CHOREOGRAPHER Jonathan Watkins first read George Orwell’s 1984 when he was in his teens and a student at the Royal Ballet school. “I was 14, maybe 15, and I can still remember, now, the impression it made on me at the time,” says Watkins. “I remember how the ideas – about individuality, about going against the system, about how we behave differently if we think we’re being watched – really stayed with me afterwards.” How profound and abiding that impression was, is borne out by the ballet that the 31-year-old Watkins created on Northern Ballet last year. Based solely on Orwell’s book, 1984 has won ecstatic plaudits since its premiere in Leeds last September and – a measure of its popular impact – it has recently been screened on BBC4.

In fact, 1984 is not the only book that has inspired Yorkshire-born Watkins to create a work for the stage. Another of his teenage discoveries, A Kestrel for a Knave, written by Barry Hines (who died last week aged 76), resulted in Watkins bringing together a company of actors, dancers and puppets in a dance-drama production of Kes that ran to huge acclaim at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield in 2014.

“I do think a lot of people were surprised by it,” says Watkins, “because they weren’t sure what to expect. You’re saying ‘Okay - we’re going to turn Kes into a ballet” and a lot of the initial reactions are as much about why you’d want to do that, as well as how. How are you going to make this gritty story about a working class lad and a kestrel into a dance piece? But I remember there was a point on the first night, when you could feel a change of atmosphere in the theatre. It was as if the audience understood what it was you were trying to do, that they got it, and that it was really reaching out to them.”

In some ways, Kes could be seen as a break-through moment for Watkins. After leaving the Royal Ballet in 2013, where he had established himself as both dancer and choreographer, Watkins had chalked up an impressive CV, working with renowned British, Russian and New York companies. No-one, however, seemed keen to commission a ballet of 1984, until – heartened, perchance, by his success with Kes – Northern Ballet agreed to his choice of the Orwell for their 2015 autumn season.

“I think you do have recognise, and really appreciate, the risk involved for the company,” he says. “When it comes to new ballets, audiences can only go by the name. A Shakespeare, or a fairytale is familiar, but 1984 – whether they’ve read the book or not – doesn’t come across as conventional ballet material. It was a challenge for everyone involved to make something audiences could genuinely connect to.

Luckily Watkins had a team of visionary creatives that included people he’d worked with before, among them the composer Alex Baranowski and dramaturg Ruth Little. He jokes that he regularly amends her first name to “Truth”, but then he enthusiastically details the valuable ways in which her outside eye ensures that his narrative framework retains clarity.

“It’s about having some-one you trust standing back, pulling together this overview – really looking at how the movement works with the video, or if the two worlds that I’ve imagined for the lovers, Winston and Julia, are really distinct and separate. Ruth does that with the kind of honesty you need with a project that’s as detailed as this one.”

Watkins, who read and re-read 1984 before he started devising his own scene by scene adaptation, briskly accepted that there was no easy or effective way to portray things like Newspeak. Instead he looked to create a movement vocabulary that echoed regimentation under surveillance – the design elements of huge video screens and LED messages are a chilling reminder of Big Brother’s omniscient presence – and then contrasted that uniformity with the more lyrical duets between Winston and Julia where bodies express the urgent rapture of forbidden freedoms.

“We can’t replicate every word of Orwell’s text,” says Watkins, “but I do think that dance allows us to say things that the text can’t. This is a story about people being physically controlled, and dance is the perfect medium to show that.”

Dance, it transpires, is also a perfect adjunct to the work of British artist Linder, in collaboration with choreographer Kenneth Tindall and dancers from Northern Ballet for a work that is part of the current British Art Show 8 in Edinburgh. The project, entitled Children of the Mantic Stain, sees seven of the company’s dancers (wearing signature sportswear specifically designed by Christopher Shannon) performing at Edinburgh’s Dovecot Tapestry Studio while Northern Ballet are in the city with 1984.

The origin of the Linder-Tindall ballet is, in fact Dovecot itself. In 2013 it commissioned the creation of a rug, designed by Linder, that brings together the principles of collage and the core imagery of a spiral. Entitled Diagrams of Love: Marriage of Eyes, the rug is by way of an “eighth dancer” in the choreography that is set to music by Maxwell Sterling. This coming together of creative energies is the only showing of Children of the Mantic Stain in Scotland. It takes place on the weaving floor at Dovecot Tapestry Studio on Wednesday, March 30 at 7.30pm. Details and tickets are available at

Northern Ballet present 1984 at Festival Theatre, Edinburgh from Thursday March 31 to Saturday April 2.