When Cathy Marston was commissioned to translate Charlotte Brontë’s novel into a full-length ballet, the choreographer turned to the text.
“I don’t go to the studio with movement already, but I always have a list of words for every character,” said Marston, whose parents, both English teachers, introduced her to the heroines of classic literature. “The first part of a creative process, for me, is making movements inspired by those words.”
The resulting ballet, drawn from the pages of Brontë’s socially political tale and transformed into an expressionist vision, makes its U.S. premiere on June 4 as part of American Ballet Theatre’s spring season at the Metropolitan Opera House.
Originally created for Northern Ballet in Leeds to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Brontë’s birth, “Jane Eyre” will feature a rotating cast of title characters, with principals Devon Teuscher, Misty Copeland and Isabella Boylston alternating in the titular role of Jane. The production marks the first time since 1980 that a full-length ballet staged by a woman has been brought to the Met.
“I think with ‘Jane Eyre,’ or with all the stories that I end up bringing to the stage, I have to feel the emotion that is going to provoke that movement to come out,” Marston said.
Jane’s pronounced physicality — the way that she moves through space with extreme emotions and explosive gestures — was something that the choreographer latched onto while rendering Brontë’s descriptions into dance.
“In the beginning, she’s very clenched, and she tries to really push all these repressed emotions and things that she wants to say — and she’s quite explosive — down. And then, slowly, throughout the course of her journey, she becomes able to control those things and express them with passion, but not in an angry manner, necessarily.”
This tension manifests in Marston’s movement through leitmotifs of fists and what is referred to by the choreographer as “ambition arms” — a move where one arm reaches forward while the other crosses and grasps in the other direction.
“She has ambition to see the world and to see what’s beyond the hill in front of her,” Marston said, explaining the recurring position. “And so those arms are to do with her reaching towards somewhere that she can’t see but she knows she wants to get to.”
Both the novel and the ballet show the physical and mental struggles that Jane faces as she tries to overthrow the restrictions placed on her as a woman. Jane’s actions, guided by a strong moral code, sound off a radical declaration for autonomy. But as Jane works through various homes to find her place in the world, her search for freedom consistently bashes against those who try to overpower her — with the antagonists being men, more often than not.
Sticking close to its source material, the ballet doesn’t shy away from the violence that results from Jane’s quest. Scenes of horrific physical terror that haunt Brontë’s text come to life in Marston’s choreography through the characters that Jane crosses and in the introduction of a whirlwind cast of what Marston has dubbed “D-Men.” The men, originally brought in by Marston as a way to incorporate more male dancers (the novel features very few leading male figures), personify Jane’s inner roadblocks: turmoil, doubts, fears and urges.
“Men block her path,” Marston said. “Most of the journey through the book, they do things that stop her getting to where she wants to go. They kind of whisper in her ear. They undermine her confidence. They crush her, in a way.”
These “demonic” men swirl around Jane during the ballet’s emotionally pivotal moments, such as the death of Jane’s best friend Helen and her subsequent quick transition into adulthood. How Jane comes to deal with these constant impediments on her movements serves as a testament to the tenacity of her character and the strength at the heart of Brontë’s commentary on womanhood — a quality that Marston teases out through the technique of the choreography, which mixes contemporary dance language with classical idioms.
“There are moments when Jane really physically, and not only emotionally, supports Rochester [her love interest],” Marston said, going on to note how contemporary choreography has opened up the ability to expand the typical narrative for a ballerina. “We have ways that women can take weight. And without that, I don’t think you can really convey and express the qualities of Jane Eyre as a modern woman. Because women are not only living on pedestals. And we’re not only fairies and waifs.”
In this way, American Ballet Theatre’s staging of “Jane Eyre” reads as a rallying cry. The ballet is presented under the umbrella of the company’s Women’s Movement, which officially launched last year to address the dearth of woman choreographers in the industry. As it was when the book was first released, the significance of the staging of “Jane Eyre” resides not only in the fact that it was produced by a woman, but also that the storyline depicts a female protagonist who kicks back against the society’s restrictions to tell her story in her own words.
“At the end of the ballet, it felt important to me to let her voice have the last word and not this sort of image of ‘happily ever after with a man,’” Marston said, explaining the conclusion of her ballet, which depicts Jane moving toward the audience, as if to place herself in communication with them rather than with Rochester. “Jane Eyre is a voice that has inspired and been an example for so many young people, particularly young women. And I think that just taking her forward connects her voice to the audience in a direct way. It doesn’t leave her in the past and in her story. It brings her out and into our present.”
Top Image: Devon Teuscher and James Whiteside in Jane Eyre. Photo: Patrick Fraser.