On October 16, Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet kicked off its 19/20 season with the Chicago premiere of British choreographer Cathy Marston’s Jane Eyre. Originally created for Leeds’ Northern Ballet in 2016, the literary ballet saw its American debut through a co-production between American Ballet Theatre (ABT), which presented the work this past June in New York, and the Joffrey.
Billed by ABT as a ballet that “challenges the idea of a classic ballet heroine,” Marston’s staging of Charlotte Brontë’s Gothic novel attempts, unsuccessfully, to highlight what we might today identify as the story’s latent feminist ideology, although the story is ultimately a romance, in which love is the final vindication for a life of trials and hardship.
The famously first-person recounting of the destitute yet intelligent Jane’s survival of a myriad of abusive and soul-crushing situations to eventually find love with the emotionally wounded and wealthy Mr. Rochester has been adapted for theatre and film, but the ballet butts up against so many of the pitfalls that usually accompany dance adaptations of long literary works.
Marston is best known for her penchant for story ballet adaptations of novels and plays, which include Ibsen’s Ghosts, Nabokov’s Lolita, Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, among others. And although the Joffrey’s Artistic Director Ashley Wheater has described Marston as having “a rare gift for storytelling without words,” it is not apparent in Jane Eyre.
Audience members unfamiliar with the storyline prior to seeing the ballet would be hard-pressed to understand the narrative progression – as scenes jump from one location and situation to another without clear relational transitions – and the constant flow of new characters that are not on stage long enough to develop anecdotally or interpretively.
The dull beige’s and grey’s the predominate in Patrick Kinmonth’s simplistic costume design hinder distinction and individuality across characters, and his equally bland set design, that only changes with the colors on the backdrop or the introduction of a chair, contribute to an aesthetic that does little to excite the eye or define the narrative.
The revolving door of characters – who in the ballet only contribute short, often rather unmemorable choreographies – are critical to the novel in that they establish the development of Jane’s character and ultimately pave the way to her final destiny by Rochester’s side. In the ballet, their contribution dance-wise is so minimal that it seems only to make the two-hour ballet drag needlessly and oppressively long.
The emotional meat to Jane Eyre’s story is in the passionate yet verboten relationship with the misunderstood and tortured Rochester, who finds a kindred spirit in Jane. The choreographic wealth of this repressed desire is creatively boundless, yet it comes off as almost entirely overlooked; an unfathomably missed opportunity.
Jane and Rochester’s pas de deux are cold and restrained, a succession of lifts with pretty poses, but not much more. Rochester, danced by Greig Matthews, fades into the background. This is disappointing not only because of the technical and creative drabness of the choreography, but also because of the lackluster acting performance that accompanies it.
Matthews was a true standout last spring in Joffrey’s triple bill Across the Pond, yet in this principal role, poor direction and watered-down material hampered what I believe is his true potential. Not much more can be said of protagonist Amanda Assucena, who in previous Joffrey productions has also shined far brighter. Also especially troubling was the complete absence of chemistry in the pairing of these two otherwise strong dancers. The moments of ecstatic love between the couple should have sizzled, but ultimately fizzled with lacklustre steps and zero emotional intensity.
The Joffrey Ballet’s Jane Eyre runs at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago through October 27, 2019.