The difference between a poor ballet of the book (see the Royal Ballet’s Frankenstein) and a good one — indeed two — was cheeringly pointed up by Northern Ballet last week, when it unveiled an intensely imagined new Jane Eyre in Doncaster and gave the London première of the efficiently menacing 1984 that I reviewed last autumn.
It wasn’t really a surprise that Cathy Marston had a triumph with the Brontë —Royal Ballet-raised but Europe-bred, the choreographer has gradually developed a knack for character empathy and, crucially, a gift for externalising inner feelings in a vividly legible way. So although Jane Eyre is such a literary story, with every emotional step of the heroine so painstakingly explained by its author, Marston has danced lightly through the details, compressing it into a chamber ballet, albeit full-length.
It’s given a sketchy, suggestive design by Patrick Kinmonth, with translucent grey cloths marked with charcoal lines, like tissue drawings of woods or rooms, though the costumes are wishy-washy (I don’t believe that Blanche Ingram is the type of woman who would wear tired raspberry). Lit by Alastair West, who creates some excellent fiery effects, the story emerges with a visually dynamic underpinning.
There is also an apt and emotive score by Philip Feeney for Northern Ballet’s lively small orchestra, which incorporates heartwrenching movements from the chamber music and songs of Schubert and Mendelssohn (Felix and Fanny), all of which anchor the sentimental temperature in Brontë’s period. This crucial piece of good artistic judgment by Marston means that we register Jane’s choices and feelings within that era’s context, and even though her choreography is written in the whole-body moves of European modern ballet (much more flex in necks and upper torsos than classical ballet), the eloquence is directed towards hidden or suppressed or evasive feelings too.
And this makes the difference between a choreographer spelling out a story and one who aims to speak through character, so that the plot is the result of their individual natures in action and reaction. Jane’s character is subtly gradated, her full-blown passions hedged in by practised watchfulness and naivety in half-gestures, and in Dreda Blow’s quietly involving performance.
Pleasingly, Marston is just as interested in a little side-figure like Aunt Reed as she is in the ambiguous Mr Rochester. She’s transformed him from being middle-aged and bitterly buttoned-up into a more ballet-friendly young man driven by male ego. He sits assertively with spread legs, points his foot out rudely to stop Jane, and then to send her on her way. The Cuban Javier Torres can do handsome macho in his sleep.
And Marston uses the corps de ballet as a psychological emanation, having Jane pursued in her thoughts by an amorphous male corps whose vigorous formations contrast with the cramped, synchronised misery of her classroom at Lowood School.
It is all very good, serious, sensitive, modern and accessible —which Northern Ballet quite rightly wants, and is currently doing extremely well. Incidentally, Marston reached this expert stage only by making a lot of ballets, progressing through shallows, learning from mistakes, building her skills, trying various formats. It’s what Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan did too, practising, practising.
MacMillan probably made the best of all Brontë ballets with his fantasy on a disturbing, claustrophobic family of siblings, My Brother, My Sisters. I reckon he shared with Dennis Potter an otherwise unmatched ability to get under the thin skin of teenagers and their wonky, dangerous war games. Everyone is talking about the rape scene in the revival of The Invitation by the Royal Ballet, part of its excellent last triple bill of the season. But though the rape is vilely well done, the truly brilliant scene is the one where the teenage children at the garden party are alone together, and a swift, vicious little war begins over who knows what about sex and who might do what.
At the centre is the young girl who’s high on the rush of teenage hormones and has caught the eye of a married man at the party. Or did she catch his? Whose was the invitation? Though the ballet, at 60 minutes, is far too long and wears its period details heavily (the Matyas Seiber score churns out melodrama), the ambitious playing of the encounter by Francesca Hayward and Gary Avis skewered precisely what makes The Invitation vibrant still.
Hayward — tiny, delicious, bold — was mesmerising, the kind of girl who can’t be corralled. What a blistering actress she is already. She flew through her jumps like an imp out of Pandora’s box, luring her contemporaries to break the rules, but then herself broken by the older manwho simply won’t control himself when he sees her.
Was Hayward perhaps not quite innocent enough for the story to work? I’m not sure that the totally pure victim would be interesting today. MacMillan’s depiction of her brutalisation and the searing pain she suffers afterwards is harrowing, but Hayward infused her character with all sorts of ambivalences, and suckered Avis in. Makes you think.
Wayne McGregor’s new piece is a real shock — it’s full of emotion! We’ve heard much from his acolytes about what the celebrated modernist has given the Royal Ballet, perked it up, made it relevant, poor old thing. But what of the Royal Ballet’s gift to him as an artist?
Obsidian Tear is the answer. A piece for nine men, it is interested in men as men with feelings, rather than just limitlessly bendy athletes. There is complex emotional experiment, men seeking relationships, and male group behaviour somewhere between Lord of the Flies and a Wall Street tae-kwon-do class. I recall that when McGregor started out, his unique gift was to suggest implosive emotion, the bones and sinews scraping through the skin as if trying to stop something unknown and dark from getting out. But this is fully externalised, unafraid sentiment, responding with heart to a rousingly rich classical orchestral score by Esa-Pekka Salonen — I look forward to a second view as soon as possible.