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    Cathy Marston 2019

    Cathy Marston


    Interviewed by David Bain
    Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, September 04 2019

    After David’s welcome, Cathy told us a little of her background. She grew up in Cambridge where she attended a normal secondary school and did ballet classes in the evening until the age of 16. (Sadly, her ballet teacher, Tina Pilgrim, had passed away very recently.) She then moved to the Royal Ballet Upper School (RBUS) where she spent two years. She’d done summer schools and loved the choreography aspect. Three RBUS students used to make a piece in the evenings and it was a highlight for her. She was in Christopher Hampson’s piece and he’d brought in David Dawson and Monica Zamora who picked her out and said some lovely things which made her day. She and David Dawson were choreographing in San Francisco last year and she reminded him of this episode. So, she wanted to choreograph without really understanding what the word meant. David Drew and Norman Morrice were incredibly supportive and inspiring. RBUS was hard for Cathy, coming from an academic school rather than a ballet school or White Lodge, and she and her teachers didn’t particularly click. Her parents were teachers and were somewhat surprised when at the first parents’ day they were told ‘the problem is Cathy thinks for herself’! She spent her time hanging out with David and Norman listening to music and planning her next ballet. She, with a couple of the boys, went for two weeks in January Interrailing all round Europe, sleeping on the train, trying to do class and auditions when they could and although they’d been to Switzerland they hadn’t visited Zurich. Back at the School, with no job, she was wondering what to do, when they learned the Director of Zurich Ballet, the Austrian Bernd Bienert, was coming to watch class. They’d had no contemporary class in the second year so Cathy and Matthew Dibble had complained, wrote a petition which everyone signed and consequently they were given ten Saturday classes in a year and Mr Bienert’s visit coincided with one of those Saturdays. Cathy, who wasn’t a bad ballet dancer but was quite good at contemporary work, got on his list for a Monday class, after which she told him that she was also a choreographer and showed him a video of a duet which she’d made and won the Ursula Morton competition with it – and he gave her a job! It was just one of those moments that changed the course of her life.

    She told the Director of Zurich Ballet that she was a choreographer and showed him a video of a duet which she’d made and won the Ursula Morton competition with it – and he gave her a job! 

    Cathy knew nothing about the company before she arrived in Zurich and found that Bernd had an interesting taste in dancers – it was a hotchpotch of every shape and size – but they were an amazing group of people performing Balanchine, Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring, Mats Ek and other contemporary works. After two years, with a new incoming Director, they were all fired but went on to companies like William Forsyth, NDT and into other interesting careers. For Cathy it was a formative couple of years from the age of 18 to 20.

    Richard Wherlock, an English choreographer whose work Cathy liked, was moving to Switzerland and she auditioned for him at Lucerne Ballet where there was a company of 14 dancers and which, though ballet based, was not a classical company. There she did featured roles and had great fun. The nice thing was that all the while she kept a relationship with the Royal Opera House (ROH). Some of the staff felt she should have been kept in the Company and were keen to bring her back so she was given a couple of early commissions for the Education Department. The Friends had paid for her to do a wonderful course and Anthony Dowell saw a little solo she’d made and invited her to do Dance Bites. Not everyone would have agreed, but Richard was very generous and gave her month off for it each year for three years. Cathy wanted to return to London so approached Anthony and Monica Mason and asked for an audition. She came over on New Year’s Day and did class at the South Bank as the ROH was shut. Monica said she was good enough but unfortunately they had just given out all the corps de ballet contracts. They began planning a contract partly supported by the Education Department, partly by the Company and the Friends, but then Anthony resigned and everything changed. She was offered another job dancing in Bern Ballett so went there for a year working with a lot of different choreographers but they weren’t able to give Cathy choreographic opportunities which she really missed. Talking to her parents at Christmas she said she needed to come back and freelance and they were marvellously supportive. The ROH was reopening and it wasn’t clear what use would be made of the Clore and Linbury. Deborah Bull took charge and started working with Wayne McGregor and herself and some others making pieces in the evenings. That became more formalised and Deborah became Director of what was known as ROH2 and made Cathy the first Associate Artist, which gave her a home at the Opera House. It wasn’t very lucrative as she was paid per project but she knew she would have a programme a couple of times a year and could go to other companies, and still dance a bit. This went on for five years at the end of which her wonderful sponsor and supporter, Allen Thomas, said ‘what do you want to do now?’ Cathy said she wanted to make a little company and work with a few people on a regular basis. She started building up a charity, the Cathy Marston Project, but in order to get Arts Council funding you had to already have a tour in place so she went around the country with her laptop knocking on different theatre directors’ doors, got the tour together and hence the money. Two days later she received a call to say she’d been recommended, by Richard Wherlock, to direct Bern Ballett and would she go for interview the following week. The director saw her Ghosts at the Linbury and after that he gave her the job.

