We’ve not seen a Cathy Marston ballet in the UK for several years which is mighty odd because she specialises in narrative work and if there is one common recent thread running though UK critics’ reviews it’s the struggle of some well-known choreographers to get to grips with telling stories. Marston, who originally made her mark on Royal Ballet Dance Bites tours in the 90’s and as the first Associate Artist at the reopened Royal Opera House, directed the small Bern Ballett for several years but since giving that up has been busy across Europe and next year creates a full-length Dangerous Liaisons for Royal Danish Ballet. Based on seeing her Jane Eyre, boy is she very ready and equipped for it. Congratulations to Northern for bringing her back and extensively touring Jane Eyre too – it’s on their new mid-scale circuit (I saw it in the comfy 620 seat Cast in Doncaster), but this is a work that would be equally at home in the larger venues they cover. It’s actually the best new narrative work I’ve seen Northern Ballet do in many years.
Marston’s telling of Jane Eyre is both straightforward and not. It covers the full span, from being orphaned (and bullied), to private school (strict and losing her best friend to consumption), to being a teacher and then governess in the strange Rochester household, the growing love and planned marriage to Rochester, the mad existing wife (Bertha Mason), the flight to the moors, her discovery in the snow (which features in a prologue to Act 1) by Rev St. John Rivers, the second proposal, its rejection and the final return to Rochester, now blinded, inhabiting the burned-out hulk of his mansion, but free of his wife and they can at last be together properly and forever, but as the ending shows it’s Jane’s personal triumph. Phew – it’s a lot to put into two 50-minute acts, but it neither feels rushed nor drags and you don’t have to know the book inside out (or at all) to see exactly what’s happening. But superimposed over the telling is Jane’s ‘inner world’ of thoughts, manifest as a group of ‘D-Men’ who hold her back – ciphers for so many men in her real life that let her down or behave egregiously towards her. They crop up regularly and some of the finest choreography in the piece is for Jane and her thoughts as they gang up on her, manipulate her, swirl around and, having done their worst, dissolve away. At another time they just become room furniture – an “always there” fact of life for Jane. This is not chocolate box ballet, but it wears its cleverness oh, so lightly.
There are many character roles and Marston delivers them all, but her forte is showing the inner turmoil of Jane as physical movement – sometimes balletic, sometimes contemporary (it’s not all on pointe) and sometimes as twisted and contorted limbs. The awkward Rochester is also drawn well – often his leg lasciviously showing the man’s interest and dominating approach to life. He is brilliantly brought to life by Javier Torres, and Dreda Blow projects a strong Jane, fighting through it all to be truthful to herself and eventually rewarded in love. Antoinette Brooks-Daw, as the young Jane, also captured the quiet fortitude and steel of the heroine. But great to see a premiere performance where the whole team were firing on all cylinders.
The icing on the story and dancing cake is a 19th century score compiled and augmented by Philip Feeney based on the music of Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn plus some Schubert. It fits well and supports the story. The designs of Patrick Kinmonth are strong as well – the locations are stylised and changed with fabric screens based on natural countryside colours but with sketched interiors overlaid. Satisfyingly sparse and clever. All up, the experience of the entire team shows, and whatever preconceptions you might have about seeing Northern Ballet, put them to one side and see Jane Eyre. Damn fine dancers in a damn fine piece.