Jane Eyre Credit: Cheryl Mann

Among the great pleasures of 19th-century novels are their length, their breadth, the deep dives into characters’ lives and into the social fabric of the time. It’s almost suicidal to try to stage these stories in just over two hours. Yet that’s what British choreographer Cathy Marston did with Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 Jane Eyre, in a 2016 evening-length ballet now remounted by the Joffrey at the Auditorium Theatre. It’s an act of love, and of daring—for good and bad, a contemporary feminist take on the story. 

Eliminating all traces of costume drama, Marston emphasizes the novel’s bleak universality. Patrick Kinmonth’s painted drops show sloping, intersecting lines suggesting lonely hills, the moors, a distant horizon on a vast open plain. His pared costumes merely hint at the period. Philip Feeney’s score likewise defers to the choreography, as Marston steps outside the bounds of classical ballet to highlight the characters’ distinctive gestures.

The story is anchored, of course, in the orphaned, abused Jane Eyre and her relationship with Mr. Rochester, the dictatorial gentleman who hires her as governess to his ward, Adele. Marston’s task is to translate the book into dance, which she does with particular brilliance in the love duets, the ballet’s beating heart and sturdy skeleton, its viscera. And in her clever formulation, evolved dancing corresponds to an evolved person. When she shows us Jane as a child, tortured by her aunt and cousins, she’s just a rough, violent girl who can only fling herself in fury. Rochester’s housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax, seeking to refine both Jane and Adele, teaches them to dance, to move, almost immediately after Jane arrives.

Emotionally, Jane is already evolved enough to interact with Rochester on equal terms. In their first duet, they’re clearly dancing one of the novel’s bantering, witty, occasionally combative early conversations. Every subsequent duet fully limns a new phase. When Jane saves Rochester’s life, pulling him from his burning bed, and they dance in their nightclothes, there’s a huge jump in intimacy: intellectual attraction has become fiery desire. The highly athletic, technically difficult proposal scene, near the top of the second act, feels artificial, forced—maybe because Rochester already has a wife: Bertha, the mad Creole in the attic. When Jane, about to be married, finds out about Bertha and tosses her bridal veil aside like the rag it is, their duet is marked by distance and avoidance. 

Though the early duets in the second act falter, and the story of Jane’s would-be husband, St. John Rivers, feels cursory, dutiful, Marston returns to form in the final duet, when Rochester’s blindness completely changes the power dynamic between him and Jane. Just before the quiet end, Marston inflects Jane’s usual isolating, self-protective gesture—clasping her own chest or head—to suggest the mutual support between these two. When she stands with her back to Rochester, touching once again her hands to her face, he takes one of them in his and places her other behind his neck, forming a loop, a never-ending circuit of love.

While Marston pretty much nails the love story, her sometimes heavy-handed treatment of the novel’s feminism, embodied in the literal manhandling of Jane by the ten characters she calls the D-Men, comes perilously close to tiresome, their scenes continually hammering home Jane’s victimization. Predictably, she’s a rag doll in their hands at first but increasingly defies them, finally trouncing them all—one by one, action-heroine style—in an unsurprising final confrontation.

A bigger problem, especially since Marston emphasizes Brontë’s feminism, is her treatment of Bertha, who has her own story of abuse by men, a story Jean Rhys tells in her 1966 novel, Wide Sargasso Sea. Rhys not only imagines Rochester’s cruelty to Bertha—a cruelty visible but unacknowledged onstage here—but exposes its source in imperialist, racist beliefs. A baked-in problem, Bertha (Christine Rocas, excellent on opening night) is simply a monster here, as usual. If you’re going to be a feminist, care for all women. 

Marston’s feminism feels most genuine when she celebrates female friendship in duets and trios that comfort Jane, give her a community. On opening night, Lucia Connolly danced the dithery, skittery Mrs. Fairfax to perfection, as Cara Marie Gary did the hyperkinetic Adele. As Young Jane, Yumi Kanazawa was touchingly vulnerable and defiantly strong. Greig Matthews made a great moody Rochester, but his partnering of Amanda Assucena’s Jane made me fear for her safety. She brought precise technique and fearless flamboyance to bear on a Jane powerful in every scene, whether standing silently watching or dancing her heart out.  v