    Cathy Marston choreographer

    Reverting to her earlier works, Cathy said it began with Traces. Someone had given her £2,000 to build a larger work based on a duet which she made for Bruce Sansom and Jenny Tattersall to the music of Yann Tiersen and which she thought she could expand. It was sweet and quite naive, about a web of relationships, loves and jealousies, and went down well in the Clore and again in the Linbury. A solo from the piece was then taken up for three years by the Prix de Lausanne as the contemporary variation. It also has been performed at many competitions including the Youth America Grand Prix but is now to go back again to Lausanne. She made several pieces in the Clore, including The Go Between, and for the Linbury, which was a more formal arrangement, Deborah asked her to do a version of Sophie’s Choice to coincide with the opera which was on the main stage. She also made before the tempest... after the storm, a prequel and sequel to The Tempest. Deborah then asked her to make a full-length piece. She’d seen Ibsen’s Ghosts at the Barbican, and it really struck a chord. Her piece was about 70 minutes long, very tight and taut, and she is very proud of it. It would be great to do it again but it’s a bit complicated, with live and recorded music, though it was re-staged in Bern while she was there. She also made a piece for the Royal Ballet School, Summer Twinnings, to a piece of ‘youthful’ music which she really liked, with Johannes Stepanek designing the costumes which Ballet Association supported. Sadly, Cathy never saw it as she was working in Austria at the time of the performance.

    Bern Ballett was an enormous learning curve, in a good way, being both director and choreographer. She began by firing all the dancers and rehiring. It was a wonderful group which shifted over the six years but retained some continuity. Originally, she thought of having dancers who could do everything - pointe work, contemporary etc - but quickly realised that while you can do that with a big company it’s not possible with just 14 dancers so had to narrow down the spectrum. However, the rep was still quite wide and included works by Karole Armitage, Hofesh Shechter, and Alexander Ekman (ex-NDT who has worked all over) who, with Hofesh, made pieces for the same programme in Cathy’s first year. She was commissioning works and herself making one long and a shorter piece each year as well as doing all the other things required of a director but it was all so political and she was learning on her feet. The audience was rather small as the previous director was a good choreographer but had little interest in developing his audience. She was used to leading open rehearsals at ROH which generated quite a sum of money, but in Bern no-one would pay to watch rehearsals. Interestingly the job of the dancer had only been officially recognised in Switzerland a couple of years earlier, there had to be official recognition to get funding for education so people didn’t think of it as a job and the company wasn’t well known even in Bern. So, Cathy started doing a lot of rehearsals and by chance there was an organic wine shop next door to their studio whose owner became a friend so she offered a rehearsal with the chance to have a wine-tasting afterwards with the dancers which proved popular with everyone! The theatre was funded by the city and canton and the city said they had to save SF2million which involved an external consultant coming in and working groups while conducting everything in German. Cathy brought the company on tour to London where they put on Wuthering Heights in the Linbury when she got a call to say that the next day the consultant said they would ‘reduce to the max’ which meant they would cut the ballet and retain the opera and theatre. It was the time when Gordon Brown wasn’t doing very well and she thought you really need to talk to people so when they went back they took a platform in the market place with the dancers doing class and open rehearsals and Cathy launched a petition and for the first time spoke publicly in German. In Switzerland there’s direct democracy and if you get 7000 signatures it has to go to a local referendum so Cathy led a campaign, with lots of talking before and after shows, and it became front page news in the local paper. She’d decided to choreograph Juliet and Romeo in the autumn which was the first time she used a big title and it was a big hit. Two weeks later the director of the canton called to say they would give an extra SF2million so the ballet could stay! It was a hugely good day. What it had done was raise their profile so for the next three years it went really well. Unfortunately, her boss was the opera director who didn’t do so well and had differences with the Board who fired him. They wanted Cathy to stay for another year until they found his replacement but when he arrived he wanted to bring his own team in so she was swept away. It’s normal there but it felt devastating at that moment as she had invested a lot of time and effort not just in her choreography but in the company, working in the community, developing relationships etc and was pregnant with her first child, wondering does anyone want me to choreograph? What happens next? It was 2013 and turned out a blessing in disguise as life has gone on a huge new wave since then and lots of people started asking her to choreograph.

