Cathy Marston choreographer, Philip Feeney composer Northern Ballet The Lowry 06 June 2018 to 09 June 2018
Northern Ballet visited Brontë-land some years ago with David Nixon’s Wuthering Heights (with great character studies but, inevitably, a rather prolix narrative). Jane Eyre offers much more opportunity to shape a drama – it’s been brought to the stage both as play and musical in recent experience – and Cathy Marston’s full-length ballet is a fascinating and in some ways unique creation.
She’s a choreographer of great gifts, including the ability to tell a story vividly. This fits perfectly to Northern Ballet’s tradition and expertise, and the style is clearly classical in spirit but with freedom to borrow from other inspirations.
The work began two years ago as one for smaller touring theatres, with a small orchestra and modest staging requirements. As so often, less can be more in creative terms, and the work well deserves its new incarnation for bigger theatres, with renewed settings and fuller sounds from the pit. It’s just been seen at Sadler’s Wells on a spring tour that began in March.
What struck me most about it was the fit of the score to the story and the staging. Northern Ballet have always fielded a live orchestra and often commissioned new composition for their work, with the resultant extra spark of creativity that you never get when a company dances to a mere recording of a well-known score. Here composer Philip Feeney has used music by Fanny Mendelssohn, her brother and Schubert – in imaginative arrangements – alongside his own to create a composite that matches the 19th century Romanticism of the story incredibly well. There’s the same sense of pent-up passion within the constraints of politeness and convention that was the world of the Brontë sisters’ creations, occasionally bursting through in mystery, horror and shock.
It creates an atmosphere that’s very unusual, as the music is mostly 19th century but not in 19th century dance forms, and the choreography much freer than those would permit.
There are some virtuosic and expressive pas de deux, too, especially at the close of Act 1 and after the ball in Act 2 (this one to superb original Feeney music, if I’m not mistaken). And Marston makes a virtual trio feature for Jane, Mrs Fairfax and Adele (once our heroine has arrived at Thornfield) which we see more than once, enlivened by the coltish liveliness of the young girl’s steps (nicely done by Antointette Brooks-Daw on Press night).
I always feel that the story of Jane Eyre doesn’t really get going until she meets the fateful Mr R, but Marston feels it needs a prologue even to the childhood and schooling episodes (though they are sadly typical of the fact that Victorian orphans often endured lives that were nasty, brutish and short). She provides an ensemble of what she calls Jane’s ‘D-men’ – ie her de-mons? – who surround her at the start and pop up later now and then. They are admittedly a device to give some work to the male members of the company in a story that has few key male characters, and I felt something of weakness in its interpretation.
But in other respects the conceptualization works very well. I particularly liked the way, to express Jane’s intelligence as she verbally spars with that of Rochester, Cathy Marston has her literally trip him up – and he her, now and again, in a recurring visual motif. And another interpretation of what in the book are mysterious unexplained noises from Bertha in the attic (impossible to reproduce literally when the music is live and important) is achieved by a dancer in silhouette – a brilliant idea.
Northern Ballet put some of their younger soloists in the main roles in last night’s performance, and Abigail Prudames showed herself a gifted and expressive interpreter in the title role. Mlindi Kulashe also had strong presence as Mr Rochester, and the piece as a whole showed a gifted ensemble of dancers working most effectively together.