How Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre Was Brought to Life for the Ballet Stage

Classic Arts Features   How Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre Was Brought to Life for the Ballet Stage
 
The American Ballet Theatre presents Cathy Marston's ballet as a part of its Women's Movement series beginning June 4.
Devon Teuscher as Jane and James Whiteside as Rochester in Cathy Marston’s <i>Jane Eyre</i>
Devon Teuscher as Jane and James Whiteside as Rochester in Cathy Marston’s Jane Eyre Patrick Fraser

Cathy Marston’s first memory of Jane Eyre is from when she was eight years old. The child of two English teachers, books were a staple in her home. The final image of the BBC’s 1983 Jane Eyre has always stuck with her. “Timothy Dalton was Rochester, and he was standing, blind, under a big tree,” she says. “I’ve had absolute fondness for the story ever since.”

Marston’s love of literature has influenced much of her choreographic oeuvre. In addition to her 2016 production of Jane Eyre for Northern Ballet, she has created ballets based on Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts. When approaching a new work, Marston finds joy in digging deep into a familiar story, discovering how a book’s structure might work on the stage.

Marston is strongly influenced by two very different directorial traditions of adaptation. The first is the British. “It’s about being faithful to the source text, and trying to bring the writer’s vision to life,” she says. “This is where I come from; costume dramas are in my DNA.” But her six years spent in Switzerland as director of the Bern Ballett have added another layer to her approach: Regietheater in German, or director’s theater, gives the director the freedom to revise the source material as they see fit. “I get to bring together these two worlds in my work,” says Marston. “I am faithful to the text, but sometimes I make myself find alternative ways to express things.”

Mariana Rodrigues and Joseph Taylor in a scene from Northern Ballet’s <i>Jane Eyre</i>
Mariana Rodrigues and Joseph Taylor in a scene from Northern Ballet’s Jane Eyre Emma Kauldhar

When creating her Jane Eyre, Marston’s prime inspiration came from Charlotte Brontë’s words; she carried her dog-eared copy of the novel with her to every rehearsal. Marston would come into the studio with a list of words for each character, such as “wildcat” for the young Jane, and use them to create individualistic movement vocabularies. Returning to the book also helped Marston through periods of frustration. “The joy of working with a classic text like this is that you can go back to it, and it gives you the answers,” she says. “Sometimes you just need to find a movement, you’re running dry, and you can just open the book.” For Marston, it’s never about being literal, but about the emotions and descriptions that spark her imagination; a true example of Regietheater.

When American Ballet Theatre Principal Dancer Devon Teuscher learned that she was cast in the ballet’s titular role, she took a cue from Marston: the first thing that she did was read Brontë’s novel. “I dove into who Jane is as a person, her habits, traits, persona and being; I’m trying to embody that, and find moments from the book that I can relate to the movement,” she says. The more Teuscher got to know the character of Jane, the more she developed a sense of kinship with her. “Jane is very morally centered,” says Teuscher. “She has a sense of what is right and wrong and she doesn’t steer from that, though she is often tempted to. I relate to that because, like Jane, I generally try to do the right thing, sometimes to the detriment of my own well-being.”

Jane Eyre is famously one of the first novels written in the first person; this gave Marston additional freedom in structuring the story for the stage. “Jane sees things really intensely,” she says. “It gave me the ability to tell things not as they are, but as they seem to her; they can be more extreme, or dream-like, or shadowy or bright. It’s quite different than describing things in a naturalistic way.” One of the ways that she demonstrates this is by starting the ballet in medias res and telling the story in flashback, an idea she took from Cary Fukanaga’s 2011 film adaptation. “The book is told in hindsight, because it’s Jane telling the story about herself. So, it made sense to have an older Jane remembering her younger self, rather than telling it in present tense,” she says.

Another example of Marston’s dream-like approach to Jane’s point of view are the D-Men, Marston’s Greek chorus of shadowy, ominous figures created to sweep Jane along from scene to scene. The D-Men (the D standing for both death and demon) represent the looming presence of men in Jane’s life, robbing her of her agency; they often block her path, and force her to find creative ways to move around them. “Men stand for Jane’s insecurity,” says Marston. “They stop her from becoming the full person that she knows she is and wants to be. As she finds herself, she’s putting these male voices that echo in her head to sleep.”

Cathy Marston rehearsing <i>Jane Eyre</i> with ABT
Cathy Marston rehearsing Jane Eyre with ABT Rosalie O’Connor

Marston’s choice of set and costume designs and musical score are a further reflection of her directorial mélange. She worked with Patrick Kinmonth on both the ballet’s scenario and its designs. Rather than create an exact replica of 19th century costumes, with heavy dresses that impede the dancers’ range of motion, Kinmonth’s designs are a suggestion of the era. His sets, a series of painted backdrops, are used to evoke both interior and exterior worlds. Location is suggested very simply by chairs: an upright chair in Jane’s aunt’s house, small stools in Lowood, the orphanage where Jane spends her formative years, and a large grand chair in Rochester’s Thornfield Hall. “You can be much more creative if you’re limited in the props and objects that you have,” says Marston. “It makes you use your body more.”

For the ballet’s score, Marston worked with frequent collaborator Philip Feeney. The composer suggested bringing in the work of Fanny Mendelssohn, a contemporary of Brontë. Both published their early work under pseudonyms (Mendelssohn as her younger brother Felix, Brontë as Bell) and are recognized today as protofeminists. Feeney orchestrated some of Mendelssohn’s piano compositions and combined them with selections by Felix Mendelssohn and Franz Schubert, as well as original compositions. While Schubert predates Brontë, Marston thought his work was “appropriate for the Rochester scenes in the stuffy old manor house.”

Though Marston didn’t create Jane Eyre with American Ballet Theatre in mind, the ballet is a perfect fit for the ABT Women’s Movement, the umbrella under which it is being presented this season. “What’s most exciting is that we’re taking on this story that has the ballerina as the heroine,” says Teuscher. “It’s really rare in ballet for a female character to tell her own story and be the moving force, not just the product of someone else’s decisions.” Marston’s Jane holds fast to her agency until the curtain falls. Rather than end the ballet with Jane and Rochester locked in an embrace, Marston has her protagonist walk downstage, framed in a spotlight like a Victorian portrait. This is Marston’s ode to Brontë’s famous concluding line: “Reader, I married him.” That line breaks the fourth wall of the novel, reminding the reader that Jane truly is in control of her story. When Marston presented her ending to Northern Ballet’s artistic staff in 2016, they were nervous that it wouldn’t be well received, but she held her ground. “I suppose it’s a feminist take,” says Marston, “but it’s led by Brontë. I don’t know that there would have been an alternative for me.”

Chava Pearl Lansky is an Assistant Editor at Pointe magazine. She has also written on dance for Dance Magazine and In The Muse: The Performing Arts Blog of the Library of Congress.


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