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Review: A Grim Balletic Account of ‘Jane Eyre’


Review: A Grim Balletic Account of ‘Jane Eyre’

“Women are supposed to be very calm generally,” Charlotte Brontë wrote in “Jane Eyre,” her 1847 novel, “but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts.”

Women have always had to deal with uphill battles, but as heroines go, Jane Eyre has more than her fair share. Read the book if you haven’t; reread the book if you have. As for seeing Cathy Marston’s balletic rendering of “Jane Eyre”? This production, originally created for Northern Ballet in 2016 and opening on Tuesday at American Ballet Theater, takes an admirable feminist stance. But its unrelenting grimness and monotonous choreography give that point of view little room to grow and add nothing to the poetry and page-turning drama of Brontë’s novel.

The wan lighting by Brad Fields and bleak sets and costumes by Patrick Kinmonth don’t help to illuminate the story or the choreography. On the bright side, it’s not hard to relate to the torment endured by Young Jane, a character played with cold relish by Catherine Hurlin. The ballet is told in flashback. It begins after the adult Jane (Devon Teuscher) has fled Rochester (James Whiteside). To make her appear ravaged by the wind, she is shuffled among a collective of D-Men — inner demons who follow her from scene to scene and often, as men are wont to do, get in her way. St. John Rivers (Aran Bell) discovers her limp body and rescues her.

She’s already been through a lot in Brontë’s tale, if not yet in the ballet. An orphan sent to live with her wealthy aunt and nasty cousins, Jane is sent away to a charity school where she makes a friend who dies. She becomes a governess, falls in love with her strange and stern boss, Rochester, who loves her too, but there’s a hurdle: Not only is he already married, but he hides his mad wife — who is fond of setting fires — somewhere upstairs.

The deranged wife is played by Cassandra Trenary with the feral tenacity of a backup dancer in a hair metal band. Her performance can’t redeem this otherwise listless production, but she’s a campy diversion. Another such moment was slight yet memorable: Stella Abrera, as Rochester’s other love interest, the socialite Blanche Ingram, shoves his young ward (Zimmi Coker) out of the way. Ms. Abrera always shines when she’s playing evil.

Ms. Marston, a British choreographer long inspired by literature — she has created versions of “Lolita” and “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” among others — relies on a simple movement vocabulary that is more gestural than balletic. As an addition to Ballet Theater repertory, “Jane Eyre” is in the same vein — but not even close to the same league — as works by Antony Tudor, also English, whose rich, haunting psychological dramas are a major part of the company’s history.

[Read about Cathy Marston’s career and the making of “Jane Eyre.”]

Over and over, we see Jane pressing the backs of her hands against her cheeks with her elbows crossed at her chest. Lifts are frequent, usually initiated from behind, as is the kind of push-and-pull partnering that ends up with dancers rolling around on the floor. It’s not legible on the vast stage of the Metropolitan Opera — and the frequent use of scrims doesn’t help.

Ms. Marston displays a basic, balletic distortion of modern dance in which movement phrases and numerous angular poses are on continual rewind, as if repeated viewing gives them more weight. The opposite is true, especially when Rochester sticks out his straight leg from a seated position to hamper Jane’s movements or to seduce her; on both occasions, it looks like an erection. (Whether that was the intention not, it’s just silly.)

The refined Ms. Teuscher is her usual understated self as she explores not only Jane’s love for Rochester but what it means to be an enlightened, confident woman in any time. Yet she’s trapped in this ballet’s hokeyness right up to the final scene when, after reuniting with Rochester, she leaves his embrace to step grandly into the spotlight. It’s an aspirational, sentimental touch, but Ms. Teuscher — even standing half a second too long in the pose, even in a “Jane Eyre” that gets lost in the mist — can give off a glow.

“Jane Eyre”

Through Monday at the Metropolitan Opera House, Manhattan;

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