    Cathy Marston's ballet Victoria
    Much of Cathy’s work has a literary basis so where does that come from? Cathy said both her parents were teachers so she’d grown up with books, going to theatre, including the RSC, and she just naturally loves stories. It took a while to acknowledge this was her niche. Making story ballets has always been an attraction and she recalls loving Christopher Bruce’s Swansong. Even at school in Cambridge before being a choreographer she remembered doing a workshop on it and it really struck a chord. Coming to the Royal Ballet School she discovered the Macmillan ballets. But all the time she was sometimes making abstract and sometimes story pieces. As a director in Bern she realised you have to do a wide range of works to attract a variety of audiences but since coming back from there she realises that story ballets are what she loves and what people are asking for, so everyone’s happy. It’s not always a literary work but is sometimes biographical and Cathy loves doing the research. This year she made Victoria for Northern Ballet which took months of research reading masses of books but it was very enjoyable. She loves the dialogue with a text or another art work and people from other genres. You’re not just talking about dance but the meaning of things and it is very inter-connected which she loves.

    On the website she talks about Regietheater, German Director’s Theatre. She’d done Ghosts here and was asked to put it on in her first season in Bern. She also wanted to do a Firebird, and had a whole concept of including Rasputin and the Romanovs, quite complicated and very conceptual. However, it looked rather like a BBC drama and how the Romanov family appeared in photos, and it was absolutely slated which was dreadful. It was her first programme, with all sorts of people invited, the critics were happy with the company and level of dance but hated Firebird massively, and also Ghosts which was in her second programme, so it was a really bad six months in that respect. The criticism was that both pieces had period costumes, and whereas in a Germanic theatre tradition the key is ‘interpretation’, costume dramas were considered very British and weren’t appreciated. Narrative dance works were thought ‘dusty’ and even with a whole new Firebird, they couldn’t see beyond the look. Cathy had to decide how to manage her three-year contract. She thought she should listen to them as they have reasons for their ideas and also had to decide what is important to her. She really believes in the power of story-telling through the movement of body and dance. But she’d never really thought about costumes, and looking at how characters walk and move they did have a point in that big dresses hide the movements and become the focus. Then she thought about props and did we need all the little items like the poison bottle in Romeo and Juliet and was there another way of telling the story with the body? She dug down into what she felt was important and what could be stripped away. In Britain the writer is important and we stay true to Shakespeare but in Director’s Theatre in Germany they want to make their own concept of a story and in a way Cathy found it quite liberating as she realised her own voice was valid. She could choreograph to an entire concerto but if it wasn’t serving her story, why not just use a particular movement and pair it with something else? So, she felt much braver as a director and choreographer.

