[This review is an expansion of a review initially published in CriticalDance’s “First Impressions” section shortly after the referenced June 6 performance.]
American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House
New York, New York
June 6 and 8 (afternoon), 2019
Sometimes it’s really nice to be wrong.
I didn’t expect much from Jane Eyre, based on my perception of it being trumpeted as the work of a female choreography rather than on its merits. And I avoided reading any reviews from its prior performances, or from its American Ballet Theatre company premiere two nights earlier: I wanted to see it with that opening night cast, without being prejudiced beyond my initial low expectation.
Jane Eyre shattered those negative expectations. It’s one of the finest new evening length story ballets within my memory. Even though flawed, it’s so good it’s shocking. If and when it returns, beg, borrow or steal a ticket. It’s worth it.
Jane Eyre is a triumph for choreographer Cathy Marston, for Jenny Tattersall and Daniel De Andrade who staged it, for Devon Teuscher and the entire ABT cast, and, and for Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie for bringing it here. With minimal props, a shifting panorama of runners and a bit of smoke (ok, a lot of smoke) providing atmosphere, Marston – a former director of Bern Ballett and a peripatetic choreographer with a sterling reputation creating ballets, primarily seen in Europe, over the past 20+ years but who somehow has escaped significant notice here – has created a ballet that lives, that’s dramatic, that’s exciting, that’s beautiful in an non-romanticized, somewhat gothic way, and that never allows the audience’s attention to lapse. Indeed, from my vantage point, the audience appeared transfixed from beginning to end. Most significant of all, it’s choreographed from a different point of view.
In an “instant” review following the Thursday evening performance, I wrote that I wouldn’t call this production “feminist.” Having since seen it a second time, I can see why many would. And I must admit that on second exposure parts of it made me uncomfortable. But there’s nothing wrong with a piece that presents a story from a woman’s point of view, thereby making some in the audience uncomfortable. Be that as it may, Jane Eyre certainly provides a strong female lead character (maybe the strongest in any evening-length ballet) and gives the best of its roles to women. And it does so via a story that may be considered proto-feminist: Although the program doesn’t recognize the 1847 novel or its author, Charlotte Brontë (instead crediting the “scenario” to Marston and Patrick Kinmonth), the novel’s basic story remains, and is told well within the parameters of artistic license with little of dramatic consequence added or deleted. Since the story isn’t universally familiar, I’ll briefly summarize.
As modified, the story tells of the orphaned Young Jane (here she’s orphaned as a teen; in the novel she was orphaned as an infant), living a tortured life with her Aunt, Mrs. Reed, and her cousins, Eliza, Georgiana, and John. All mistreat her. The two girls and their mother rival Cinderella’s Step-Mother and Step-Sisters (without any semblance of comedy), and John bullies her, with the sense of more violent acts unseen. But Jane survives. When the strong-willed Jane complains, her aunt accuses her of lying, and has her shipped off to Reverend Brocklehurst’s Lowood School for orphaned girls, where she’s bullied and punished by the venomous Brocklehurst for daring to speak her mind, routinely kept cold and near starvation, and where her best friend Helen Burns dies of consumption in her arms. And still she survives.
When Jane is grown, she teaches young orphans at the school, but accepts a position to be a governess at Thornfield Hall, the home of Edward Rochester and his “ward,” Adele Varens – who, to put it mildly, is a handful. [How exactly Adele came to be Rochester’s ward is unclear – both here and in the novel, although it’s been hypothesized that Adele might be his daughter.] Jane is greeted on arrival by the chief housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax (a relative of Rochester, but that fact is omitted from the ballet’s libretto). The imperious Rochester returns home from world travels shortly thereafter, meets Jane, and is impressed with her intellect. [How’s that for a different point of view.] Eventually, Jane and Rochester draw emotionally close, and the relationship becomes deeper when Jane is awakened by the smell of smoke, races into Rochester’s room, and saves him from a fire of unknown origin – at least to Jane.
In Act II, Rochester hosts a party, and Jane feels uncomfortable among his wealthy guests, including the sophisticated, sensual, and conniving Blanche Ingram, who, Jane thinks, is Rochester’s fiancée. The festivities are interrupted by some unknown (again, at least to Jane) calamity, the cause to soon become apparent. When the ruckus clears, Jane confronts Rochester about his relationship with Ingram. To ease Jane’s concerns, Rochester proposes marriage, and Jane is bewildered but ecstatic. At the subsequent wedding, Bertha Mason, usually confined within the house’s bowels like a mad and violent reincarnation of Balanchine’s sleepwalker, interrupts the nuptials, and Rochester is forced to admit that he’s married to Bertha, but wants to live with Jane as husband and wife. Jane only sees Rochester’s perfidy, like all the other men she’s been exposed to. She rebels, escapes from Rochester, Bertha, and their calamitous environment, and as smoke begins to envelope the stage, runs off to the moors, where, after fighting her demons, real and relived, she’s rescued by St. John Rivers, who carries her to his home where she’s nurtured back to health by Rivers’s sisters. Once again, Jane survives. After she recovers, Rivers proposes to Jane, offering her the security of his home and his station (Rivers is supposed to be a clergyman, but the ballet makes no mention of that). But Jane realizes that she only wants Rochester. She flees Rivers and his comfortable home and returns to Thornhill, only to find it burnt down (by Bertha) and Rochester nearly blind. She nurses him, they declare their love for each other, and, presumably, they live happily ever after. And Jane, perhaps finally, survives.
