Feature: Cathy comes home...

Monday 23 May 2011

Cathy Marston. Photo: Claire Park

Cathy Marston is a choreographer and has been Director of the Bern:Ballett at the Stadttheater Bern, Switzerland since 2007. Previously she choreographed for the Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, Northern Ballet Theatre, Ballett Basel, Danza Contemporanea de Cuba, the Washington Ballet, the Balletboyz and many other companies. She has also performed with Henri Oguike Dance Company, Arc Dance Company, Liv Lorent and created the role of The Blue Fairy in Will Tuckett’s Royal Opera House’s production of Pinocchio.

This month she is bringing her 15 strong company of dancers to ROH2 and the Linbury Studio Theatre at the Royal Opera House where she was an Associate Artist for several years. So how does it feel to be back?
It’s great to come back to the Linbury – like coming home. I’ve spent the last four years running a company using German in an unfamiliar system and within a network of people I didn’t initially know. It’s such a lovely feeling to call the technical department of the ROH, or the ROH2 offices, and speak with people who not only understand me but with whom I’ve collaborated many times. Moreover, I love the stage, the building, and the staff on the stage door. I know that when we arrive there we’ll be met by friends who are keen to see what I’ve been doing in Switzerland.

Is working in Switzerland giving you opportunities that you didn’t find in the UK?
In a word – yes. Primarily, I have a full time company of 12 – 15 dancers, a rehearsal director and a manager as well as two stages to work on; one of a proscenium-arch – chocolate box style – and the other a warehouse conversion studio theatre. I have a good-sized studio, an office, administrative support from the theatre and a budget that allows me to create and commission a good deal of new works.

I’m very proud to say that Bern:Ballett has created 25 new pieces in the last four years under my direction, from choreographers such as Hofesh Shechter, Alexander Ekman, Guilherme Botelho, Didy Veldman, Mark Bruce, Medhi Walerski and many others. We’ve also ‘licensed’ various modern-masterworks from choreographers like Hans Van Manen, Jiri Kylian and Doug Varone. We have three new programmes of work a year plus a young-choreographers’ workshop and sometimes revivals of the previous year’s repertoire.

As a choreographer, I have the chance to build relationships with dancers over a relatively long term, which is deeply satisfying. I also have the opportunity to create in a range of formats; sometimes full-evening pieces, with orchestra, such as Juliet and Romeo and at other times I can make shorter experimental work. I’ve often been able to commission new music – increasingly with Swiss musicians. This is artistically inspiring and also helps develop a wider public for dance. One project that springs to mind was a work that British composer Dave Maric created for a Bernese female beatboxer and opera singer.

This all sounds like heaven – and as I write this in my beautiful garden on a sunny day, it’s hard to argue with that! However, there have been difficult times too. The conditions that I’m describing have not been easy to maintain; in my second season, the funding bodies decided that savings were necessary and were advised the easiest thing to do would be to cut the Ballet Company. We had to fight hard for our survival; lots of public meetings, lobbying, and petitions, even open rehearsals on a temporary stage in the market place. We won the fight, and the existence of ballet at the Stadttheater Bern is assured into the next funding period. However, the theatre is now fusing with the Bern Symphony Orchestra, which means a change of Board and direction. This is another dangerous moment for the Ballet as the budgets are re-negotiated and so I find that ‘my creative peace’ is never left undisturbed by political rumblings!

How do you manage the balancing act of being both a choreographer and Artistic Director?
It’s the biggest challenge I’ve experienced so far in my career. I constantly have the two voices in my head discussing the different points of view for each situation. There is the simple fact that if I am choreographing for six hours a day, there will be at least another five spent on administration. Yet the hardest things are the decisions that need to be made about programming, casting, scheduling and budget, where the two viewpoints simply conflict. I am certain that my creative output has been significantly influenced by the responsibilities I have for the company as Director. I cannot ignore box office figures or the task of satisfying, challenging and building our public.

I have also had to find an artistic direction that is in line with my own vision but can also be accepted by a community whose cultural viewpoint and background is different from my own. For example, I am passionate about telling stories through dance, but this was not something that the Bernese public were accustomed to – at least in the way that I have grown up with in the UK! Listening to the criticism, learning from it without losing my own identity, has been a very exciting balancing act.

I have, though, a wonderful assistant/rehearsal director – Jenny Tattersall – with whom I’ve collaborated for twenty years. It helps to have her beside me to bounce ideas off. Ultimately, however, there are moments when I have to consider a situation, look in the mirror and trust my own judgement.

There are still only a relatively small number of women choreographers. What would your advice be to younger women who want to make their own work?
I think in the world of contemporary ballet/dance, there it is not any more or less difficult to become a choreographer as a woman. I would however, suggest that special attention be given to allowing female choreographic talent to be nurtured within the young ranks of large ballet companies. The early period for a young female dancer, when they are required to dance hundreds of performances in a corps de ballet, can be a very different experience to their male counterparts whose work load is often significantly lighter, allowing for creative playtime. Later, when their dancing career is drawing to a close, women have to decide whether or not to have a family – and how this might work with their career. Perhaps this is the reason that there are more choreographers in contemporary dance than ballet – because it’s more of an equal field.

