Award-Winning Director and Choreographer Jonathan Watkins joins our Arts and Performance Panel

Jonathan Watkins

Interview by Hebe Dobson-Mouawad

Barnsley born Jonathan Watkins has a clear talent for adaptations. In 2016, he created the first dance adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 for Northern Ballet, which won both Best New Dance Production at The Southbank Sky Arts Awards and Best Classical Choreography at Critics Circle National Dance Awards. A week before Kes – Reimagined, Watkin’s dance-theatre film based on the book A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines, airs on BBC4, I ask the choreographer about his latest project.

Kes - Reimagined Billy Casper
Billy Casper


Kes – Reimagined

Kes is about a disconnected boy who finds his own kind of passion by training a wild bird. Watkins explains that in 1960s Barnsley, the expected route was to finish school and go down the mines. The main character Billy, however, experiences a journey of self-discovery and tries to push and get out of his own cage. Watkins hopes that his film, Kes – Reimagined, will allow the viewers at home to feel as if they’re right within the story.

“With Kes, we tried to blur the lines between what you call a theatrical capture and a feature film.”

This “hybrid quality”, as he describes it, gives the film a much deeper and richer quality than simply putting four cameras in a theatre and capturing a performance. “You’re much less aware that it’s a theatrical performance because you’re in with the performers.” Watkins also directed and adapted Reasons to Stay Alive at the Sheffield Crucible Theatre, based on the best-selling novel by Matt Haig, which is now touring the UK with English Touring Theatre to critical acclaim.

“Everyone reads a book and imagines their world. I’m lucky enough to be able to realise mine through these productions.”

Whilst drawn to adaptation, Watkins is looking at the process of using film and dance to tell new stories. “It’s a challenge, you’re trying to convey a story, sometimes without words, for the first time, whereas you almost have a manual when you have source material already. KesReimagined follows Barry Hines’ book, A Kestrel for a Knave, very closely.

Short Film

Watkins isn’t a stranger to the medium of short films. His earlier work includes Sofa, a short he created and directed for Channel 4’s Random Acts series. He credits experimenting in different mediums for allowing him to develop as a director and choreographer. “Going back to my short films, that was me learning through experience.”

Random Acts - Channel 4
Still from Sofa by Jonathan Watkins for Channel 4

“I seem to be always drawn to projects that make people think, ‘why would you want to do that?’” 

Judging the Arts and Performance award

Watkins is driven by challenging what we expect from dance. I ask what he will be expecting when judging an arts and performance short film. “It’s really important when you’re looking at other people’s work to try and understand where they’re coming from. I think that everyone has a unique voice. Judging other people’s work – it’s something that I don’t take lightly because someone has put their all into creating a piece of work and I understand that because I’m creating those pieces of work as well.” 

Does he have any advice for budding experimental filmmakers? “If there’s an opportunity, it’s really worth grabbing onto.”

Kes – Reimagined airs at 22:00, 19th November on BBC4 and will be available to stream on BBC iPlayer and the trailer can be seen here.

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