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One of the prime movers in our changing perceptions of narrative dance is choreographer Cathy Marston, whose works feature in major international companies. She speaks with ICONS before her premiere of The Cellist, for The Royal Ballet in London. Based on the life of Jacqueline du Pré, it melds musician into a dancer in Marston’s inimitable style where the essence of the narrative is paramount.
ICONS: At what point did the choreography, rather than performing, become your focus?
Cathy Marston: It started when I realized what choreograph was, which was pretty much when I started at The Royal Ballet Upper School. The choreography was definitely the best bit of the Upper School for me, particularly working with Norman Morris and David Drew. There were people around who were also choreographing, like Christopher Hampson and Christopher Wheeldon and they were my role models. When I graduated, I got a job in Ballet Zurich because I had impulsively shown the Director, Bernd Bienert, a video of some of my choreography: the duet that had won me the Ursula Moreton Choreographic Competition at The Royal Ballet School.
ICONS: Writing a ballet for The Royal Ballet is something of a homecoming for you. How did that circuitous journey shape the choreographer you have become?
CM: As it turned out, it was incredibly fortuitous for me. Who knows? Maybe I would have turned out another sort of choreographer if I’d stayed in Britain. You’re made up of your experience to a great extent, and certainly, the first part of my career as a dancer in Switzerland and traveling around Europe exposed me to many choreographers that were not yet known in the UK. I was also incredibly influenced by the older dancers; I was only 18 and these dancers had been in all sorts of other places and danced in many other works.
While I was working in Switzerland, Darryl Jaffray in the Royal Opera House education department continued to support me. She commissioned several small works with the company dancers which I wrote during my summer holidays. This led to larger works for the Linbury Studio Theatre including Ghosts adapted from Ibsen’s play and before the tempest… after the storm. Between 2002 and 2007 I was an Associate Artist of the Royal Opera House.
However, even more, transformative was the period when I was directing the Bern Ballet from 2007 to 2013. I was really in the spotlight and the first year was terribly difficult for me as a choreographer and director. I didn’t anticipate the cultural difference in how the audience and the critics were going to receive my narrative works. My other programming was very well received but my Ghosts, (that had been critically acclaimed in London) and my new Firebird were both panned. It was really difficult for me to stand up and be brave about that. I made a very conscious decision to investigate within myself what was important to me and what I had simply not interrogated properly.
ICONS: Were you questioning what was valid criticism and what were simply cultural differences?
CM: Well, the criticism was, ‘why is this woman telling stories?’ They felt this was an old-fashioned pursuit, and I disagreed. I think that is simply a matter of cycle. There has been a long period of abstraction and we were coming into a period where people were interested in narrative again and this I wanted to hold onto.
But one of the criticisms was ‘why do you put these huge dresses and costumes over the choreography?’ and this, I think, was valid. I had grown up in the UK where drama in period costume is the norm. MacMillan ballets had big dresses and I had not questioned it. But I spend a lot of time making vocabulary that is not classical. It is very specific to each character and it is very detailed. It’s less about the big line of arabesque and more about how the foot crosses the line of the other: Is it a ‘heel-toe walk’ or a ‘toe-heel walk’? Is there a battu in there? That sort of thing. And they were right, a lot of the detail was being lost in the costumes.
Secondly, there was a question about vision. In Britain, the playwright is the one you’re serving and in Switzerland, the director is the one who is in charge. As I became used to this approach and I talked to a lot of the dramaturgs in the theatre, I became braver. Decisions became bolder and as long as I feel there is real integrity behind my choices then I believe they’re valid and so I learned to trust my instincts a lot during my time in Bern.
ICONS: The subjects for many of your ballets come from literary sources: The classics like Jane Eyre and Lady Chatterley’s Lover or short stories like Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome and Can Themba’s The Suit. So, what drew you to Jacqueline du Pré? Her playing or her life?
