When Shanghai Ballet visited London in 2013, they brought with them an adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. In this production, the figure of Berthe Mason, Mr Rochester’s wife, is foregrounded, making the notion of a dualistic vision of womanhood central to the work. However, three years later British choreographer Cathy Marston created a Jane Eyre for Northern Ballet offering a completely different perspective. We went to see the ballet in Leeds, but from April to June it will continue to be performed in a number of UK locations: Belfast, Sheffield, Cardiff, London and Manchester.
Binary representations of women abound in 19th century ballet, for example the good, chaste, virginal and beautiful pitted against the evil, seductive, sexual and ugly: think of Effie and the Sylph, Giselle and Myrthe, Aurora and Carabosse, Odette and Odile. However, Marston refreshingly eschews such tropes and places Jane herself right at the heart of the work, from start to finish.
The way in which the structure of the ballet hangs on Jane’s development is ingenious, opening as it does at that point in the narrative where she is at her most emotionally and physically vulnerable, alone and in a state of collapse on the moor, having fled Thornfield after discovering the existence of Rochester’s wife. From there the first act depicts scenes from her life as they pass through her memory – the death of her parents, her childhood and early adulthood at Lowood, the events at Thornfield – until the action reaches the starting point and the scene on the moor is repeated. This repetition is daring on Marston’s part, and it leaves the audience in no doubt as to the focus of this adaptation.
Jane’s physical weakness and emotional exhaustion in this crucial scene on the moors are clearly demonstrated through her drooping body and her reliance on her partner St. John Rivers to support her. This dependency however is not characteristic of her duets with Rochester, each of them imaginatively and eloquently depicting the stages of their growing relationship. From Jane’s awkward juddering movements suggesting her conflicting feelings for Rochester and humorous gestures, such as the sharp kick she gives him in the shin, the movement becomes more sensuous. Support work, so integral to ballet pas de deux, is tellingly not restricted to Rochester, but shared, for example, when the couple tenderly lean against one another. The duets are also unusual and revealing in being punctuated by Jane defiantly staring back at Rochester. In contrast, the duet between Blanche Ingram and Rochester is much more conventional, as Rochester supports Blanche in lifts and turns depicting traditional ballet gender relations, thereby suggesting a relationship that would be condoned by society but would be of little interest to Rochester.
Marston has created an extraordinarily rich and expressive gestural language that is based on neither everyday body language nor on traditional mime and is fully integrated into the choreography. These gestures convey character, emotion and circumstance to the audience. The mechanistic repetitive movements for the pupils of Lowood School suggesting the drudgery of their daily chores are reminiscent of Anna de Keersmaeker’s Rosas danst Rosas. The adult Jane shifts between reaching out as if grasping for freedom, and folding her arms over her torso, as if straitjacketed, bound to an existence that she is desperate to escape. Rochester repeatedly holds one hand up to his face dividing it in two, left from right, implying something duplicitous in his nature, while Adele’s movements are all skittish with constantly varying gestures of excitement and glee. This gestural language is at its most eloquent in a circular wrapping movement of the arms for Rochester and Jane, symbolic of marriage, firstly initiated by Rochester, but then on Jane’s return to Thornfield initiated by her.
Patrick Kinmonth’s uncluttered designs and evocative costumes allow for seamless narration, and perhaps one of the reasons why he is so successful in this is that he was involved with Marston in writing the scenario. Moving wings represent the grimness of Lowood, the barrenness of the moors, and in contrast the fireplace and all-important entrance to the attic at Thornfield. The most striking costume is Berthe’s wildly flowing crimson red dress, which highlights her dangerous feral nature and connects her with the image of fire so crucial to the narrative.
But even more striking is the final mesmerising image of Jane on her own calmly walking towards the audience as the curtain falls. She has been reunited with Rochester in a soul-stirring duet of mutual love, passion and respect, but it is ultimately the trajectory of Jane’s life and personal journey that we are following, and the contrast between our first encounter with Jane as vulnerable, weak and lost to this final image of strength, independence and self-belief is a potent one indeed, and one befitting our times.
© Rosemarie Gerhard 2018