A rare moment in "Jane Eyre" when Jane (Isabella Boylston) and Rochester (Thomas Forster) actually faced each other.
Choreographer George Balanchine was famed to have said “there are no mother-in-laws in ballet.”
Thus placing any narrative on the ballet stage, where body language is the only language, could be fraught with character confusion. If the viewer is unfamiliar with the story or hasn’t pre-read the program notes, one can often find themselves distracted with simply trying to figure out who is who and what are they doing.
“Jane Eyre,” a tale of a downtrodden child and woman whose life is a series of cruel misfortunes and impositions, is one of those stories that is endangered of not translating well to the ballet stage. Written by Charlotte Bronte, the story entwines many characters – most of who are cruel -- who shape Jane’s path from childhood to womanhood. Distinguishing the characters – for those unfamiliar with this dark saga – can be difficult.
Certainly, it was a challenge for Cathy Marston, the director and choreographer of American Ballet Theatre’s shared production of “Jane Eyre.” The result was a mediocre ballet that would benefit from some expansion and reworking.
As seen Saturday at the Metropolitan Opera House, the ballet, with music compiled and composed by Philip Feeney, has sparks of ingenuity – the male cast of D-men who plague Jane throughout her life – is one such metaphor that resonated and carried the ballet from start to end.
Yet the ballet moved so quickly that it can be difficult for the viewer to dig into Jane’s experiences and psychology. That in turn, made it hard to sympathize with her – despite the endless callousness she experienced.
Much of the problem stemmed from the choreography itself, which was unclear and often missed the deep passion that she and her employer Rochester felt for each other. Many of their duets had him swinging and carrying her on his back. He hardly faced her and gazed into her eyes as two lovers would do. This left the impression she was a burden to Rochester, not his true love who unleashed his repressed emotions.
Isabella Boyston as Jane and Thomas Forster as Rochester, do what they can – embodying the characters and emoting as much sincere affection and passion as they could through the rapidly released storyline.
Marston did race through it, muddying the plot for the audience, making every scene appear to be separate from the whole. For example, Young Jane, danced movingly by Breanne Granlund, looked like a spectator at the funeral that led her to live with well-meaning but unkind relatives. This was the first step in her difficult life, but again, she looked like a passerby.
Then, when moved in with relatives, the tightness of Jane’s new family was not fully expressed and that was key to her expulsion there and into the heartless boarding school where deprivation was part of the curriculum.
The boarding school was one area of success for Marston who clearly stated its rigidity with the forced uniformity with a corps de ballet that moved precisely with their assigned tables and blankets.
Even though that scene was successful, the whole came off as a series of unrelated episodes and I’m familiar with the story.
Furthermore, Jane’s relationship to St. John (Duncan Lyle) and her feelings about Blanche Ingram (Hee Seo) were so muted that it only confounded the audience even more. The audience always needs to know who each person is, why they are there and how they affect the main’s character’s trajectory. That answer was often elusive.
Lastly, the over the top direction given to Jane’s pupil Adele, danced by Erica Lall, was cartoonish. That needed to be toned down to transform her from hyper-active gnat into energetic, but huggable/lovable child.
Marston can do so much with “Jane Eyre” and my hope is she will. The tragic tale that ends happily could be a blockbuster. But in its current state, it’s not.