CM: Well, a few years ago, I’d created Dangerous Liaisons with the Royal Danish Ballet. There’s a moment where Cécile is introduced to the music teacher and, because I wanted to tell the story through the body, I asked one of the dancers to become the cello. It turned out to be surprisingly simple and quite poetic because the cello is a very human shape. So, when my sister suggested Jacqueline du Pré, immediately I thought – it’s my cello ballet!
But to be honest, it was the idea of making a love story between a couple, where one of the parties was not an actual human being. The cello is a man and I really have enjoyed the concept that comes with that. The ballet is about a woman and her instrument, but he’s not only a cello. He’s music. He’s her voice. To some extent, he’s also a fate character.
ICONS: IN terms of choreographic language, were you thinking of the cello as a sentient object?
CM: Well, we talked about the cello’s character, the shape and the things that it does. There are strings, they get bowed, they vibrate, there are the curves, there is the neck. It’s even spoken of like a body. It’s a beautiful instrument so there are clear graphic shapes. The technique of playing with vibrato seemed to be particularly important as it’s also recalled in the end when Jackie was diagnosed with MS and the vibration became unstoppable because of her shaking hands. We also talked with the dancers, (Marcelino Sambé and Calvin Richardson) about when the cello is not simply being a cello, what is his personality? This particular cello that she played was expensive and very old. It had passed through many hands, had known great relationships and great losses because any relationship with an artist is finite. I don’t know why but I had the image of Jeremy Irons in my head – he’s got that sort of melancholy. When he smiles, he gets this sort of twinkle and there is something childlike there as well. I think it’s important that the cello has this weight and this melancholy and on the other hand that Jackie charms him and re-energizes him. She was not only passionate; she was very funny.
ICONS: Jacqueline du Pré was one of the most gifted of musicians and her husband Daniel Barenboim is still alive. What were the challenges in taking a biographical subject for a ballet?
CM: When I suggested the idea to Kevin (O’Hare, Director of The Royal Ballet), he really liked it but we both thought it was important to get Daniel’s blessing. We went to meet him which was slightly terrifying, but he was very charming and approved the idea. However, I am not trying to be controversial or to offend in any way. It’s a celebration of her talent, her musicality and the love that came out of their music.
Jackie was a very passionate performer and bringing her to life was really fun. One of the difficulties is that she was also tall and strongly built. People spoke of her as Amazonian and of course, I’m creating on these very slight women. I want to use pointe work and it became clear quite early on, that her physicality as we see it in the films is not possible. So, we’ve gone for the interior not the exterior, her spirit, rather than her actual look, and that seems very possible to find.
ICONS: Have you used any of the actual recordings of Du Pré playing?
CM: No, that would stick out like a sore thumb as the ballet is performed with a live orchestra. But as the story goes, Jackie aged four, heard the sound of a cello on the radio and said that is the sound she wanted to make. Her mother gets her an adult-size cello and she starts lessons. We have two little White Lodger students playing young Jackie and her sister and when there is the adult Marcelino in front of them as Jackie’s adult-sized cello – it’s supposed to be like that! Du Pré came to prominence as a musician when recordings were taking off, so records, the black vinyl ones, are part of the memory imagery.
The Cellist is not a ballet about multiple sclerosis but obviously, in dealing with the loss of her ability to play, you have to deal with MS. When she was diagnosed at twenty-eight years-old with MS, Du Pré lost her voice and access to her soul. The cello is her soul and the loss of that ability to connect comes in one of the last duets. My mother has MS, so that feels quite personal. This love and loss became much more of a universal story than I’d initially expected it to be. It’s a story that dancers feel. At some point, you lose the ability to dance. It’s about identity and how you relate to the world.
ICONS: You have developed a very distinctive style of design: sets that are more suggested than real and incorporating the props into the choreography. How did this come about?
CM: In Bern, I decided that I wanted to tell stories with the body, so therefore as much as possible I wanted to make expressionistic choices with set and props rather than literal or realistic choices. Often there is no need for a location to be marked out heavily and I quite like a more abstract space that I can play with. If I have to use props, they need to be minimal. The Suit, which I wrote for Ballet Black, is an example that I’m proud of. The choices were very restricted in terms of what we could do, only seven dancers, a tight budget, a production that needed to tour: all of these parameters forced us to be very creative and I was very happy with the result. In the domestic setting of the house, the dancers became the washbasin, mirror and even the alarm clock.
