in the Calais 'jungle'. http://magazine.amati.com/149-comment/comment-music-aid-refugees.html
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Fascinating chat with the one-woman dynamo Chi-chi Nwanoku, double bassist, broadcaster and mover and shaker, about the new orchestra she has formed. Chineke! is Europe's first symphony orchestra made up entirely of black and minority ethnic players, devised to showcase and support the talent of these underrepresented musicians.

With a ringing endorsement from Sir Simon Rattle, and with Wayne Marshall on the podium, the orchestra hits the Southbank for its first concert on 13 September, opening the concert with the Ballade by the wonderful Anglo-African composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. It also features the Elegy: In Memoriam - Stephen Lawrence by Philip Herbert, and concludes with the Brahms Variations on a Theme of Haydn and Beethoven's Symphony No.7.

I went round to see Chi-chi (and her lovely cat) the other week and the article is in the Independent today. Read it here. Tickets for 13 September are going fast, so book soon.
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(This was originally for the Independent's Observations section the other day.)

The new season at the Royal Opera House opens with a collaborative effort unusual enough to seem a tad startling. Orphée et Eurydice, by Christoph Willibald Gluck, is an 18th-century classic of the first order, mingling singing, dance and orchestral interludes in the service of a timeless Greek myth. To realise it, the theatre is opening its doors to the Israeli-born, London-based choreographer and composer Hofesh Shechter and his company of 22 dancers; and also to the conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner and his orchestra and chorus, the English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir. The celebrated Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez sings the title role, the British soprano Lucy Crowe is his Eurydice, and the production is co-directed by John Fulljames and Shechter.
It is Shechter’s first venture into opera – and he is on board because he simply fell in love with the Gluck. “I was offered work in opera before and refused,” he says. “I have to feel I’m connecting with the music when I make dance for it and when I heard this I felt there was something about the simplicity of it that seemed to lend itself to dance. Often operatic music can feel very busy, or doesn’t leave enough space for the imagination. Something about Orphée, though, is pure, spacious and open. I really love it and I was very curious about how my style of movement would fit with it and how it would bring other qualities and feelings into my material.”
This collaboration is a new departure for John Fulljames, too: “I have no choreographic training, and this is Hofesh’s first experience in opera, so I think there’s a good complementarity there,” he remarks. “One of the most important things about Hofesh is that he’s not only a choreographer; he’s a musician. He’s unique amongst choreographers at his level in that he not only makes his own choreography, but usually he also writes his own music – so it’s been fascinating for him to work with existing music and to respond to it in detail.”
When Orphée’s beloved Eurydice dies, the demigod travels beyond the grave to try to bring her back, aided by the power of his music. The story, suggests Fulljames, is at heart all about coming to terms with the loss of a loved one.
“I love this opera’s directness,” he says. “It’s extraordinarily undecorated. So much opera risks being sentimental or melodramatic – but this is the opposite. Gluck strips back everything in order to get to an emotional truth: he’s interested in exploring grief and the relationship of love to loss. You really understand love when you understand loss. I think the piece is an extraordinary study of the grieving process, going through stages of anger and betrayal and eventually reaching a point of acceptance about loss. Its consequence is coming to a much greater understanding of love.”

With all this to relish, the joy of hearing Flórez sing the aria immortalised by the great English contralto Kathleen Ferrier in translation as “I have lost my Eurydice” can only be a bonus. 
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The other day I was talking to Northern Ballet's lead dancer Toby Batley about his new role as Winston in Jonathan Watkins's new ballet adaptation of 1984 and what shocked me was that he said people had kept asking him in anxiety if it wasn't going to be all dark and depressing.

1984? Of course it's bloody dark, I thought, and why ever not? What's wrong with dancing the dark? How has ballet reached a point at which if it's not all tutus and glitter and fairy-tales, people are anxious?

Anyway, dancer, choreographer and composer all told me that actually it's not too dark for ballet. It's a love story. A dark love story. So is Romeo and Juliet.

I've written a feature for The Independent on the new piece and it's in today's edition.

1984 opens in Leeds next week. See it!

If you go to a ballet that tells a story, chances are that you will see a fairy tale, a pastoral idyll, or one of an apparently endless stream of different Alice in Wonderlands. Dance does offer meatier dramas – Romeo and Juliet, Manon or Mayerling, for instance – but there is undoubtedly room for more, and especially for work that tackles gritty contemporary classics. 

At Northern Ballet a quiet revolution has been taking place in the past decade or so as the company – now 45 years old – has created a fount of new narrative works, most choreographed by its artistic director, David Nixon. Among these are Wuthering Heights, Cleopatra and The Great Gatsby. But next comes a very different production: a new adaptation by the choreographer Jonathan Watkins of George Orwell’s novel 1984

Tobias Batley as Winston. Photo: Guy Farrow
It portrays, famously, a dystopian society dominated by Big Brother’s surveillance, subjugating the individual mind and experiential truths to Party lines perforce. The hero, Winston, enters into a rapturous love affair with his co-worker Julia, only to find himself trapped for betraying the system; under torture his will is broken. Though the book’s concepts are household names – thought crime, Big Brother, Room 101 – it might seem a tough story to express in movement alone; and more disturbing is the idea that some might consider it too dark for dance. Has the medium been primarily associated with escapism for too long?

