A Conversation with Cathy Marston

by Ann Kim

Cathy Marston is a British choreographer and artistic director whose international career spans over 20 years. During that time, she has created over fifty works and has been the director of the Bern Ballett in Switzerland (2007-2013) and Associate Artist at the Royal Opera House in London (2002-2006). I met Cathy while she was in London for the premiere of her latest piece The Suit for Ballet Black at the Barbican. Her highly acclaimed Jane Eyre with Northern Ballet comes to London’s Sadler’s Wells 15-19 May.

Let’s talk about the process of building a ballet. Is economy of movement something you think about– do you ever feel inclined to do something because of its elegance or beauty and then realise it’s not specific enough in terms of what you want to say? At what point do you let movement take over thought?

Before I’m actually making the ballet, I work with the dancers to create a vocabulary for their characters. Let me think of an example: On Jane Eyre (that’s what I was [working] on last week), Mrs. Fairfax, the housekeeper – an awkward one to choreograph because she’s not the romantic heroine, she’s not the woman in the attic. I write a list of words like ‘fluster’, ‘chatty’, ‘out of breath’, ‘in a muddle’, ‘organise’, or ‘straighten’. And then with the dancer, we’ll turn those words into movement. That doesn’t mean to say we’re trying to act those words out. We might try to convey “fluster” with our shoulders or our elbows, or ‘organise’ with our feet. Or for ‘chatty’, Mrs. Fairfax might make movements a bit like a chicken, capturing the quality of ‘chatty’, trying to translate that into the body. We'll make a whole load of movement for each character in that way.

Sometimes a character stays quite similar throughout the piece [like] in the case of Mrs. Fairfax. In the case of Jane Eyre, of course, there is a huge development, so even before we try to put her movements into the form of a duet or a scene we'll look at how that language develops [as the story progresses]. So I'll have a load of movement by the end of that process that hopefully (and fairly economically, I suppose, though I've not thought about it in those terms) conveys a specific character or person.

And then the dancers and I will have those languages in our heads as we build a scene. Someone might need to come on from a certain direction and meet someone else – we’ll recall the bits that feel right for that particular moment in the narrative. And then at that point we’ll add in things – we might want Jane to support Rochester – maybe he collapses as she catches him, or maybe it’s the other way around.

But sometimes you let the movement take hold. There might be what you're describing as a gesture that's just simply beautiful, capturing not only the shape of the body, but also the momentum and dynamic of the thing I'm trying to express. And sometimes to create momentum, you just have to get movement out and not think about it too hard. Then afterwards it either works or doesn't work, and then you can shape it more precisely.

When you have done the research, you're instinctively going to make something that makes sense. Not always– there are things that are superfluous and unnecessary – but a lot of it will come out without thinking. You try to put all of those emotions in the body so that the body does as much work as your head when you're making it.

I recently heard that motion creates emotion. Sometimes you have to start moving in order to figure things out.  

Absolutely. Years ago I worked with a choreographer called Kim Brandstrup. It was the first time I’d been asked to improvise as a dancer, which is much more common now. He explained to me afterwards that he found it much easier to work from a moving room. It didn't really matter what the dancers were doing, because as soon as things were happening he could say, “Okay, you be still.” “You go on the floor” “Can you do that but faster?” It's easier to work like that than from everybody simply standing there. I [now] tell that to groups of dancers that I meet– something helps, whatever it is.

Can a piece be built around a single movement? What kinds of things act as anchors for you as a work is built cumulatively?

Sometimes it could be an image that I want to get to by the end or in the middle that could be the starting point or the ending point from which everything else builds backwards and forwards.

An image for me can either be a still frame or the image of someone taking someone else's hand or putting their head in someone else's lap or it could be a whole group of people just looking up to the sky. An image can have movement for me but it’s probably not like a five-minute duet, it's probably a gif.

If that image is a destination of sorts, does that destination ever change or shift as you’re collaborating and experimenting in the studio?

Yes, to some extent. I'm a real planner, so not massively usually, but for some choreographers absolutely it would. I think what happens more for me is that you might have an idea and you really don’t know why, and in getting to the idea, you start to excavate it and it becomes inevitable.

I read somewhere that in your work, you try to avoid acting out feelings. Can you talk a bit about that?

Some choreographers don't want any expression in the face, they want it all in the body. But I also love it in the face. The other day, Cira [Robinson] who plays the female lead in The Suit, was in tears at the end of the piece. She was really in it, and I loved that. I suppose that can be described as acting. That’s okay to me because it's real and honest and it's coming from inside. It's not just being put on like a mask. What I don’t like is sticking something on top of a movement.

What drew you to the short story that The Suit is based on? [The story we’re talking about here is “The Suit” by Can Themba. It’s about what happens when a man discovers that his wife is being unfaithful to him and uses the suit left behind by her lover to punish her, forcing her to treat it like an honoured guest.]  

It felt like a good story for Ballet Black. It's a South African story – the background is Sophiatown, a township of Johannesburg, in the 50s. And it's so simple. It's about emotions and those unspeakable things, which dance does so well. I love stories where there's no clear answer who's guilty, who's innocent. It's such a metaphor for the more normal version that many people have experienced – of having had someone be unfaithful to them or to be unfaithful to their partner. It’s so normal and yet it's expressed in such an unusual way. The story immediately grabbed me because it obviously is emotionally complex, and then [there’s] an amazing theatrical image – the image of the suit.

Are there other things that inform how you decide which stories to tell?

As a storyteller, you have no desire to be limited by your experience. But whose stories can you tell as an artist, and who can you talk about? Whose shoes can you try on, and it be respectful and sensitive, or is it just that you do it with respect and sensitivity and empathy? How do I do that right? Are there other people that could tell them more authentically and if there are why are they not be given the opportunity to do so? These are things that I am throwing around in my head quite a lot at the moment.

What do you think the average person often misunderstands about dance?

That there's a clear answer. That they should be able to articulate what they liked, disliked, understood. It's not necessary – you don't have to be able to articulate what you've experienced. We work very hard in my pieces to be specific between us the dancers and myself – every movement has a meaning but that's not so that the audience has to be able to read it like a text. If the dancers are very clear about the meaning of every movement, gesture, and interaction then it should be felt by the audience, rather than necessarily understood.

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