Features Published 28 June 2016

Cathy Marston: “Many of my works are led by strong women.”

The choreographer Cathy Marston chats to Anna Winter about the process of creating Jane Eyre for Northern Ballet, and why the dance world needs to tackle gender imbalances head on.
Anna Winter

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Why Jane Eyre? How did this production come about?

CM: I’d worked with Northern Ballet a couple of times before and the tricky thing was to find a title. I’d made an abstract piece, but I’m known for storytelling and I love storytelling, and that’s what Northern Ballet do. [Artistic director] David Nixon and I spoke for a long time about a suitable vehicle and decided on A Tale of Two Cities, but that wasn’t a title that sold well unfortunately. It took us a while to come together again because of busy schedules, but then David wrote me an email and asked if I’d consider Jane Eyre. I’d like to think that it was because of Charlotte Bronte’s 200th birthday but actually it’s a coincidence! It’s a very obvious piece for Northern Ballet: it’s regional and they’re based in the north, and it’s a story with a strong woman at its heart. I don’t set out to make women’s pieces, but it’s a common thread with me. Many of my works are led by strong women. Also, Jane Eyre has got many layers and I love that. Obviously there’s the love story, the Jane and Rochester relationship, but there are also different stories to be told (although in an hour and a half you can’t tell everything of Jane Eyre). I was drawn to Jane’s story and the narrative of a girl who’s intelligent, sparky and talented, and feels indignant about the treatment she receives. She gains what we’d now term ’emotional intelligence’, probably not a familiar term for the Brontes! I was interested in that. She learns about who she is within a world that’s very male dominated. It’s a period piece but it speaks to us now. The story still feels very passionate.

What was it you were looking for when casting Jane and Rochester. They’re pretty untypical ballet protagonists. (He’s quite a bit older, for starters…)

CM: Yes he’s older, and that’s tricky because most dancers are under 35 at most. Javier [Torres, one of the dancers who plays Rochester] is in his early thirties. But I think an audience is prepared to take leap of imagination in dance, they’re not expecting to see a 50 year old man. What I wanted to find with Rochester was that kind of gruffness and roughness and yet he’s been brought up in particular way. He doesn’t care what people but he’s upper class, and if he chooses he can act with etiquette. Really, he’s lonely, he’s troubled, and he’s searching, and I needed someone who could grasp all of those things – to show that outer layer and then give an indication of what’s really going on. Jane is a split part, there’s a younger and a grown up Jane, and I needed to show that development. The young Jane is clever, sharp-witted and rebellious, she feels she’s been wronged in the way she’s treated. Whereas Helen Burns is self-effacing and turns to God, Jane can’t do that – she’s prickly and people don’t like her and perhaps if she was smoother and prettier people would find it easier to like her. As she comes to terms with that, she learns to hold her back her sharp tongue, to listen and watch other people. She makes a journey towards emotional intelligence, and she opens up and lets another person in by falling in love.

At the end of the ballet I wasn’t satisfied with having a Jane and Rochester embrace. There’s a lingering note in music, Rochester freezes and Jane steps out and walks slowly towards audience into separate spotlight. I wanted to capture the sense that she’s gained herself, not just that she’s won Rochester. That’s her victory. Also ‘Jane Eyre’ is more than the Jane Eyre Charlotte Bronte wrote 200 year ago. She’s a mythical woman, like Medea or Cleopatra, a figure who has a lot of resonance and means a lot to thousands of people, mainly women, down the generations. I wanted to let that image of her linger outside the story…it was risky but I’m glad that critics picked up on it!

How did you go about creating the work – did you go into the studio with choreographic patterns mapped out? How much input did the dancers have?

CM: I worked very collaboratively with dancers. I give them a lot of words to work with at first, lists of words to describe the characters in as abstract a way as possible, like ‘prickly’ for young Jane. The dancers can then go away and physicalise the words, working on their own to develop a vocabulary. I’ll then take some elements and throw away others. It’s like an alphabet to draw on, and it’s important to me that each character has their own vocabulary that’s not made from the standard ballet steps. We really went through the pas de deux for Jane and Rochester in great detail, talking about the book and the place we’re in, each one’s perspectives and why they’d be doing what they’re doing. Northern Ballet do something which no other company I’ve worked with does and I love it, they call it ‘dialoguing’ – they speak through a passage of choreography at the same time as dancing it, not like acting, but it’s a process of agreeing on what the movement means.

The production uses some pieces by Fanny Mendelssohn, which is really interesting. Can you tell me a bit about the score?

CM: The orchestra is reduced, so there’s one of everything. Philip Feeney, the composer, wanted to use some music from the Bronte period, so we looked at string quartets and piano pieces. Then Philip brought up the fact that Fanny Mendelssohn was virtually a contemporary of the Brontes and, like them, a woman who wasn’t given the credit she deserved in a male dominated world. That was a good reason to look at her in depth, and her short piano pieces felt really right for the piece – dramaturgically and artistically they seemed to match. Her music has an emotional quality that felt right for Jane. Philip also used some Schubert and Felix Mendelssohn. Schubert was good for the Rochester theme. He was a bit before the Brontes but it gave more of a stuffy, old-fashioned feel. We treated some of the music a bit like props or set, so we could feel the period. It’s not all period music though – the score is woven with contemporary music from Philip himself. For instance, we couldn’t have had the fire scene to period music, it felt way too melodramatic!

I wonder if you ever face resistance as a choreographer, confront the thought that dance/ballet can’t add anything to a work (like Jane Eyre) that’s considered a masterpiece? I was thinking of the resistance originally put up to Kenneth Macmillan at the Royal Ballet when he wanted to choreograph to Mahler’s Song of the Earth…?

CM: That’s a really interesting point, because he actually went to make it in Berlin instead. That matches my experience in a way. I come from the Royal Ballet and the English tradition. In our culture the writer is god, and the director or choreographer is there to serve the author’s vision. I’ve spent a lot of my life and career in German-speaking Switzerland and Germany and there’s a completely different approach there – the practice of Regietheater (which means director’s theatre) in which the director is boss. Over there they cannot understand why you would recreate a book or play as the writer wrote it faithfully on stage and they celebrate that. The original writing is there to be turned upside down and inside out. They don’t have that idea that you can’t possibly make a ballet on Shakespeare because it’s about the words. Well, it’s not Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it’s someone else’s, and even Shakespeare’s work was not completely his own because it came from other sources. So I think I sit between those two opposing approaches, which is wonderful because I’ve been able to liberate myself from both. My whole identity is split between them and my work has got stronger as a result.

Finally, I wanted to ask you about the gender issue! Recently Akram Khan caused outrage when he said that we shouldn’t have more female choreographers ‘for the sake of it.’ Are female choreographer held back by institutional sexism?

CM: There is an issue to be dealt with. It’s no coincidence that next season Crystal Pite, who I greatly admire, will be the first female choreographer to create a work for the main stage at Covent Garden in nearly 20 years. The first step is acknowledging it. There are still a great deal of people in positions of power and influence, the gatekeepers, who want to think of it as a question of talent. Well, we all want to think of it as question of talent, but actually it isn’t! An acknowledgement of the discrepancy is essential before we can deal with it.

For more information on Cathy Marston’s work, visit the Northern Ballet’s website here.

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Anna Winter is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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