'Great Gatsby': the ballet!

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great gatsby
The West Australian Ballet will present the Australian premiere of 'The Great Gatsby' this September. Nina Levy talks to its creator, Northern Ballet’s David Nixon.

When I think of The Great Gatsby, the first image that comes to my mind is a suavely suited Leonardo Di Caprio in Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 film based on the F. Scott Fitzgerald’s beloved 1925 novel. Coincidentally, a balletic version of The Great Gatsby opened just days before the Luhrmann film made its premiere.

For choreographer of The Great Gatsby, Northern Ballet’s artistic director David Nixon, it’s the 1974 film version of the novel that tickled his imagination… along with the book itself. “ I loved this book from a youngster,” he sighs. “I read it the year the Robert Redford and Mia Farrow [film version of The Great Gatsby] came out. That was the year we did it in school and we went and saw the movie together. I was fascinated with Gatsby’s ability to have a dream that was so profound for him and pure. I remember getting a perfect mark for my paper for it – minus spelling - it was because it inhabited me and inspired me.”

It’s easy to see how The Great Gatsby lends itself to film interpretation, with its glamorous 1920s setting, its many party scenes and its tragic love story. It doesn’t, however, seem an obvious choice for a ballet, primarily because the novel’s appeal is due, in large part, to poetic language. It is as much about the careful layering of words as about its plot. So why did Nixon choose it?

“Well first of all, we need to find titles that create (spark?) the imagination in the audience’s minds to buy tickets,” he replies. “The Great Gatsby is something that does excite people. The minute you say ‘The Great Gatsby’ they recall the twenties, jazz music, the Charleston, parties and this romantic thing that hangs out there between Daisy and Gatsby. So from that perspective it was a natural choice.”

That said, Nixon admits that, having made the decision, a re-read of the book caused mild panic. “I realised, ‘Oh my god, this book is language.’ The language is extraordinary and it conjures up different things for every reader. Therefore, it’s very personal reading it.

“So I sat with my co-director for two meetings. Normally after the first meeting we could start writing something and two meetings later we still hadn’t written anything because we were still asking, ‘How are we going to do this? Are we going to try to do the language? Well actually no, but I can tell this story, these relationships, I can present these characters and the dynamics between them, and paint a picture of the period. A work like that in dance is always, anyways, a personal interpretation of what you are interested in and what you would like to share.” . . .

This is an extract from a full feature/interview in the August/September issue of Dance Australia. Read the full story! Buy the new issue at your favourite magazine retailer or subscribe here, or purchase an online copy via the Dance Australia app.

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