5 Questions for Cathy Marston as she and Bern Ballett, the company she directs, prepare to show their latest work, Witch-hunt, at London’s Royal Opera House…
Witch-hunt sounds a powerful piece “…inspired by the harrowing tale of the ‘last witch in Europe’” – do tell more and how you came to do it.
The idea came about through the music: I was asked to collaborate with the Camerata Bern (a wonderful Bern-based string orchestra) on a piece with baroque music, using their newly-acquired original instruments. After spending some time researching with dramaturg/playwright Edward Kemp, we became interested in the fact that so many witch-hunts took place in Switzerland (and the rest of Europe) during the baroque era. We were particularly drawn to the story of Anna Goeldi, whose trial took place considerably later than most others, making her known as the ‘last witch of Europe’.
Goeldi was a maid in the house of the Tchudi family in Glarus in the 1780s. There were several children in the family, but the one we are concerned with was called Anna-Miggeli. Researchers believe she was probably hysterical/epileptic. One day she found pins and needles in her glass of milk. Her parents, horrified, assumed Anna Goedli was responsible and fired her. However, some days after she was gone Anna-Miggeli started to vomit pins and needles. Family and neighbors thought that Goeldi had bewitched her and sent out a search to bring her back to Glarus as ‘only a witch could reverse their own magic’. When they found her she was accused of witchcraft and told she must ‘heal’ Anna-Miggeli, who had now gone lame too. She tried (and partially succeeded) to heal the young girl and was subsequently imprisoned, tortured and killed.
This story has managed to survive the centuries; there are three books about Goeldi, a film, a museum, a Stiftung (a charitable foundation), a prize and even an ‘Anna Goeldi annual day’.
A group was formed by one of the authors, Walter Hauser, to lobby the Swiss Government to exonerate her and in 2008 they were successful – the ‘guilty verdict’ was taken back. This prompted others, including Jack Straw in the UK, to consider the same process for ‘British witches’!
This rather unique turn of events has made her an icon for human rights, and in particular women’s rights. That said, I am personally drawn to the story as a study of guilt and innocence. This is not a black and white picture for me, but I’m drawn into the grey areas of this judgment. Other themes are ‘inclusion/ exclusion’, ‘family’ and ‘mother’ as well as the way we remember the past and how it changes when viewed from the present.
You’ve just premiered Witch-hunt, your last piece as director of the company – so how did it go? And how do you feel after a premiere – all elated or deflated ‘cos it’s over?
I am really happy with the piece – and that brings an enormous relief because I really wanted to be proud of my last creation for Bern Ballett – whatever anyone else thinks! As it happens, I also received some very nice feedback from both critics and the public which feels good too. I almost always experience a low after the high of a premiere and all the work that’s taken place to get there. In anticipation of this being especially strong because it’s the end of my tenure here in Bern I decided to accept a commission in Germany right on the back of it – so have started a new ballet today in fact!
I will be sad at the last performance, I’m sure, but I’ve got a great deal to look forward to – professionally and privately – and I will take with me a huge amount of experience, lessons learnt and happy memories to inform future projects!
You are much more prolific as a choreographer than your occasional shows in London might suggest, and not just in Bern either – can you give us a feel for what else you’ve been up to?
Since I began in Bern in 2007 I’ve created 13 new works for the company including 5 full-evening pieces (Wuthering Heights, Juliet and Romeo, Flight of Gravity, A Winter Night’s Dream and Witch-hunt.) I’ve also created works for Northern Ballet (A Tale of Two Cities), the Graz Ballet (Ashes), Finnish National Ballet (Blood Wedding) and the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts (Persisting Memory.)
Some of these works have also included commissioned scores for turntables and orchestra or female beatboxer with soprano or ‘simple’ symphony orchestra.
You’ve been at Bern Ballett 6 years – your first directing post – so what’s the biggest thing that you have you learned? (aside from how to have a baby – congrats on which!)
I’ve learned a huge amount about politics, lobbying, developing relationships with your (potential) audience. Also about leading a company, programming and commissioning other artists. Some of these skills are ‘Bern-specific’ but an awful lot are transferable, I hope!
Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned to do is resist knee-jerk reactions. This applies to almost all contexts (although, perhaps ironically, with the exception of when I’m actually choreographing, when a sharp instinct can be useful!)
You stand down as director in the summer – so what next?
I’m going to be freelance again. I’ve already started a new version of Stravinsky’s Orpheus for Bridget Briener and her new company at Theater im Revier in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. Bridget was a principal dancer for Stuttgart Ballett and is a strong believer in narrative work. She will feature as Euridice and next year I’ll also make a full-evening version of Three Sisters (based on the Chekhov) in which she will dance.
In the summer I’m creating for some other high-profile, distinguished and mature dancers: Alexander Koelpin has commissioned me to create The Elephant Man, in which he will dance the title role beside Nikolaj Hubbe (current Director of the Danish Royal Ballet) as Dr Treves. The premiere is 10th August in Copenhagen.
In the autumn I’ll choreograph a new work for David Hughes Company in Edinburgh which will premiere in Aberdeen on the 26th October. I’ll also do some workshops with students of RADA and Central School of Ballet together with Edward Kemp – a long-term collaborator of mine and also Director of RADA. We would like to develop further some ideas we’ve been working on to do with dance/text, dancers/actors.
Further plans are in development for collaborations in Estonia, Germany and I hope when I get time to ‘wake up’ The Cathy Marston Project! I’m looking forward to travelling and particularly to being in London more than I’ve been able to in the last six years. I’ve developed a lot as an artist whilst being based in Bern, being exposed to a much more Germanic influence culturally. I’m glad of this, but also excited to open up to other new influences again, as well as returning with fresh eyes to my British roots and artistic home.