For choreographer Jonathan Watkins making a dance piece out of Barry Hines’s celebrated story, A Kestrel for a Knave “was not something I plucked out of the air”.
“It’s a story of my two worlds colliding,” he says. “I grew up in Barnsley and it’s very much in the blood, everyone knows it there and it’s part of your DNA. Whether it’s from the film or the book people quote it around the streets from 14 to 18.
“When I went away to the Royal Ballet School when I was 12 it was one of those things I carried with me as I was developing as a dancer and a choreographer.” Even so, it wouldn’t seem a natural subject to interpret through dance.
“There have been challenges like there always are when you are turning text into dance but there’s always things you can rely on in terms of the mood of the music and what is visually happening,” says Watkins.
“You can see a progression between boy and bird and that he is being physically bullied. Also there is a language as for instance in the games lesson with Mr Sugden. You have football, take away the ball and you already have a movement vocabulary and that thing where Mr Sugden believes he is Bobby Charlton and pushing the kids and getting more and more frustrated is a great thing to see, there is great visual comedy in that.”
The key to Watkins’ vision is the contrast between Billy’s interior and exterior lives. Whether his home or school life, the interiors are confined and montonous and repetitious whereas the exterior, out in the natural world, the sky’s the limit.
“It made sense to me that choroegraphically and physically you could actually show someone going from being restricted and repressed to being open in the exterior, open and flowing,” he explains.
The premiere production of Kes at the Crucible will feature eight professional and 20 young local dancers and will combine dance, physical theatre and puppetry. “I was looking for somewhere expansive to realise my vision for this production and it was met with a similar passion from Daniel Evans here at the Crucible. For the scale of the production it was the closest I could get to Barnsley because I am being faithful to the book and Barry Hines’s vision.”
Chester Hayes, a recent graduate from dance school, was chosen from more than 60 young dancers to play the pivotal role of Billy Casper.
While keen to preserve an air of mystery about how the kestrel will be realised on stage, Watkins revealed: “ The bird is represented in four or five different ways as the boy and bird relationship develops.” It begins in realistic form and the puppetry becomes more expressive and abstract as the production goes along. I met all sorts of people like puppetry designers and directors and I chose a lady called Rachael Canning who does puppetry working with a lot of raw materials because in the set is this sense of renewal and natural resources and how one thing can become another and I wanted to echo that in how we made the materials of the puppetry.
“We did a lot of workshops testing out ideas for a week and a half so we knew how the bird would move before we started working with the actors in rehearsals.”
After graduating from the Royal Ballet School Watkins earned a place with the Royal Ballet in 2003, dancing and creating many roles, but has been choreographing since the age of 16. His career has also taken in being movement director in notable theatrical productions including Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse and People at the National Theatre.
“It was a difficult decision to leave home at 12 but my parents were really supportive.” he recalls. “They felt if I was going to make a go of it that was the place to do it It’s weird, I look back with misty eyes because we had really long holidays so I felt that I really did still grow up in Barnsley .I came back for eight weeks in the summer and three weeks at Easter and Christmas so although I knew it was temporary we still used to do stuff like going sledging in the Three Corners field in Worsborough.
“I’ve been in London 17 years now and that thing of coming back to Yorkshire and people saying, ‘isn’t he posh!’, and down in London they say how much of an accent I have.
“For me it makes sense to be doing my first full-length production in Yorkshire and how it’s circular like the story which begins in Billy’s bedroom and finishes in Billy’s bedroom and all he goes through in between. While it’s nothing like that I feel I started in Yorkshire and went off to London and now I am back creating this thing I really feel passionate about. So it feels circular and right.”
Kes runs at the Crucible from Thursday, March 27, to April 5.