For larger companies, you also need to find a way to use the corps de ballet. For Northern Ballet’s Jane Eyre I created the D-men to supplement the male roles and in Snowblind, the corps became the snow. I really like that challenge to think about how I could create and use a group, not just as decoration, but also to express the fabric of the story in a sort of expressionist way. In The Cellist, I have a large corps de ballet of around twenty-five. There is one scene when Du Pré plays her first concert; Barenboim is conducting and she is the soloist with her cello. I wanted the other dancers to ‘be’ the orchestra, so I needed eighteen people to give a reasonable sense of size. What was tricky was deciding whether the group are being the instrument, or the sound, or the player. I have set up the protocol of a man being a cello and someone playing him, but I couldn’t have everyone having their own personal instrument and I didn’t want them playing ‘air’ violins. So, we’ve taken a more instinctive approach: they are narrators, embodying how the music would be expressed. I have done it very specifically with the score.
I also needed the dancers to portray the people in her life, her mother, father, sister, her teachers, her music friends and so on. I haven’t named them, but the dancers know their characters. I choreograph each with a different vocabulary, to give rich texture but in naming everyone, as I did in Victoria, I think is a distraction for some audience members. I have also taken some artistic license with Jackie’s life. It’s inspired by her but it’s not historical biography.
ICONS: Tell us about your score for the ballet.
CM: It was very hard to make that decision, how to approach it. For a while, I considered commissioning a new score that would maybe have a few seeds of the Elgar and other pieces in it, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I wanted those repertoire pieces to be there. They are almost like pieces of the set. They are things that exist within the story, not over the story.
The Elgar Cello Concerto was the piece of music she really became connected with the public consciousness. Elgar wrote the concerto in the autumn of his life while Du Pré played it as a very young woman. Somehow the emotion that she brought to that work, in particular, defied her years. Watching films of her performing it with her husband, Daniel Barenboim conducting, made it impossible for me to resist bringing it into the ballet. So, I asked Phillip Feeney to come on board, to bring a score together that would incorporate some of her repertoire including the Elgar, some Mendelssohn, beautiful Rachmaninov, a bit of Faure which is stunning. He’s brilliant at it and we work so well together which I’m particularly grateful for at some moments when I ask for sometimes significant re-writes!
ICONS: Your ballets often have many characters and a range of musical styles. How much do you work out in advance and how much in the studio?
CM: I really like going into rehearsals with a map of what I will be telling the dancers and then choreographically anything can happen. I know the music well, and I’ve got the scenario very clearly laid out. If I’ve got the right circumstances, I’ll give the dancers tasks to do on their own or with my long-term assistant and collaborator, Jenny Tattersall.
ICONS: Do you find as a choreographer that limitations are a spur?
CM: Absolutely. I think that is one of the reasons I love stories. When you work to choreograph a story, you are serving something other than your own whim.
ICONS: How was it working with The Royal Ballet? Had you worked with any of the dancers before?
CM: I worked with Lauren Cuthbertson (Jacqueline du Pré) many years back when I was an Associate Artist. She was 17 and had just joined the company. I’d written a half-hour work on The Go-Between for another dancer who became injured. I’d seen Lauren working at the barre. She was so beautiful, very lyrical and English so I asked her to step in. It was a big thing for both of us.
I don’t know most of the company, but they are very versatile and very good dancers. The tricky thing has been the scheduling. They are so busy, so the collaborative work, the way I like to work has been challenging to do with everybody but when I’ve had chances to work individually, particularly with Lauren, Marcelino, and Matthew, it’s been very inspiring. Lauren and Matthew have a great rapport, and Marcelino, like the cello, is just amazing. He hears the music and he’s already so full of movement suggestions, so it’s more a matter of containing him. The time to create with them is short but they’re very quick.
ICONS: Each company has its own unique mix of personalities. For you as a choreographer, what is special about The Royal Ballet dancers?
