The Great Gatsby, West Australian Ballet

His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth, September 14.

Northern Ballet’s artistic director David Nixon is an old and highly successful hand at creating narrative ballets but he gave himself a tough assignment with this one. His 2013 dance translation of The Great Gatsby is entirely faithful to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s best novel while at the same time floating over what really lies at its heart.

Gatsby’s exterior world of frenetic parties and unattainable lovers is eminently stage-worthy and West Australian Ballet looks wonderful in Nixon’s evocation of jazz-age, Prohibition-flouting high society. The frocks are divine, the women glamorous, the men have never seemed sleeker and the 1920s dances are a delight.

Matthew Edwardson and Dancers of West Australian Ballet in The Great Gatsby. Photo by Sergey Pevnev

Matthew Edwardson (front) as Young Gatsby in The Great Gatsby. Photo: Sergey Pevnev

Far more difficult to convey are the fluttering nuances of character and shades of meaning that make the novel such an unsettling picture of a changing country with the post-war jitters.

How to express that Daisy’s voice is “full of money”, as Gatsby puts it? Or that Gatsby was once the impoverished nobody Jimmy Gatz? Or that Nick Carraway is the cousin of Gatsby’s lost love Daisy, and thus is being used by his now fabulously wealthy neighbour? (I am reminded of George Balanchine’s famous assertion that “there are no mothers-in-law in ballet”. Certain specifics of kinship are not easily conveyed wordlessly.)

Fitzgerald describes Gatsby’s fruitless pursuit of Daisy at several removes through Nick’s eyes as he looks back. In its concentration on the surface narrative the ballet loses those layers and Fitzgerald’s mood of evanescence with them, despite Nixon’s repeated flashbacks showing a young Gatsby wooing Daisy. The cartoonish depiction of Gatsby’s mob connections – men slinking about in black trench coats – doesn’t help.

The Great Gatsby nevertheless has much to enjoy, even if it’s advisable for those not steeped in the novel to take a solid look at the synopsis ahead of time.

A lively selection of 1920s-flavoured music by Richard Rodney Bennett, some taken from his film scores, accompanies lots of swiftly changing scenes. The use of a movement from his 1990 Percussion Concerto is particularly effective and Bennett’s history as a jazz pianist informs the score’s best moments. The West Australian Symphony Orchestra, with Myron Romanul at the helm, gave a zesty account of it on opening night.

Melissa Boniface and Dancers of West Australian Ballet in The Great Gatsby. Photo by Sergey Pevnev

Matthew Lehmann (rear) and Melissa Boniface (front) in The Great Gatsby. Photo: Sergey Pevnev

Above all there were terrific performances from all in the first cast, no mean feat when there are nine key characters.

Gakuro Matsui (the elegant, mysterious Gatsby), Chihiro Nomura (careless, feckless Daisy) and Oliver Edwardson (watchful Nick Carraway) were as effective as the limits of their characters allowed. Gatsby is the outsider who stands aloof at his own parties, is seen gazing wistfully across the water at the light on the end of Daisy’s jetty, or remembering his early days with Daisy. It makes him an elusive character, even when he finally gets Daisy in his arms for rapturous pas de deux in both acts. Which is as it should be from the Fitzgerald point of view, even if it makes the role a difficult one onstage.

Matthew Edwardson and Carina Roberts were fresh as the young Gatsby and Daisy while Brooke Widdison-Jacobs was superbly cast as Daisy’s golf-champion friend Jordan Baker, wielding a cool, amused demeanour and long sporty limbs.

The really juicy parts, however, are for Daisy’s unfaithful husband Tom, his lover Myrtle and Myrtle’s husband George. They get to be vividly steamy and sexy. Matthew Lehmann looked super sharp and gave Tom virile presence. He had looked out of sorts earlier in the year in Don Quixote but now seemed refreshed and renewed. Liam Green’s George was urgent with longing for his errant wife and Melissa Boniface was sensational as the passionate, doomed Myrtle. Now here was a character for a dancer to get her teeth into.

The Great Gatsby ends September 30.

A version of this review first appeared in The Australian on September 18.