Unbound at SF Ballet: An Interview with Cathy Marston

San Francisco Ballet rehearsing Cathy Marston's new work

San Francisco Ballet’s #Unbound2018 is a festival of 12 world premieres, split into 4 programs over 17 days. Linking all these new ballets is the central idea of celebrating San Francisco’s spirit of curiosity, experimentation, and invention, by giving 12 of the most innovative and international choreographers the opportunity to create on the company. British choreographer Cathy Marston is one of the artists participating in the festival. We caught up during her last visit to the Bay area:

TBB: What can you tell us about your commission for Unbound, a Festival of New Works?

Cathy Marston: As you probably know, I love doing narrative works. But because this is a half-hour piece, I needed to find something that was quite straightforward, yet something that would be a beacon of passion and of intense, emotional dancing that we could really ride on. So when looking at options, I came to Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome. I read that it would be a novella that people would study at school over here in the US. I’m not sure if that is the case, however, because many people I’ve spoken to seem to not know about it. It is a simple story, I won’t expand on it, essentially it’s a love triangle. My working title for the piece is Snowblind. I think I won’t call it Ethan Frome, because that would make it an adaptation and this is really taking inspiration from it, rather than doing it literally.

TBB: Were you familiar with San Francisco Ballet? How are you interacting with the company?

CM: Not at all, I didn’t know the company and it is wonderful. I knew they were fantastic dancers, but what I didn’t know was how they would cope with my style of work, because I work very collaboratively, often with tasks. I try to find a vocabulary for the characters, and you never know if the company is going to be comfortable doing work like that.

There are three main roles and then a group of 11 dancers who sometimes are real people participating in social dances, and other times they are elemental, I think of them as snow. Although, in some ways that is just a way for me to bring them in. It is working on a slightly expressionistic way, so they amplify the emotional journey that the characters are going on. Like a chorus. In working with them, I come up with lists of words and start to develop a language for each of those parts of characters with the dancers. We have to find each other at a meeting point and, in fact, today we had a great day.

San Francisco Ballet rehearsing Cathy Marston's new work

Cathy Marston rehearses dancers at San Francisco Ballet. Photo: © Erik Tomasson

TBB: Which casts are you currently working with?

CM: This is, of course, subject to shifts in case of injury, but at present I am working with two casts: the two “Matties” are Mathilde Froustey and Dores Andre, the two “Ethans” are Ulrik Birkkjær and Luke Ingham. For the character of Zeena, Ethan’s wife, I am working with Sarah Van Patten and a new dancer from the corps the ballet, Gabriela Gonzalez. They are beautiful dancers.

TBB : How are you managing your time in the studio?

CM: I’m here for three weeks and for a one-act piece, 3 to 4 weeks is normal. It is an interesting situation because we are making all these ballets here now but they only premiere next year! I think I am coming back around 3 or 4 weeks before the premiere. I don’t know how much time I’ll have then, because all 12 choreographers will be coming back to rehearse and there is some overlap in casting. There are three groups of dancers and each group works with four choreographers. It is very neatly done. So, if I haven’t quite finished it, I’m sure I’ll be able to when I am back in April next year. I’d rather have everything that I need now, and then have a little bit of tweaking to do then.

TBB: What can you tell us about the costumes, music and sets at the moment?

CM: The designer is Patrick Kinmonth, who is a British designer and an opera director. We worked together on Jane Eyre. As for the music, I know this was supposed to be a “non-new music” festival, but I think there are seven of us [choreographers] who are cheating that rule somehow! I am working with Philip Feeney, who did Jane Eyre and Swan Maidens. He is a composer and an orchestrator/arranger. We are using the same technique that we used in Jane Eyre, taking some music from the period.

In this case, we found that there was a group of composers called “The Boston Six“, who were creating in New England around the 1900s which is the period for the story. We took two of those composers, Amy Beach and Arthur Foote, went through their piano music and sourced pieces that we felt worked to flesh out the story, so Philip orchestrated them. I wanted music that would give a sense of period, but then to transform that in more of a contemporary world and an emotional world. Philip has brought this whole score together very well. There are also little bits of original music within it, sometimes layering the piano with a minimalist, contemporary feel so it doesn’t feel like an old piece of music, and at the same time you can hear references to the period.

San Francisco Ballet rehearsing with Cathy Marston.

San Francisco Ballet dancers Mathilde Froustey, Ulrik Birkkjær and Sarah Van Patten in rehearsal with Cathy Marston. Photo: © Erik Tomasson

TBB: We know you are highly sought-after. How do you manage your schedule choreographing around the world?

CM: Well, you just jigsaw it together. At the moment it is ok, because not many companies are working during the summer period. And when I go back to Europe, I’ve got a little bit of time before making a piece for Ballet Black in London. Plus, Jane Eyre is also coming back. After that, I am doing a creative workshop in Sydney and coming back to San Francisco next year. I’m also doing a piece for the Cuban National Ballet which is really exciting. It will premiere in November 2018, but I’ll start with them in June.

TBB: We’re so glad to hear it. Incidentally, Ballet Black are one of our favourite UK companies. Can you tell us a bit more about your plans for them?

CM: I hope it is going to work! There is a short story by a South African writer, Can Themba, who died in 1968, called The Suit. It was dramatised and toured extensively as a play by Peter Brooke. And it is a simple story that would work as a one-act piece: it centers on a couple in a seemingly happy marriage. He leaves to work in the morning, and at work he is told that his wife is having an affair. So he goes back home and finds his wife in bed with another man. The man is so terrified he jumps out of the window and leaves his suit behind. And the husband pretends not to see him and just says ‘oh I see we have a new guest in the house, we need to treat him carefully’ and treats the suit as the guest, setting a place at the dinner table, taking the suit for a walk on Sundays… thus, he psychologically abuses her with this. Long story short, in the end she kills herself. Very simple, a very tragic story and very theatrical. So we are working on getting the rights.

TBB: How do you go about selecting the stories you want to use in your ballets?

CM: It is really hard. I have stacks of books that I am trying to read and every situation is slightly different which is quite nice. Coming here, I thought it would be nice to look at American literature and see what I can find there. I did a lot of reading. At the moment, I brought with me a book of short stories, plus Henry & June from Anaïs Nin. I went into the bookshop before I left, and they do a lot of novellas these days, so I picked up a few, including some plays by Lorca.

TBB: With that in mind, how do you see the future of narrative ballet?

CM: It looks like it is becoming a trend again, it is in vogue once more. It all looks very exciting.

Cathy Marston

Cathy Marston. Photo: © Isak Hoffmeyer

Follow the latest on Unbound, a Festival of New Works and sign up for regular updates on San Francisco Ballet’s website, or on social media using hashtag #Unbound2018.

Likes ballets that taste like 85% cocoa: pure, extra bitter, dark or intense. Her favorites are La Sylphide, Manon, Mayerling, Ondine, Symphonic Variations and McGregor's Chroma. Her favorite Ratmansky ballets are: The Little Humpbacked Horse, Russian Seasons, Cinderella and The Shostakovich Trilogy. She is always ready to chase new Ratmanskys around the globe. Non ballet: literature, theatre, opera, rock, art, food, travel, fashion, translating and interpreting.

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