One of the criticisms I’ve heard of the ballet is that it’s too bleak. To me, the dim light and dark tone of the ballet is perfectly appropriate to the subject of cruelties happening in the shadows or behind closed doors. I’ve also heard criticism that it’s too violent. On the contrary, the ballet camouflages the violence through choreography that does not require explicit acts to deliver its message. And unlike other ballets this season that some (not this reviewer) might say glorify the very acts they condemn, all that Jane Eyre glorifies is inner strength and the power to survive against all odds. It’s a breath of fresh air.
With one exception, Jane Eyre’s feminism, to the extent it can be so branded, doesn’t hit you over the head with an anvil. The trials that the title character endures are the story; to depict it as anything else would be wrong, especially since Marston does such a fine job making that suffering real to anyone of any gender. The exception – the ballet’s final image, when Jane is physically excised from the story, singled out as a survivor, and walks downstage to receive her recognition from the spotlight and the audience. That’s the anvil. That the story is “about” her is undeniable, but focusing on her in addition to the focus that the story itself provides diminishes the universality of the message, and makes her relationship with Rochester only a means to an end.
Aside from that, if there’s a weakness to Jane Eyre, it’s the male dancing and characterization, which is far less imaginatively complex than it is for the women. It’s reflected in the ballet’s only silly dance – when Rochester returns home from his world travels surrounded by sycophantic “horses,” like a conquering and self-important hero (or an English version of a wild-west cowboy). More critically, however is that the male characters lack .. character. They’re cardboard. But I suppose after centuries of women being the love interest, or waiting for Prince Charming or Mr. Goodbar, or being the damsel, we men deserve this.
Even here, however, the partnering Marston has choreographed is as superbly accomplished as the table-turning focus on women rather than men. The pas de deux for Edward Rochester and Jane (three of them, by my count) are stunning in their complexity and simplicity (both, together, are not easy to pull off). And the staging is extraordinary. For example (one of many), one minute that party at the Rochester residence takes place atop a raised area upstage, while Teuscher and a few others are downstage right watching; the next minute their locations are reversed with no loss of continuity and to profound dramatic effect.
A more serious criticism might be Marston’s visualizations of Jane’s demons. Marston here creates a pool of twelve male dancers who appear and reappear through the course of the ballet. More Furies or Fates or a visualization of Jane’s “destiny” than a Greek Chorus, these men, primarily through the choreography by which they interact with Jane, give visual meaning to the sufferings (at the hands of men) that Jane endures, and they propel the action – which, from the beginning, never stops. [Labelling this collective character as “D-Men” (which I initially thought was “D” as in “Destiny Men,” but which I now believe is intended to represent Jane’s inner “d/mons” or “demon men”) is unfortunate overkill.]
And “from the beginning” means even more than that here. Marston has given the ballet a Prologue that’s much more than a prologue. When the curtain first opens, Jane is seen running through the moors, being menaced, chased, and assaulted (via the D-Men), until Rivers rescues her and carries her to his home to be cared for by his sisters. From that point forward, the events that shaped Jane’s life are seen in flashback from inside the Rivers home, until the chase by the D-Men is repeated, this time in “real time,” which is identical movement by movement to the scene danced in the Prologue. It’s a neat concept that works brilliantly as the audience immediately recognizes the scene as identical to what they saw earlier.
Even niftier are the choreographic repetitions that are not as easy to see. For example, when Jane and Rochester first meet, Rochester, to my recollection, is seen using his finger to gently raise Jane’s head, as in “there, there, everything will be all right.” The image is repeated in the ballet’s final scene, except the image is reversed: it’s Jane who is now comforting Rochester. It’s the kind of choreographic quality that compels an audience member, or at least this audience member, to stifle a scream of recognition and artistic appreciation. And the transition from “Young Jane” to “Jane” is handled deftly and seamlessly; this ballet, originally created in 2016 for Northern Ballet, has no rough edges. Even the score, which, according to the program, was “complied and composed” by Philip Feeney, is gorgeous. [The program note fails to recognize that Feeney’s score incorporates music by Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn and Franz Schubert, but it’s beautifully crafted regardless of how it got there.]
Teuscher’s Jane was the heart of the performance on Thursday, and to me it was her finest performance to date. I should have been prepared for the nuances of character she showed here by her brilliant performance several years ago in Antony Tudor’s Jardin Aux Lilas, but her Jane Eyre took her far beyond even that. Marston’s character is multi-dimensional, and has to change emotions in a heartbeat. Teuscher pulls it off magnificently; you feel every nuance of character, every hurt, every tragedy, and every triumph. On Saturday afternoon, Boylston’s Jane was danced well, but to me lacked the fire and the depth of character that permeated Teuscher’s performance. For instance, where Teuscher seethed beneath the surface, or smiled by degree, tempered by her demons, Boylston was either very solemn / plain or broadly smiling.
