Jane Eyre: UK and NY Critics Diverge

American Ballet Theatre broke its string of new saccharine Ratmansky full-lengths (Golden Cockerel, Whipped Creme, Harlequinade) by adding to its repertory Cathy Marston’s ballet interpretation of Charlotte Brontë’s, Jane Eyre. The work, which was created for Northern Ballet in 2016 and opened Tuesday at ABT, contrasts with the color-infused Ratmansky fantasy works. Jane Eyre is a drama filled with dark and foreboding scenes with matching depressing gray background sets.

Marston, a British choreographer with many literary full-length ballets to her credit, had a challenge staging the ballet after the three-volume, 38 chapter classic published in 1847. The story follows Jane Eyre from her difficult childhood (Catherine Hurlin, young Jane) to her lovestruck adulthood (Devon Teuscher, adult Jane). Act I recounts her difficult early life, orphaned and raised by a loveless wealthy aunt as she endured abusive cousins. Her difficult life continued with abuse from Reverend Brocklehurst (Calvin Royal) at a school for orphaned girls. She is not kept down as the energetic young Jane is full of steely resolve as she persevered through her difficult early years. She later encountered the wealthy Edward Rochester (James Whiteside) and they fell in love. In Act II, we find that unfortunately for Jane, he is married. He loses his sight from a fire started by his wife. Jane forgives Edward as she proposes marriage: “She has not only found love, but gained ownership of her own destiny,” according to the program.

Jane Eyre ABT

Catherine Hurlin as the young Jane Eyre. Click for more photos.

The work is long and tedious at times as it goes through the winding story. The bond between Jane and Edward is puzzling given his controlling nature; while seated, he moves his foot as if manipulating her like a puppet. What she sees in this arrogant cad is a mystery. Several pas de deux were monotonous with much flailing and angst.

Catherine Hurlin gave a strong performance as young Jane, filled with determination as she encountered many roadblocks. Devon Teuscher was a somber Jane who carried on with great strength while James Whiteside was a haughty jerk, expressive and nuanced.

Critic Reaction Widely Split

Critical reaction for Jane Eyre is widely divergent based on geography: UK critics love the work while New York writers panned it.

Judith Mackrell, The Guardian “Cathy Marston displays a novelist’s touch in layering characters in her wonderfully choreographed show…”

Luke Jennings, The Guardian “…a quietly enthralling classic.”

Ismene Brown, The Spectator “Northern Ballet has triumphed with Brontë: Jane Eyre reviewed.”

Rachel Ward, The Telegraph “Northern Ballet’s new Jane Eyre is a beautiful and expressive tribute to Brontë.”

Graham Watts, DanceTabs “This excellent ballet is clearly a “keeper” and a work I would like to see again and again.”

Across the pond, New York reviewers had a polar opposite view of the ABT version:

Gia Kourlas, New York Times The ballet’s “…unrelenting grimness and monotonous choreography give (an admirable feminist stance) little room to grow and add nothing to the poetry and page-turning drama of Brontë’s novel.”

Robert Greskovic, Wall Street Journal “But without a familiarity with the novel—and given the monotonous and at best mushy classical tone of the choreography, in which ballet’s formal carriage of the arms becomes so much generic wringing of the hands—this telling of the life of a young woman who struggles amid an often hostile environment to finally find love taxes the attention span more than it engages interest.”

Marina Harss, DanceTabs Jane Eyre is “…a dreary affair, theatrically dutiful and choreographically thin.”

Ivy Lin, Bachtrack “ABT’s damp, dreary Jane Eyre disappoints.”

I’ve never seen such divergent opinions clustered by geography. The UK critics gushed in praise with barely a negative note while I have not seen a positive appraisal of the ABT version. Why? I do not think it is due to inferior dancing at ABT versus Northern Ballet. ABT dancers are top-notch, and I enjoyed Devon, James, Catherine, Calvin, and Aron Bell’s dramatic presentation. Most of the New York criticism is not of the dancers, but the choreography. Maybe the UK version is more suitable to a smaller stage relative to the cavernous Met stage.

My view is more favorable than New York reviewers but not as glowing as the UK. I guess I am somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic ocean. Act I tells a compelling story of a young woman with great resolve while demons haunt the adult Jane. On the negative side, the relationship between Jane and Edward is puzzling and tiresome. However, I do not have a strong desire to see this work again.

The universal panning of the ballet must be disappointing to ABT. The company probably thought it had a sure winner given the warm reception since its premier in 2016.

Full disclosure: I was not predisposed to liking this work as I am not a fan of anguish-filled romance stories when one or more of the characters is a brooding wealthy aristocrat with too much time on their hands. Manon is a similar work that I’m not fond of. I need a double tour now and then to keep my attention. On that note…on to Le Corsaire next week.