CM: Well, their approach to narrative. Northern Ballet has this too, so it might be a kind of British thing. Narrative ballets have always been in The Royal Ballet’s DNA but right now I’m also benefiting from the period when they’ve worked with Wayne McGregor, Hofesh Shechter and Crystal Pite, all amazing choreographers. They are really used to moving on the floor and using all the levels. They can combine those two things and that’s very special.
ICONS: What are the hallmarks of your style?
CM: I think the narrative is the main thing, whether it’s explicit or implicit. I can admire choreographers who keep polishing the abstract thing, but it’s definitely not the road I’m on. It makes sense to me to express an idea, or a character, or a relationship and I love doing that on a larger palette. I can’t think of making movement without an intention anymore. For me it’s the narrative, it’s expressionistic and it’s essential. If something is superfluous, I try to lose it.
ICONS: What motivates you to keep making new work?
CM: Well, the stories and the cast, it’s about matching stories and characters with specific companies and individual dancers and the places where they will be created and first received. It is really inspiring being asked to create a piece where ever in the world and think, ‘What would I do there, with those dancers?’
ICONS: What advice would the Cathy of today give to young Cathy?
CM: There are so many ways to go. I was excited to be going abroad, but I really wanted to join Rambert at that point. Sometimes there are frustrations, you ask why are people being given chances that you’re not? On the other hand, I have benefitted so much from chance. I have been calmly persistent throughout that whole time in forging my choreographic career.
This debut is very significant for me: the main stage at the Royal Opera House is what I wanted to do 25 years ago! Now I feel very prepared for it. I’ve worked with enough large companies not to feel dwarfed by them, and that feels good. I know who I am as a choreographer and I can articulate and express that. I will always ask questions and I still like to challenge myself.
Also, I’ve done so much that I’ve loved that if it all stopped tomorrow, I’d be so proud of what I’d achieved. I hope it doesn’t, because there are still things I want to do, but it doesn’t feel my life is riding on my next premiere. It feels like I’m riding it.
The Cellist opens 17 February and runs until 4 March 2020. Live cinema relay on 25 February. More information at www.roh.org.uk
Promo Video Link:
More About Cathy Marston:
Cathy Marston is a choreographer, artistic director, and Clore Cultural Leadership Fellow. Educated in Cambridge and deriving a love of literature from her English-teacher parents, she graduated from the Royal Ballet Upper School, before launching a successful international career now spanning over twenty-five years.
Her ballets feature in major companies across a dozen countries and in over thirty companies. Cathy’s proudest moments include major collaborations with San Francisco Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Northern Ballet, Joffrey Ballet, Danish Royal Ballet (and many more) as well as launching her charitable company, The Cathy Marston Project.
As Associate Artist of the Royal Opera House (2002-2007), she created her critically acclaimed Ghosts, based on Ibsen’s play among other works. She continued to develop a bolder, more expressionistic style while directing Bern Ballett in Switzerland from 2007 – 2013. She has brought a modern perspective to classic narratives like Jane Eyre and Lady Chatterley’s Lover, to short stories as in Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, or Can Themba’s The Suit, or historical figures like Victoria. She blends classical and contemporary techniques to create characters, always with the aim of expressing the narrative with integrity.
1. Photo portrait of Cathy Marston by Clare Park ©
2. Video banner Dance Photography by Gavin Smart ©
3. Snowblind, San Francisco Ballet, photo by Erik Tomasson ©
4. Snowblind, San Francisco Ballet, photo by Erik Tomasson ©
5. Jane Eyre, Northern Ballet, photo by Emma Kauldhar ©
6. The Suit, BalletBlack, photo by Bill Cooper ©
7. The Suit, BalletBlack, photo by Bill Cooper ©
8. Clara, Bern Ballet, photo by Philipp Zinniker ©
9. Lady Chatteley’s Lover, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, photo by Sasha Onyschenko
Interviewer: Maggie Foyer
Content Editor-in-Chief: Camilla Acquista
Dance ICONS, Inc., February 2020 © All rights reserved.