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Watching Big Brother

Northern Ballet’s 1984 on stage and screen

Interview By Paul Burgess
Originally published in Blue Pages, the journal of The Society of British Theatre Designers

Having seen Northern Ballet’s 1984 both on TV and on stage at Sadler’s Wells, I was intrigued by what kind of relationship the filmed version had to the live production. I discussed this with the choreographer, Jonathan Watkins, and the designer, Simon Daw. Jonathan is a former dancer with the Royal Ballet, and has a long-term working relationship with Simon, including collaborating on As One for the Royal Ballet. As Jonathon’s working in New York, we talked by email and voice message. This is an edited version of that conversation.

PB:      There have been many different attempts to reimagine 1984, both for stage and screen. What were the main ideas that defined your interpretation?

JW:     Firstly the kind of control of people and the military uniformity of physically controlling this mass amount of people. And that that contrasted with this physical connection, this rebellious connection, between Julia and Winston.

I was really inspired by the book when I read it when I was 15 and I did some kind of initial, naive, more abstract dance pieces based on some of the ideas in the book. However, as my choreographical exploration progressed, and I became more interested in narrative, this was always a story that I wanted to look at and explore. But really it appealed to me in that very physical sense first.

And obviously letting go of some of it as well was all part of the process. One major thing was that Orwell draws on Winston’s physical state in terms of the ulcer on his leg, and how that gets worse, and I wanted to free myself from being tied to that. I wanted Winston to have a different physicality arc, so I could show that in different ways choreographically.

PB:      The production inhabited a very distinctive visual world. Simon, can you talk a little bit about the main visual motifs and the principles underlying them?

SD:     At the heart of the piece is the (almost) inescapable surveillance – the set features a series of towers and masts that support an array of cameras, speakers and screens. At the centre is a large led matrix screen that transmits propaganda and watches over the inhabitants.

The control of the state is expressed through a defined colour palette and the triangular symbol of Big Brother, which is repeated throughout the design and choreography: from the triangular configuration of the set, through to the truss work that makes up the towers and even the wallpaper on the wall in Winston’s apartment.

The stifling homogenous repetition of uniform and furniture in the Ministry makes the few moments when Winston and Julia break free from that world – such as when they go to the acid green trees – all the more powerful. I wanted to create a world where the dancers were dwarfed by their surroundings: Tall slender trees, huge rickety shelves in Charrington’s shop and surveillance towers. A series of black moving walls with surveillance mirrors reconfigure to create a maze of corridors, offices and prison cells.

PB:      I want to focus on the experience of a live production being televised – which of course carries a particular resonance with 1984, given the oppressive role of screens. Can you start by telling us what it felt like to see a show you’d made translated to a small screen? Did it feel like the same production?

JW:     I think to me it felt really right and obvious when the opportunity came up to film it for TV, just because of the nature of the show, in terms of always watching and the telly screens and everything like that. I think all dance can be captured for the screen but not all of it is suited to this kind of format. But our production suited it. I enjoyed the intimacy of finding the performances and being able to zoom in on the characters’ faces. For me that was the major difference. The way that Ross MacGibbon, the director, saw it was pretty much like how I created the show. And I think in some ways I liked how it strengthened the storytelling. But then on the flip side, obviously, with all of these things, it’s just one edit of the show. When an audience comes to see it live there is the freedom they have to edit their own show. But I really believed in the way that it was edited and I thought the show looked very good on camera.

SD:     It was great to sit down to watch the show again at home having not seen it for a few months. I’m always really nervous when my designs are being filmed for TV in HD as it can be very unforgiving seeing scenic paint finishes and props that have been created with the original intention that they will be seen from a distance in that kind of close up detail. But I was really pleased with how 1984 looked on TV and it felt very true to the experience of watching it on stage. I always knew I wanted to use an LED screen rather than projection for this design (it needed the sharp intensity that LEDs give) and that really paid off when it was filmed, allowing the video images to balance with the rest of the lighting.

PB       Was the production changed in any way to make it work for TV? Did you have to make any compromises?

JW:     This is something I thought about, when the opportunity came up, in terms of the performances; whether to tell the dancers to change what they were doing or be aware of the cameras. But actually what we did, and I think it’s down to the nature of the show as well, is that I just said to them do the show for the audience that are in the theatre and cameras will pick up that.

I got to sit in the live edit suite as it was going along, and as I was watching I realised that it wasn’t too over the top. We did that first test recording of it, and then we had a day in between when the team compared notes and the edit got a little bit quicker and a bit simpler actually. I was able to watch the second show and it just looked really good. And in between I didn’t say anything to the dancers in terms of their performances. I know I had conversations with Simon about how his design was going to look on camera. Because obviously when you design for the theatre it’s for that sort of distance. And so when I was sat in the edit suite I was aware of what Simon’s wishes were. For my money it all looked great and we just had to tweak a little bit of the lighting because things were reading a little bit too dark. But that was the team that came with Ross MacGibbon. They just tweaked a few things.

I also didn’t want to compromise anything because I’ve actually taken part as a dancer in productions that were filmed. We just did it as is. Because we weren’t setting out to film it, like ‘made for camera’, we were capturing it and that’s a bit of a difference.

PB       What kind of input did you have as a designer on how it was filmed?

