Ballet captures sweep of 100 years of history

To tell the life story of Queen Victoria, choreographer and director Cathy Marston realised she was taking on almost 100 years of world history.

By Ian Soutar
Wednesday, 13 March, 2019, 15:51
Abigail Prudames in the title role in Northern Ballet's Victoria

“When you look at Victoria as a person, the empire, the reign, the queen, the mother, the wife; it’s probably enough material for at least 10 ballets,” she suggests.

But she has succeeded in condensing it into two acts as the latest narrative creation of Northern Ballet and hot foot from its rapturously-received world premiere in Leeds Victoria arrives at the Sheffield Lyceum next week.

Cathy Marston in rehearsals for Northern Ballet's Victoria

The key to translating the story of Queen Victoria into ballet was to show it  through the eyes of her daughter,  Beatrice. 

“During my research I read that when Albert died, Victoria ran to Beatrice’s bedroom, gathered her sleeping daughter in her arms, wrapped her in Albert’s dressing gown and took her into her bed,” reports Marston. 

“Beatrice was only a young child at the time and after that Victoria never really let go of her. After Victoria’s death, Beatrice took on the task of editing the diary that her mother had kept throughout her life. This struck me as interesting because Beatrice had only really known her mother as the widow in black. Her journey (re)discovering her mother must have been incredibly emotional and imagining this felt inspiring to me.”

The choreographer admits she didn’t know much about the subject when artistic director David Nixon asked if she would be interested in creating Victoria. 

“At that time, I hadn’t watched the ITV series, unlike the rest of the country it seems, so I took the weekend to binge watch the first series,” she says. “I was about halfway through when I decided to say yes! The subject is so open and, beyond the title, David didn’t give me any parameters so I was really pleased to be able to choose the direction that I wanted to take. “

When it came to research there were plenty of books to read. “What’s so interesting though is that Victoria was so conscious of documenting her life and experiences through her diaries, through the commissioning of artwork and then with the advent of photography and film during her lifetime, we’re left with some really wonderful historical evidence – her diaries obviously are part of that.”

That left the daunting task of selecting  which ‘episodes’ and characters from a long and eventful life to include in the ballet. “Dramaturg Uzma Hameed and I wrote anything that we found interesting - whether that be an image, a historical point, a character or an event – on post-it notes and stuck them up all over my living room,” she explains. From there, we slowly began to group them together and filter them down.”

Cathy Marston’s last creation for Northern Ballet, Jane Eyre, is crossing he Atlantic to be performed by the prestigious American Ballet Theatre at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York in June ,  and Victoria has already been confirmed to be performed by The National Ballet of Canada.  “It’s so hugely exciting,” she says. “Jane Eyre had comparatively humble beginnings on Northern Ballet’s mid-scale tour and now it’s moving to one of the biggest stages in the world. To know that it’s going to be reinterpreted and remembered in different places, discussed and owned by different dancers; it has its own life now and that’s enormously rewarding for myself and everyone at Northern Ballet who worked so hard with me to create it. “ Victoria is at the Sheffield Lyceum from Tuesday to Saturday, March 19-23.