    Cathy Marston's ballet Jane Eyre
    Coming back to England, where the general approach to theatre is different to Germany, to do Jane Eyre for Northern Ballet, Cathy considered the audience they’d been playing to while touring around the UK, so she wouldn’t do a radical version of a story which is beloved by so many. She sent the cast list, containing just three men, to David Nixon who said you have to use the men, so go back and think again! There are practical reasons for being creative so she decided she wanted to speak from Jane’s perspective. Her men are cheats and liars who get in her way and push her down and initially there’s not a positive man in her life. They are also her insecurities and demons with murky, shadowy figures who make her fearful so Cathy introduced them for real. These characters then swap to being people at a party or other characters in the piece. She is proud of the work which was a great success with Northern Ballet but when it was mounted on ABT, despite standing ovations from the audience, the critics didn’t get it. She was warned not to read the New York Times review so for the first time she didn’t read it but apparently it was revolting. The British know what Jane Eyre is, it is very dark emotionally and not fluffy, but when it’s moved to another place people don’t always see it the same way. What was interesting was an assembly of all the critics for American dance magazines who picked it apart. They also discussed the New York critics’ reviews and The negative comment in the NYT about the structure blending from one scene to another. They suggest that this is simply an issue with what the New York audiences are accustomed to with Ratmansky ballets. Cathy wants to create scenes that flow into one another because why would you want to have a pause begging applause in the middle of a dramatic moment. She was working at the same time as Ratmansky who was creating in the next-door studio which was fun though their pieces couldn’t have been more different. She had a brilliant time with the dancers, who loved it, and the whole organisation. But timing was awful in that they were just in the theatre on the Sunday, rehearsed for a few hours the next day and the premiere was the Tuesday night. She is about to go to restage it for Joffrey in Chicago, hopes to have more time to prepare and will see if it’s accepted or not by the critics.

    About the time of Jane Eyre, David asked her to do a piece for Cuban National Ballet, funded by the British Friends of BNC. She had worked in Cuba before but with the contemporary company. Cuba is another world - totally different conditions with irregular internet, variable phone service, power cuts, the rain comes into the studios. They have a huge heritage, essentially very strong dancers, but they need new directions having had no leadership for a long time, and that makes it difficult to get them to turn up to rehearsals, let alone on time. However, those who did turn up invested in the piece, which was different from what they were used to, not classical but very poetic and emotional. Finally, the key players were very committed and Cathy felt proud that her work made a difference to their dance trajectory which felt quite meaningful and touching. They can all move naturally, and though she doesn’t need 10 pirouettes, they do have great emotion. The piece was Próspera – on the outside it was about a female Prospero figure from the Tempest, Caliban (body, earth), Ariel (air,lightness), Miranda (next generation), Fernando - but what it was really doing was drawing parallels with Alicia Alonso, the director of the company. Prospero is a theatre maker ruling his island, who spends his life fighting his body and trying to go towards an upward floating vision but always there’s gravity pulling him down. There seemed to Cathy a lot of parallels with Alicia who’d had so many problems with her body and had spent most of her career being the Giselle of all time, floating in the air but at this point is nearing the end of her life so has to give up the vision and pass it on to the next generation with Miranda being the next director. They talked about it at length and it worked well as it was useful for them to process these emotions. Cathy picked dancers who weren’t normally chosen so it was also helpful to them to discover other abilities. The performance at the festival was a big deal. The beautiful theatre was packed, an amazing atmosphere, and everyone was on their mobile phones, which drove her mad, while outside people were watching on the big screen and the following night it was broadcast on the main TV channel. It’s so loved there by so many people that it’s quite heart-warming. How did you choose dancers? It was slightly pot luck! Cathy watches ballet classes which is sometimes helpful but sometimes misleading as in Cuba you pick someone and the next day they’ve left the company. She’ll try to do some workshops with the company and if that’s not possible she holds the casting for a few days so she can get to know them a bit.

