Bringing feminist icon Jane to the dance stage

Joseph Taylor as Mr Rochester and Hannah Bateman as Jane in Northen Ballet's production of Jane Eyre. Photo by Emma Kauldhar.
Joseph Taylor as Mr Rochester and Hannah Bateman as Jane in Northen Ballet's production of Jane Eyre. Photo by Emma Kauldhar.

Northern Ballet’s production of Jane Eyre, nominated for the South Bank Sky Arts Dance Award 2017, comes to the Sheffield Lyceum next week.

Charlotte Bronte’s much-loved novel of romance, jealousy and dark secrets in which orphan Jane grows up to become governess at Thornfield Hall, owned by the mysterious and brooding Mr Rochester, has been adapted for the dance stage by Cathy Marston.

As the daughter of two English teachers, the choreographer was introduced to Jane Eyre as a child and feels the novel is rich in potential themes to explore.

“Necessarily restricting my focus to create this 90 minute ballet, I decided to hone in on Jane’s story,” she explains, “which combines an utterly compelling romantic narrative with the journey of a young, sparky girl discovering emotional intelligence as she attempts to balance moral integrity with love, passion and compassion.”

Strong female leads are a hallmark of Marston’s work. “Characters like Cathy (Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights) Mrs Alving (Ibsen’s Ghosts) or Lolita (of Nabokov’s novel) are just some of those who have inspired me, “ she says.

“Jane is considered an early feminist character. She feels like she is fighting the outside world but she is also fighting herself. As I rediscovered her anew through our rehearsals I was struck by how surprising she is. Her reactions are seldom obvious, and we always asked, ‘What would Jane do here?’

That’s not to the exclusion of male characters. “The enigma that is Mr Rochester is also a wonderful character to draw through dance,” she observes. “He’s not your typical prince charming and is yet the archetype of a romantic hero. The counterbalance between him and St. John is a very physical and human way to personify the tension Jane feels between her desires and principles.

“One challenge we were faced with when creating this ballet was how to cast Mr Rochester, as in the book and in most film adaptations he is well over 40, but Northern Ballet’s male dancers are younger than that. It is an interesting challenge though as it makes you look at who Rochester is inside rather than how he looks on the outside.”

And in a reversal of the usual complaint of too few female characters the decision was made to incorporate more men. “The book typically only gives us four named key male roles. I didn’t want the production to be nearly all women, so I have introduced ‘D-Men’. They inhabit Jane’s inner world and represent her inner demons as well as ‘death’, which is often on her heel.

“Throughout her life she feels that men get in her way; they block her path, they divert her, they die on her, they let her down and they lie to her,” she continues. “The actions of the men in her life are one of the main reasons she is so distrustful and fights so hard to climb out of the world she has been born into.”

Philip Feeney, another long term Northern Ballet collaborator, has created the score played live by Northern Ballet Sinfonia using a combination of his own original compositions and music by other established composers.

“One of those whose music underpins the piece is Fanny Mendelssohn,” says Marston. “We wanted to include 19th century music in the piece and it felt appropriate to choose a woman who, like the Brontës, was also a game changer of that period in her own way.”

Jane Eyre is at the Sheffield Lyceum from Tuesday to Saturday.