But neither Teuscher nor Boylston were alone. Every member of the cast excelled: Cate Hurlin’s towering portrayal of “Young Jane” (as memorable as Teuscher’s Jane), was nearly equaled by Skylar Brandt (replacing Breanne Granlund) on Saturday afternoon – the difference being Hurlin’s raw power. Every performance Hurlin gives, every character she inhabits, is unique and memorable, from comic to tragic and all points in between. What a gift this young ballerina has – and somehow one knew this since her initial appearance with ABT as Young Clara in Alexei Ratmansky’s The Nutcracker. And although this role doesn’t display it as much, Brandt is the same, with an apparent and astonishing comfort level with whatever she’s been assigned to date (e.g., her Medora, which I expect to discuss during a season wrap-up, is as, and maybe more, accomplished than that of others with twice her performing experience. If Don Quixote returns to the repertory next year, it would not surprise me if Brandt assays Kitri). I used to frequently reference ABT’s soloist purgatory, with soloists stuck in the same roles year after year, a consequence of ABT’s misguided policy of importing guest artists at every conceivable opportunity. With that policy now, apparently, a creature of past poor judgment, being an ABT soloist no longer means artistic stagnation.
I can’t thoroughly detail the contribution of every other featured member of the cast, but most were so good that they demand recognition. As Rochester, James Whiteside handled the arrogance well (in an extraordinarily simple but equally extraordinarily revealing choreographed coup de théâtre, Marston has Rochester “direct” the movement of his subjects – his employs – with one extended leg while he sits nonchalantly on his makeshift “throne,” and Whiteside delivered the meaning behind the gesture with understated but obvious royal regality), but to my eye Thomas Forster, on Saturday, was less dazed-looking, and more believable, as Jane’s love interest. Calvin Royal III’s vicious Headmaster came close to being too melodramatic, but never quite crossed the line. His characterization was as dominating as it needed to be. Similarly, Cassandra Trenary’s madwoman Bertha Mason seemed to fit her like a glove, with the fire in her eyes matching the flames she set in motion – figuratively as well as literally. Stephanie Williams’s Bertha on Saturday afternoon was equally memorable, albeit slightly less powerfully expressed.
Zimmi Coker’s hyperactive Adele Varens was daddy’s spoiled little girl who ravishes the attention from her guardian / father but becomes virtually uncontrollable when he leaves. Coker somehow made the role look credible rather than artificial. Stella Abrera’s snooty and pseudo-sophisticated Blanche Ingram in Thursday’s performance was well played, as was Hee Seo’s portrayal on Saturday, but Seo’s subtle nudging to push Adele out of the way drew audience laughs; Abrera’s was a bit too subtle. Katherine Williams and Luciana Paris were wasted as Rivers’s sisters, but even here, far upstage, in dim light, and elevated on a platform above the stage floor, Williams’s ability to visually register sorrow and concern is a step above, as it has been since I first saw her on stage.
And in one of her most unexpectedly brilliant portrayals, Sarah Lane as housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax, delivered a role against type, necessarily understated, and with so many emotional facets I lost count, each clearly expressed even in a matter of seconds. Her character was real and fully realized, as opposed to being artificially grafted. She was at once knowing, caring, and a physical and emotional flibbertigibbet – not as in “spacey” (on the contrary, her character is highly focused), but as in having so much on her mind and so much to do that has to be done right that, expressed through her constantly animated hands, she doesn’t know what to do next. More significantly, this Mrs. Fairfax had a deep and presumably secret romantic interest in Rochester that Lane clearly expressed, sotto voce, while at the same time yielding to her employer’s wishes and choices and always knowing her place. The role could have faded into relative obscurity, but when Lane was on stage, she stole the scenes. I’ve watched Lane grow as a dancer and artist over the past 15 years, but nothing I’ve seen from her previously prepared me for this. Her Mrs. Fairfax illustrates, yet again, that there are no small roles.
The male roles (including Rochester) aren’t as strong, but Aran Bell’s St. John Rivers, who’s supposed to be somewhat of an emotional cold fish, became quite a sympathetic character – a consequence, perhaps, of the sympathetic way in which he’s introduced to the audience in the Prologue. Indeed, in one of the ballet’s poorly explained scenes, Jane’s rejection of him comes across as being as harsh and unprincipled as … the visualization in many other ballets of men who reject woman for no apparent reason that makes sense. Duncan Lyle’s portrayal on Saturday was a bit more wooden and cold, making Boylston’s reaction to his proposal look somewhat justified – although that Prologue still presents Rivers in too sympathetic a light to be so casually and emphatically dismissed.
All things considered, however, when Jane Eyre returns (which may be as soon as this coming Fall, 2019 season, since it could fit within the Koch Theater’s less expansive stage space), see it. Even with the criticisms I’ve expressed, Jane Eyre is a landmark ballet that’s meaningful and intelligently crafted, and that boasts impressive performances all around. Being a member of the audience for Jane Eyre is a privilege.