Tobias Batley, who dances Winston, partnering Martha Leebolt as Julia, insists that 1984 is not all gloom. “Many people have voiced their worry that it’ll be a dark and depressing ballet,” he reflects, “but it depends what you take away from it. We’re focusing strongly on the central love story. When I read the book for the first time, years ago, that was the most important part for me. 

“There’s something incredible about this secret love between Winston and Julia,” he adds, “but it has so much power behind it because it’s uplifted by the contrast with all the darkness outside. Of course it ends tragically – but Romeo and Juliet is also terrible at the end. The saddest thing is that Winston and Julia are at the absolute height of this love, feeling it’s perfect and they’re safe, and then the floor just drops out from under them. It’s heart-wrenching when you realise that they have been watched all along. It’s a very touching role to play.”

Watkins himself first told Batley about 1984 when they were both teenagers at the Royal Ballet School: for this young Barnsley-born choreographer, the novel has been a long-standing obsession. “I wasn’t a great reader when I was young,” Watkins says, “but I was somehow drawn to this book and I remember reading it on the train on my way back from Yorkshire to White Lodge [the Royal Ballet’s junior school in Richmond Park] of my own accord. It inspired my earlier work in a wider sense. This idea of realising it in a narrative ballet has been bubbling away and I knew I was going to be doing it sometime.” 

Tobias Batley and Martha Leebolt as Winston and Julia. Photo: Guy Farrow
Then came the perfect opportunity: an approach from Northern Ballet, which encountered Watkins’s dance version of Kes (based on Barry Hines’ novel A Kestrel for a Knave) when it was staged last year at the Sheffield Crucible. “I thought 1984 would be a really good fit for them because of their dancer-actor capabilities,” says Watkins. “They’re an amazing group of artists and they’re very committed to it.” For the company’s 45th birthday gala earlier this year, he also created “a much more light-hearted piece, based on some Stanley Holloway monologues – a really quirky celebration of the north.”

“I feel that narrative dance can appeal in a much more reflective, modern way, with resonance for the times in which we’re living,” Watkins says. “That’s why I wanted to use 1984. And in the book there is that mass control of groups of people by the Party, that military uniformity of a group – what better way to show that than in dance? For me there’s lots of scope in that balletic platform.” The single most difficult thing, he remarks, was deciding which elements of the book to leave out.

“It’s nowhere near ‘too dark’,” he comments. “I don’t understand why we can’t approach a ballet like a newly written play. Why can’t it be relevant to our times now? It’s great to have escapism, but it’s also great to see something that we can reflect on. As for the times we’re living in, everyone knows there’s surveillance up to the hilt, so it feels like the concepts it touches on already can relate to your life now. That makes sense to me as an artist and a creative, regardless of whether it’s dark. Life is dark.”

Watkins began his career with the Royal Ballet in London, but left two years ago for freelance pastures new. His work draws on a cocktail of influences, mingling his first-rate ballet training with the impact of film and theatre. On his website you can watch several short dance films that he made a few years ago for Channel 4, bringing the language of ballet right into the here and now. One, entitled Sofa, portrays a dance epiphany for a beer-bellied bloke during a solitary night in; another visualises the interior world of a young man listening to music while waiting for a bus. His Kes (“Everyone in Barnsley knows the Ken Loach film,” he remarks) made a powerful impact, not least for the sheer audacity of the idea. 

Through his passion for spoken drama Watkins got to know the composer Alex Baranowski, who was working on a range of productions at the National Theatre, as well as writing music for films such as Hamlet, starring Maxine Peak, and the BAFTA-nominated McCullin. The pair have collaborated on several projects, including Sofa amd Kes; for 1984 Baranowski has created a new 100-minute score. 

He and Watkins worked intensively together on the scenario, he says, batting musical and dance ideas back and forth by email and in coffee shops for a good year. “Musically we were very conscious of not being big and down and dark, especially with the cells before Room 101,” says Baranowski. “There’s a relatively long scene with the prisoners who’ve been accused of thought crimes and so on, whom Winston meets. We chose to be quite minimalist, using textures of sounds and noises – rather than, for instance, relentless minor chords and big drums. We rewrote each scene about three times, trying to figure out the best way to tell the story. Sometimes Jonathan would send me a video of the movements he was working on and it’s amazing to find that when I’ve put in a little beat or a drum or a clarinet flourish, he’ll work that into the movements. It’s wonderful to work with a live orchestra and I’m using it for all it’s worth, with all its different noises and textures.” 

And so a new generation of choreographers and composers like Watkins and Baranowski may now reinvent narrative dance for the 21st century, unafraid to engage with the grittiest and darkest of dramas. Bring it on.

1984 opens at the West Yorkshire Playhouse on 5 September, then tours. For full details and booking, visit http://northernballet.com/?q=whats-on
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