To open its final season in the glittering 130-year-old Auditorium Theatre before it moves across town to the Lyric Opera digs, the Joffrey Ballet doubled down on its recent commitment to story ballets. On Wednesday, Joffrey premiered British choreographer Cathy Marston’s epic 2016 Jane Eyre. Created prior to the social revolution wrought by the MeToo movement, Jane Eyre is an interesting choice of a story for right now. Bronte’s 1847 novel of the same name, on which the scenario of this ballet is based, is a classic of brooding romanticism. The book was its own kind of revolution because it was a first person narrative of a woman, written by a woman: thus by its very existence it is a work of nascent feminism. But through today’s eyes, the showing of what was known as “private consciousness” in this ballet looks to an observer more like the repeated victimization of a beautiful woman denied any sort of power by the systems of class and circumstance that she was navigating. The actual physical grabbing and yanking and manipulating of the female body in several pas de deux was a bit triggering while still being intriguing.
This reiteration of some dated thinking was also evident in the casting of Grace Poole: the lovely and only African American dancer Dara Holmes should not have been the servant who gets drunk and lets out the mad Bertha. I am interested in how social movements have completely altered the way I now see, and perhaps the original novel altered perceptions similarly in its readers.
Ballet is an old art of kings and nobility set on the most trained and gifted bodies of our time, and the Joffrey is a sparkling and gorgeous representation of the highest art: Amanda Assucena was exquisite as Jane, resolute, refusing to be broken and still lush and lyrical in her dancing. Yumi Kanazawa was no less lovely as the younger version of Jane. Greig Matthews’ incarnation of the troubled Rochester was a triumph of acting and dancing: he used his feet as hands to express emotion. The entire ensemble truly shines in this evening of virtuosic dancing.
Marston utilizes a kind of grounded technique, almost quirky, with curling and unfurling limbs and a use of gravity that is quite contemporary. She uses steps and movement to demonstrate character and temperament, as in the quivering ward Adele Varens, convincingly and youthfully danced by Cara Marie Gary. Marston utilizes a grand sense of composition to delineate and showcase the drama. As she arrays the dancers on the set she created with Patrick Kinmonth, it’s as if paintings at the National Gallery are coming to life. This is a masterwork and it is set to a score by Phillip Feeney that breathes with the dancers and is like a film score evoking emotion, played live by the wonderful Chicago Philharmonic led by Scott Speck. This ballet is on all counts beautiful and approachable like a Masterpiece Theatre drama. It evokes the legacy of the great British choreography of Frederick Ashton and is a marvelous night in the theater of athleticism and grace. I do hope though, with the move to a new home, that we will soon see stories that speak to the brave new world we live in.
Jane Eyre is, as all ballet in Chicago, a short run, playing only until October 27 at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Ida B. Wells Drive. You can buy tickets online here.