What would a dance treatment of Jane Eyre’s story look like? The first thought might be dullness. How could the saga of a stubborn, self-loathing orphan girl grown up to be a plain Jane governess become the stuff of a Joffrey Ballet drama?
If Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre” shuns fairy-tale magic and a glass-slipper ending, the Joffrey’s production deserves much credit for being another kind of magic entirely. English choreographer and director Cathy Marston has envisioned a singularly haunting piece of dance theater that celebrates a young heroine’s quest to inhabit a brutally tough world on her own terms, using a vocabulary of movement artfully created for the task.
When: Through Oct. 27
Where: Auditorium Theatre, 50 East Ida B. Wells Drive
Based on the 1847 novel, Marston’s “Jane Eyre” comes to the Joffrey after introductions in England and New York. On a dreamy, half-lit canvas at the Auditorium Theatre, the bullied girl of ghastly circumstance becomes the subject of an achingly intense and lyrical love story. There are nightmarish demons and brilliant special effects, too, as one might expect from a situation that twice goes up in flames.
Set designer Patrick Kinmouth collaborated with Marston on a scenario that picks up with the Brontë story as Jane flees from some vague demonic terror (male dancers in a locust-like horde, who return to bedevil her from time to time). The young woman collapses, delirious, and her story then unravels as a memory tale, beginning with her delivery as a newly orphaned girl to reluctant relatives now stuck with her and her upbringing.
The 12 scenes slide from one to another quickly thanks to a highly successful score that fits the time of the story. The music is a smart mix from Brontë’s era, by Franz Schubert and (Felix’s sister) Fanny Mendelssohn, cleverly stitched together and embellished by Philip Feeney, and performed by music director Scott Speck and the Chicago Philharmonic with particularly soulful contributions from winds and piano.
In the flashback story, orphaned Jane has a terrible time of it immediately. She is repeatedly baited and bruised. Dancer Yumi Kanazawa — as the young Jane Eyre — captured the girl’s spiky defiance in spite of the evidence that lashing out just made matters worse. But adolescent Jane is all scowl and elbow, explosive on her feet and doggedly on defense against a chorus of cruelty. (The dancers rotate in their roles and are subject to change from night to night. Kanazawa was special; one’s heart went out to her.)
Jane grows up to find love, and even self-love, after enduring nearly impossible circumstances. She becomes governess at Thornfield, the aptly named estate of her inscrutable employer, Edward Rochester. The man eventually becomes Jane’s intended, although he harbors a secret locked up in the attic — Berthe, the insane, violent wife of a marriage still legally in effect. Insane, but as Christine Rocas danced her, intuitively sharp regarding Jane, whose threat she sniffed with animalistic fury.
Amanda Assucena and Greig Matthews, splendid as the 19-year-old Jane and Rochester, were engrossing to watch as they grew closer, first stiffly as acquaintances with the traditional balance of power assumed, then tentatively, as the situation evolved, into new minefields of interest, jealousy and suspicion. Their powerful pas de deux at the end of the first act released, at least temporarily, a flood of inner conflict in the wake of a mysterious disaster that pointed to even more trouble ahead.
Much of the interaction between these two was expressive of the push and pull of private thoughts, with striking, often quirky gestures that linger in the memory. The so-called D-Men, a corps of male dancers representing Jane’s recurring demons with a slithering vocabulary of insidious sideways moves, were unforgettable.
The Joffrey Ballet has done several of these storytelling operas, most recently “Anna Karenina,” and Marston likewise has successfully produced “A Tale of Two Cities,” “Dangerous Liaisons,” and “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” even Ibsen’s “Ghosts” elsewhere. Expanding into such long-form narrative territory does seem a natural fit for the Chicago dance company. And the improved wing and fly space, along with increased technical facilities that will be at the company’s disposal as the Joffrey moves to its new home next season at the Lyric Opera House, should expand its options in this gung-ho theater town.
Nancy Malitz is a local freelance writer.