Behind the scenes of Northern Ballet’s new production of Jane Eyre

Production shot of Northern Ballet's new adaptation of Jane Eyre.
Production shot of Northern Ballet's new adaptation of Jane Eyre.
  • It’s Charlotte Brontë’s best-loved novel and now Sarah Freeman meets the woman tasked with turning 400 pages of Jane Eyre into a full-length ballet.
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When Cathy Marston was asked to choreograph a new dance adaptation of Jane Eyre for Leeds-based Northern Ballet the cast list was obvious. Aside from Charlotte Brontë’s tortured titular heroine, Marston knew that she would need a whole company of female dancers to bring to life the likes of Grace Poole, Bertha Mason, Blanche Ingram and Helen Burns. Add in a couple of male leads to play Rochester and Mr Brocklehurst and it was just about job done.

“I contacted David Nixon [artistic director at Northern Ballet] to run through the 16-strong cast, 11 of which were women. His immediate response was: ‘Well, that’s fine, but what am I going to do with all my men?’ I think I said: ‘Yes, but that’s the story, what else can I do?’. David being David said: ‘Come on Cathy, you’re creative, think of something’.”

Forced to rethink her entire vision for the piece, Marston, who had previously brought A Tale of Two Cities to Northern Ballet’s stage, went back to the original novel.

“Charlotte’s story has women at its heart, but David was quite right, we couldn’t have half the company twiddling their thumbs. I picked up the novel again and there was a solution staring me in the face. Jane is a solitary figure, but in fact she is never really alone. Wherever she happens to be in life, she is haunted by the men in her past whether it’s her father who died or Rochester who abandons her. Once I realised that, everything fell into place.”

Marston returned to Northern Ballet, which has previously staged Wuthering Heights, with a revised cast-list, one which included a chorus of spirits, who were quickly nicknamed Jane’s De-mans. With Nixon satisfied that order had been restored, Marston had the green light to begin bringing this complex story to life.

Jane Eyre takes place over a significant number of years and across numerous locations, but the key to any ballet is finding the heart of the story. Charlotte’s writing is so vivid, her descriptions of people and places so evocative that it was important to step back from the text and work out how we were going to make this production look good visually on the stage.”

Early on Marston went to the home of Patrick Kinmonth to work on the overall design of Jane Eyre. As well as being an opera director and designer, painter and filmmaker, Kinmonth was also a creative director at Vogue and has worked closely with photographer Mario Testino on numerous campaigns for the likes of Gucci, and Dior. If nothing else his input will ensure this is possibly the most stylish Jane Eyre to date.

“We got together for three days at his 18th century house in Devon and locked ourselves away. That was a crucial time because by the end I knew I had the foundations on which to build a production.”

When we speak, Marston hadn’t seen the finished set, but she has spent hours gazing at the visuals.

“It’s amazing what you can do with digital printing,” she says, flicking through the designs on her laptop. “Effectively it’s a set made from curtains, which one minute can evoke the landscape of the Yorkshire moors and the next can change to the drawing room of Thornfield Hall. People shouldn’t worry, we haven’t relocated Jane Eyre to the 1980s, but I did want this to be a fresh, contemporary retelling.”

Marston trained as a dancer at the Royal Ballet Upper School and had spells at classical companies in Zurich and Lucerne, but her first love has always been choreography. Now working freelance, she comes to Northern Ballet after being the first ever associate artist at the Royal Opera House and director of the Bern Ballet in Switzerland from 2007 to 2013.

“I like to think I know how to get the best response from dancers because I’ve been on the other side. What I don’t want anyone to do is act out the story, that’s not what I’m about. Instead, I want them to explore the elemental character of who they are playing. I want everyone to feel the part. Jane Eyre might be a love story, but she is not your typical romantic heroine and Rochester is not your average Prince Charming. Everyone on stage needs to understand those complexities.

“With Jane Eyre our lives have been made a little easier because there are certain key images which are repeated throughout the book. It’s impossible to read the novel without realising the importance of fire. It symbolises Jane’s seemingly impossible relationship with Rochester and the emotional destruction of his first wife Bertha Mason. Charlotte contrasts those hot, fiery descriptions with the icy moorland, another image which runs through Jane’s life.

“My job is to take those words and use them to create what I like to call an alphabet of movement. It means that in any given scene I can say, right, Jane here is feeling, trapped, elated, bereaved, whatever it may be and we begin to build up the piece from there. It’s a much freer, more organic way of working than most dancers are used to. Initially it can feel a little unnerving, but after a couple of sessions in the studio it suddenly clicks.

“I won’t name any names, but working this way with some companies can be like pulling teeth. Not here though. At Northern Ballet the dancers are not just technically good, they are also emotionally savvy.”

Marston had two weeks of rehearsals at the start of the year and has been popping back to Leeds at regular intervals to ensure the piece is taking shape. When she’s not been there, Javier Torres, Hannah Bateman, Mlindi Kulashe and Dreda Blow, who will share the lead roles, have spent hours refining every step. In rehearsals one Friday afternoon a month or so from opening night, the timing of a couple of lifts is proving tricky, but the intensity Marston was looking for is clearly already there.

“That’s the important thing, the steps will come, they always do. My parents are both English teachers and I grew up in a house filled with books, so my love of the classics really came from them, but what I love is being able to retell these stories without words.”

Jane Eyre will open at Doncaster’s Cast theatre next month and will then tour to six venues around the country. Each will bring its own particular challenges for the company, but Marston is confident that this production won’t just look good, but it will sound good too.

Philip Feeney, who over the last quarter of a century has worked on a clutch of Northern Ballet productions from Hunchback of Notre Dame to A Streetcar Named Desire, has composed and arranged a new score for Jane Eyre using both original and existing music.

“There are 16 in the orchestra which is not massive, but there are obviously some incredibly dramatic scenes which need some musical power. Philip has done an incredible job and what’s really lovely is that he has incorporated into the score some work by the German composer Fanny Mendelssohn. She lived at the same time as Charlotte and I think it’s a nice touch that we have been able to channel the creativity of another woman into this piece.”

While Marston’s Jane Eyre is largely faithful to the original, she admits there is one crucial admission. Logistical constraints have denied Northern Ballet’s Rochester his big black dog, which Jane initially mistakes for some mythical creature. Marston has, however, found a way to give him a horse.

“When Rochester comes galloping past Jane on his way to Thornfield it is a key moment of the book, but for a while I did wonder quite how we were going to bring that particular creature to life. In one of the early rehearsals I brought in a saddle and said: ‘Right guys, have a go with this.’ And you know what, they came up with something that just works.”

It seems, Marston is not the only one blessed with a little creativity.

Jane Eyre, Cast, Doncaster, May 19 to 21, 01302 303959, castindoncaster.com. The production will then go on tour throughout June. For full details go to the website at northernballet.co.uk