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Joffrey to interpret another great novel in Cathy Marston’s Jane Eyre

Article by Joe DeRosa; Photo by Cheryl Mann

If things keep going the way they’ve been going for Ashley Wheater and the world-renowned Joffrey Ballet, Cathy Marston’s adaptation of the 19th-century classic novel Jane Eyre will turn out to be the perfect choice to open the 2019-20 season.

Since his appointment in 2007 as the Mary B. Galvin Artistic Director, Wheater and the Joffrey have built a reputation for a particular brand of narrative ballet–cutting edge, deeply creative, visually stunning, and always beautifully danced, though not without risks. The past twelve years have seen Wheater and the Joffrey produce season after season of ballets that are not only relevant to our times but resonate in a way that’s timeless. 

In a quest to bring this dual vision to the stage, the Joffrey has reimagined beloved ballet standards with a new look and new choreography and adapted intricate literary masterpieces, distilling them down to their essence. 

“I love narrative ballet,” Wheater said when asked how Martson’s Jane Eyre fits with his vision. “I think dance has the ability to tell stories powerfully, even without words. Each choreographer possesses a different skill for story-telling. I hope by introducing many works into our repertoire, our audience can experience these diverse voices and expand their own ballet vocabulary.”

What’s the risk? 

Well… adapting original masterpieces–especially those like the much-loved Jane Eyre, with one of the most famously complex characters in literature–into a ballet that’s both compelling and not overly simplistic, without a single line of dialogue, is… well… risky. If done poorly, the end result could quite possibly alienate (or, in some cases, enrage) those who have come to love the original. 

So it’s all the more impressive that in recent years Wheater’s penchant for reverential risk-taking in the Joffrey’s reenvisioning of classics like Swan Lake and the Nutcracker, not to mention their adaptations of literary classics like Don Quixote and Anna Karenina, has, time and again, paid off. In keeping with the Joffrey’s recent productions by choreographers like Christopher Wheeldon, John Neumeier, Alexander Ekman and Yuri Possokhov, Marston’s Jane Eyre represents the latest incantation in a series of ballets that have brought complex and compelling characters to life with a deft skill that pays homage to the original.  

“Cathy Marston’s work is particularly poignant’” explained Wheater. “She focuses on character development, emotional motivation and the strength of a gesture or a glance to convey meaning. With ballet, it is difficult to condense an 800-page novel into a two-hour performance. The choreographer must make careful choices; selecting those characters and passages in the novel which are essential to the tale. Cathy and her collaborator, Patrick Kinmonth, distilled the story into a cohesive and compelling libretto. Cathy’s choreographic vocabulary is unique and saturated with information. The story is very well told, rich with detail. I have seen the ballet twice on stage and, now, multiple times in the studio. I find something new each time.” 

Fresh off Jane Eyre’s summer run with the American Ballet Theatre, Martson will add her own unique, complex, and daring take on a literary classic with an eleven-performance run that opens Wednesday at the Auditorium Theatre. 

Marston explained her creative process in the Joffrey’s Inside the Studio preview video, “When I find a story that I want to adapt into a ballet, I’ll read it, research all around it, the period and the context in which it was written, and then I’ll start to think about why make a ballet about it first off, and why make a ballet about it now.” 

“The ‘magic’ of any great work of art is timelessness,” said Wheater. “Jane Eyre is set in 19th century England, but we find the characters resemble people we know today. In order to capture a 21st-century audience, our challenge is to translate classic work into a modern language. We do not see the world in the same way as Charlotte Brontë and her contemporaries. Yet, with Cathy’s rendering, these characters come to life on stage.  We recognize ourselves. From my perspective, art remains relevant by telling the stories of a modern audience.”

And with a new season comes the chance to break new ground. When asked what audiences can look forward to with the 2019-20 season, Wheater explained, “Each season, we try to accomplish many different things in our programming. Jane Eyre introduces Cathy Marston to the Chicago audience, telling a beloved story. We hope to work together with her many times in the future. The Nutcracker is always rich and rewarding. Some of us have seen this ballet many times and always find something new, revelatory, inspiring. Our winter program gathers together the work of four compelling choreographers in one performance, a showcase for the diversity of ballet being created today. In spring, Don Quixote returns to the stage, nine years after its smash debut. Audiences who have seen the ballet previously will see fresh things this time. We hope new audiences will be captured by the creativity and joy of this ballet classic.”

The Joffrey Ballet’s Jane Eyre, choreographed by Cathy Marston, opens Wednesday, October 16 at the Auditorium Theater and runs from October 16th through the 27th. Check the Joffrey’s website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and at theatreinchicago.com.

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