SD:     On this occasion I wasn’t able to attend the filming so I didn’t have a lot of input beyond a change we made to a very glossy paint finish on the walls that was proving too reflective. When I have previously worked on a film at the Royal Opera House I watched from the recording gallery to check everything worked from a design point of view but that was a bit different as it was being shot from more unusual angles using overhead cameras and a crane; 1984 was shot from the theatre audience’s perspective.

PB:      Actually, I found it a very different experience seeing it on TV, as opposed to the stage. Both experiences were great but on TV it felt very personal, very intimate. Seeing it on stage gave me a better sense of the scenographic world it inhabited and how that fitted together. That, in my opinion, gave more emphasis to the wider society in which the story takes place, including the sense of scale.

Jonathan, you also make dance films. In fact, you’re in New York at the moment working on a series of dance films shot on iPhone. Do you think about choreography differently when it’s solely for the camera, as opposed to a live audience?

JW:     I think the major difference between live and dance films is the control aspect of the audience’s focus, and so I find with dance films you can really control what the audience is seeing. The run of one movement to another and how that is edited together have to have a real through-line and connection, and obviously with film you can just do all that kind of thing. Whereas in a live production it all has to have a continuum, you can do a lot with lighting but…

I kind of like that when you’re creating for dance on camera that kind of technique can also affect how you create a live production. Especially with 1984. I call it my cinematic blend. So that it wasn’t clunky, like ‘scene end, scene begin’, and instead more of a blend, we transitioned through the different scenes. Especially for the audience, it was a continuous thing, there wasn’t any room for audience clapping, so it brought you out the experience. From the beginning of Act 1 to the end of Act 1 it was just this through-line, which really affected how the music was, and also our design process with Simon. We were able to talk that through in the model box and have that continuity and that ambition of the cinematic blend.

I think that’s partly due to my interest in film, and working a little bit more on film recently I’ve just really enjoyed manipulating choreography for camera. Because, you can jump from a dancer jumping into the air and you don’t have to show the landing necessarily. That’s kind of accepted. But obviously you can’t do that in reality in a live performance. So the possibilities are different in the different mediums. One affects the other or one can lend to the other, in terms of focus.

PB:      It’s interesting to be thinking cinematically, even for live performance. I suppose the boundaries are blurring. Televising and streaming live performances are certainly becoming more frequent. What should designers be looking out for so their work survives the process?

SD:     I think the main thing is to make sure the finishes of scenic artwork and props are to a high standard to withstand close scrutiny. The problem is that generally you won’t know if a piece is going to be filmed at the point of the set and props being built and the kind of detail that HD film requires is not necessary for everything on a proscenium arch show.

PB:      Did you both feel your intellectual property/artistic integrity was sufficiently protected?

SD:     My contracts normally limit the use of the designs to live theatrical performances so when it comes to use of them for television a further negotiation takes place. The challenge is that once it has been filmed and shown on TV, put on the iPlayer and sold in the BBC iStore there are lots of opportunities for people to make copies of it so unlike a live performance the control of its future use does feel like it can slip away from us .  But ultimately the opportunity to have the work seen by 130,000 plus people on television as well as having a fantastic record of the show totally outweighs the negatives.

JW:     I think, personally, it really was protected, because I was working quite closely with Ross MacGibbon and sort of telling him everything about the show. And he saw the show in Leeds when we first did it, so that was really good for him to get a grasp of the kind of style of the production. I sat down with him and talked about the possibilities of the cinematic blend, that it lent itself to the production where I was asking the audience to look at the video screen while what was happening in darkness below was transitioning over to Winston’s ministry work stations.

We could do that in the capture of it because we could just show on screen the actual live screen, and then when it had all transitioned through we could boom straight on to the action. I think for him it was obvious that was how it was going, but through talking and collaborating in that way and also with me being there, and then doing notes on it, and then filming it again, I felt it was in very good hands.

I really trusted Ross because I think he got the nature of the production. Also because he was a soloist with the Royal Ballet and has done many, many of these recordings,  at the Opera House and with Matthew Bourne. Literally dance-wise he’s been at the helm of everything. I think for him it’s been quite a different production, and a different experience too, so that was good on his side of things, and it worked out well, I thought. And also, just in general, for me as an artist, it was just brilliant that we went out on BBC4 on a Sunday evening, and then it was available for a month on BBC iPlayer. The viewing figures were roughly – with all that combined – was about 130,000 people. For dance, for modern ballet, for me and for everyone involved, I just think that reach is really good and really important.

For example, it provided possibilities such as WeTransfer, hosting it. They wouldn’t normally look to ballet, but because of the title and the intrigue of how it was done, they thought it was a really good fit. And so, for me, that’s really, really good for the accessibility of the art form. I think that the more that those kinds of things are done, the more people go ‘oh, I didn’t know how they were going to do it but they told a story’, or ‘I saw things in this production that I didn’t read in the book or in the play. Because they weren’t using words I looked beyond that.’

A lot of things nowadays are communicated via screens in our everyday life –  through words and screens – and we’re fed so much information that it’s great to just absorb this through the physicality of the production. So for me that’s great, and hopefully it’ll continue in pushing forward the art-form.

Photographs of the production are here.