    Workshops. Usually she knows the story in advance, has the music and counts it through so it’s planned but like pieces of a jigsaw that still need colouring in. Each character has a list of words, distillations from her research, usually verbs and adjectives or little quotes from the text that might inspire movement and she works with the dancers to develop those movement phrases, for example ‘air’, ‘flight’, ‘evaporate’ for Ariel. Cuba was challenging as not many people spoke English, so Cathy had it translated beforehand. She videos the movement with the dancers and then starts to make the scenes, asking when you meet a character what moves could you suggest, perhaps a walk or a turn? She’s not working with a classical vocabulary so it’s much more individually sculptured. Putting a team together, Cathy chose the composer Lera Auerbach whose piece Dialogues with Pergolesi had been her inspiration. The recognisable theme of the Stabat Mater felt right, and it contained beautiful adagios and some fast bits. Jean-Marc Puissant did the costumes. He’s worked at the ROH and with Cathy some time ago and she felt he was someone who would get excited about going to Cuba. Because they weren’t really characters, they talked about the themes, the Shakespeare, the Giselle references, and then Jean-Marc sent a load of pictures of different designs including dressing the men in skirts, some romantic tutus which then were pared back, and Prospero in a huge cloak, made of soft tulle like a tutu. So he gave her a kit for the ballet but it wasn’t decided what should be worn when and that formed part of the creative process, finding the meaning of the tutus, and when they should get stripped back so that by the end they were all stripped away. Then there was Jenny Tattersall who is probably Cathy’s closest collaborator. They were at the Royal Ballet School together and she was in Bern as rehearsal director. She came to Cuba and would focus on phrases which Cathy had created while she herself was working on a pas de deux, or Cathy would make a rough draft and Jenny fix it.

    The Suit. She won the National Dance Critics Award for this work. It was stripped back and very minimal and she was very happy with how it worked. Ballet Black said they had seven dancers, the set had to fit into a trunk, but they wanted a narrative ballet. So, it was very spare but quite a useful story-telling set. Cathy likes to challenge the audience to fill in the gaps. With the minimal set she had to conjure up the bedroom, bathroom, and bus stop. The four ‘narrators’ become a basin, or a water jug, or outside toilet and she felt people understood what they were seeing and it became very dynamic and light of foot so she was very pleased with the result. It actually informs the piece she’s currently working on about Jacqueline du Pré and other works.

