By George! It’s a 
Big Brother ballet

Chorley dancer Tobias Batley rehearses for Northern Ballet's 1984
Chorley dancer Tobias Batley rehearses for Northern Ballet's 1984
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Where many classical ballets tell tales of fantasy, with fairies, nymphs and mystical creatures, the company of the Northern Ballet have returned to the stage with a new production of the classic novel 1984.

In traditional Northern Ballet-style, it’s a story of real people, focussing on hero Ministry Of Truth worker Winston Smith’s love affair, set against the backdrop of Big Brother’s surveillance in a dystopian society.

Starring in the lead role is Lancashire lad, staying true to his northern roots, Tobias Batley, who will be among the company at Manchester’s Palace Theatre this week.

“Originally I was a bit worried how 1984 would work,” Toby, from Chorley, said of the adaptation from page to stage of the George Orwell novel.

“Jonathan [Watkins, choreographer] told me about the idea a while ago, so I’d read the book and thought there were ideas which would work well in dance, and other aspects which would be really hard.

“It focuses on the emotions of Winston Smith, and his falling in love, rather than telling the story step by step, which I think would be quite boring.”

1984 is the latest ballet for the Leeds-based company in which the Preston-born former Rivington Primary School pupil has starred in - and helped create, in the lead role of Winston Smith.

It’s the first time the book has been adapted to a full-length ballet, and features an original musical score.

“A lot of people said to me, ‘how are you going to portray Winston?’,” he said. “He’s not boring as such, he does incredible acts, but there’s not much to him physically.

“The act of starting the diary and going on that journey is very artistic and imaginative, especially in the world he lives in.”

Toby initially trained at the Hammond School in Chester, in jazz, modern and tap dance, as well as classical ballet and character, before going on to the Royal Ballet School for three years, from where he joined a French company for a year.

In 11 years since then with the Northern Ballet, he’s risen through the company to the rank of ‘premier dancer’ - their equivalent of the prima ballerina or the male ‘principal dancer’.

In that time, he has danced every lead role in their repertoire, and has also been involved in the development of roles as diverse as Marc Antony in Cleopatra, Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby and Prince Charming in Cinderella last year.

“It’s hard to say which is your favourite and it’s usually the one you’re doing right now,” he added. “The ones I have actually been creating or had created on me are favourites though, and there have been five of those now.

“It’s a real honour and a special experience to have that role or whole ballet created around you - and they have all been so different.”

At 31, Toby’s all too aware that the clock is ticking on his career, and admits he’s been lucky on the injury front - helping to keep him consistently dancing.

“Injuries are often how you get your chance, through filling in for someone else,” he said. “But I had five or six years with not one injury - but then the more you work, the more you get.

“I’m fine for now, there are little niggles, but touch wood there’s never been anything serious.

“I do try to look to that time in the future though, when I can’t dance so much. I’m interested in the directing and creating side, choreography and artistic leadership.

“I’ve not had much experience of that yet, and it’s hard to consider it when you’re still dancing.”

Although Toby didn’t make the trip to Blackpool with Northern Ballet earlier this year, as part of its new ‘mid-scale’ tour programme to extend audiences, he’s keen to praise the extended touring programme.

“In small towns or theatres it’s hard to sell a full week, so the mid-scale tour is about cultivating new audiences in new places and it was very successful,” he said.

“It’s something Northern Ballet do a lot of, and it’s important. So many young girls go to ballet classes, but don’t necessarily get to see it that much.

“We’re doing it again next year, and with a specially created production of Jane Eyre, and the year after that we’re certainly going to Blackpool again.”

* 1984, Palace Theatre, Manchester, until Saturday. Call 0161 245 6600 for tickets.