    Cathy marston in action
    She worked with ROH early in the 2000s and then not for quite a period so meanwhile there’s been a great shift of people. At dinner in Denmark she sat with Wayne McGregor who asked why she’d not worked at ROH and Cathy said she hadn’t been asked. Wayne gave her nudge, saying she should go and talk to Kevin O’Hare which she did and he asked her to come back with a couple of ideas. One didn’t work and the other was about the cellist, Jacqueline du Pré. It came into her head partly because her sister had mentioned it but also because it harked back to her Dangerous Liaisons for the Royal Danish Ballet. If she can avoid using a prop she will so she had one of the corps de ballet come on for just a short sequence as a cello, it was very easy and it worked so she saved the idea for the future and when her sister suggested it she thought – that’s my cello ballet. She didn’t want to do something else from the 19th century though it’s easier as it’s out of copyright. The ‘60s felt sufficiently distant while also feeling sort of contemporary, and she liked the idea of a theme of love and loss between Jackie and her cello. Daniel Barenboim is there and other family members but essentially it’s about her talent, her gift and her fate. It is such fun to try to personify all those elements and express the relationship she had with her cello who was like a best friend/lover. She lost this because of the MS when she lost her ability to play and then died. It’s not a ballet about MS which does come into the picture but more about the loss and the legacy. What interests Cathy is when Jackie came on to the world stage, there were so many films and recordings of her and Daniel and they were quite a celebrity couple who inspired and continue to inspire young composers, musicians and artists, and that’s her legacy. How did you go about casting? Years ago she had made The Go Between for the Clore, created on Gillian Revie. Gillie went off a week before the premiere and Cathy had been watching the 17 year old Lauren Cuthbertson who had just joined the Company and asked her to do it. She was excellent and they’ve not really had the opportunity to work together though they’ve wanted to for some time. The music is put together by Philip Feeney who has done several of Cathy’s works. It’s been tricky as they’ve gone through so many permutations, using some of the music Jackie was famous for, and wondering how to bring in the Elgar. They’d introduced snatches of it but a month ago she realised he was missing. They were using Saint-Saens which needed a lot of reworking in order to place the Elgar at the centre but it’s there now and it’s worth it. There’s one section where Jackie has her first orchestral concert which they’ve just been working on and the corps (narrators) are being the music, the instruments and the players with Jackie on the podium and she and Daniel falling in love ‘over the baton’. There’s also Fauré, Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words, and Rachmaninov, and Philip does a wonderful job of weaving it all together. The actual cello will be in the pit. Set designs are by Hildegard Bechtler, the grande dame of British theatre design. She’s a German who has lived here for many years but understands when Cathy talks of the regietheater. She wants an environment through which the story can resonate and Hildegard’s done that by making a set like the inside of a cello with three curved walls. Very simple and very beautiful. Costumes are by Bregje van Balen, a Dutch woman, who did Cathy’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. She was a dancer with NDT and then went into costume design, so it’s good that she knows how the dancers need to move. They don’t look like stuck-on costumes, beautiful but not in your face, as she knows that the suggestion of something is more important than a lot of detail.

    Cathy did five days of workshops at Easter and came back last week. She’d had a busy day today but always needs more time – when she’s building up to a piece it’s all inside and she gets irritated till it comes out. She’s been working on the big orchestra section, which is challenging. Jackie and Daniel are on the podium, then orchestra is organised around. She’s building up the dance as Elgar builds up the score and some movements are inspired by orchestral movement. The premier will be in February. Cathy has two weeks now and again in November and will return in January. She knows how many weeks she’ll be in London but who’s to say how many hours she’ll get in the day!

    Questions: Is the ballet on pointe? The characters are on pointe but the corps, who are narrators and become whatever is needed including the orchestra, guests or scene shifters, are in flats until they become characters.

    Did Cathy talk to Daniel Barenboim? Both she and Kevin felt it was important to do so even though the story is in the public domain. They flew to Berlin to meet him and he was very charming giving his blessing to the project

    In Victoria there’s an extraordinary pas de trois at the end of the first act. Do you have a dramateur and plan this before you start? Very much so. Cathy worked with Uzma Hameed and they wrote the scenario together. For Jane Eyre she worked with Patrick Kinmouth, the designer. She’s done most other pieces with Edward Kemp, Director of RADA. She’s making a new ballet for San Francisco and will be going out in March. Seventeen years ago she and Ed wrote their first scenario together which they thought would be ideal for the Royal Ballet - who refused it!

    What is the lighting like? It’s not yet done – lighting designers have a hard job as everyone works on their own thing and they come in at the end. Jon Clark, who did a couple of pieces for Cathy in Bern when he was quite young, will do it. He now does a lot of big shows but this is the first time with the Royal Ballet. In Germany they don’t have lighting designers and you work with the theatre’s head technician – not at all the same thing as they don’t come to rehearsals.

    In thanking Cathy, David stated that it had been a privilege to watch her choreograph in Cuba and that he is sure that members are really looking forward to seeing her new work in February. It was a pleasure to have Cathy back as our guest after so long – the last time was when she made her piece for the school early in her choreographic career. After the performance of her premier in Havana, several of the ex-company dancers present, who’d come back to perform, said how impressed they were by the piece which was so very different from the Company’s norm.


    Report written by Liz Bouttell and edited by Cathy Marston and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2019