I don’t have any answers or great words of wisdom! I would say you should dance – but don’t be consumed or distracted by the competition you might feel to be the best. Break down everything you do to learn from it. If you are driven to choreograph then simply find a way.

Who/what has been influential for you in the development of your career? – At the Royal Ballet School my choreographic teachers were hugely influential – Norman Morrice and David Drew. – Watching the repertoire of the Royal Ballet as a student but then being exposed to the repertoire of mainland Europe as a young dancer. This has been echoed in my career as a choreographer – developing in the UK and now further in Switzerland. – The chances I’ve received to simply create and learn by doing. Most notably offered by the Royal Opera House and Stadttheater Bern.

Bern:Ballett, Cathy Marston's 'Clara', Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, 25 - 28 May 2011. Photo: Philipp Zinniker. Tell us about the two new works you are bringing to the Linbury…
My vision for the Bern:Ballett is to develop a company of excellent, technically and stylistically versatile dancers who support choreographers in creating a very wide range of repertoire. This is reflected in the program we’re bringing to the Linbury; it’s a double bill of two wildly contrasting works.

Clara is not so much a narrative dance but rather a series of ‘scenes’ that deal with moments in the lives of Clara Schumann, Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms. I use music of all three composers and was interested in their musical interaction as well as their personal relationships.

The piece has four protagonists – the three composers plus Clara’s father Wieck, but I’ve also used a group of seven other dancers who support the scenes in a more abstract way. Sometimes they represent the ‘music’ in Robert’s head, the keys of the piano under Clara’s fingers, the children of Robert and Clara, or the walls of the asylum that separated Robert from the rest of the world.

Howl, by Andrea Miller, is a very different work. Inspired by a sculpture by Cai Guo Qiang called Head On where a pack of wolves chase one another into a transparent wall, it’s a political work about reflecting on mob mentality. The music is an eclectic mix from Allen Ginsberg to Johanna Newsom. The vocabulary is wild, raw, and sometimes humorous yet at other times physically arresting.

In Clara was it the relationships – or the possibilities of using the protagonists’ music that was your starting point?
The initial inspiration for Clara was the book with the same title by Janice Galloway. It’s a biography but written with such poetic sensitivity that I was compelled to read and listen more to the work of these musical legends. I worked on an initial scenario with dramaturg Edward Kemp, some years ago but didn’t find a suitable company to produce the work. Finally in approaching the subject for the Bern:Ballett the scenario changed dramatically as the piece became a chamber-ballet. So while the story was my starting point the music of the three composers and how it intertwines has been a significant stimulation.

You are using live music – is it important to you to be able to do that?
It’s always a pleasure to use live music, but in this case it’s vital. I could not imagine creating a work so deeply connected to the music without its live performance on stage. The presence of the pianist and singer, whilst not choreographed, is still essential to the work.

I don’t always have the luxury of live music, and sometimes it’s liberating to use recorded soundtracks, however I’ve been lucky to work regularly with orchestras and smaller ensembles in the last years, often with commissioned scores. With the appropriate music it makes an immeasurable difference to the quality of work I find.

Bern:Ballett. Andrea Miller's 'Howl'. Photo: Philipp Zinniker. Andrea Miller is new to the UK. What attracted you to her work? **Andrea has her own company – Gallim Dance – based in New York. She was a dancer with Batsheva Ensemble and you can feel the Israeli influence to her work. I was attracted to its confidence, fearlessness and whilst I wouldn’t describe her style as ‘feminine’ I feel it is still unmistakably ‘female.’

Andrea is a shooting star in the US and is beginning to hit the European dance scene. I’m very proud that the Bern: Ballett will be presenting her UK debut.

And what’s next?
We’ve just announced our plans for next season. I’ll be creating a new full-evening version of A Midsummer Nights Dream but re-naming it *Ein Winternachtstraum*. It’s going to be based in mid-winter on an abandoned fairground that is as broken down and rusty as the love between Titania and Oberon… I’m working with the Mendelssohn score but mixed with Gabriel Prokofiev’s Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra as well as about 20 minutes of new music Gabriel is writing especially for the ballet.

We’ve got a triple bill of two new works by Erick Guillard and Noa Zuk as well as an existing work by Jyrki Karttunen. Erick is French but has danced with us for the last four years. He’s developing into a very interesting choreographer and this is the second work he will make for the official company repertoire. Noa was a dancer with Batsheva Dance Company for many years and I was very impressed by a work I saw in Tel Aviv as part of the company’s choreographer’s workshop. Finally, I saw Jyrki’s Digital Duende last year while I was in Helsinki creating a work for the Finnish National Ballet. I was exhausted from a day of creating but it made my laugh so much I felt I had to bring it to Bern!

This is followed by a double bill called Lions, Tigers and Women with new pieces by Andrea Miller and myself. I’m collaborating with some Bernese musicians on the theme of Vivienne von Wattenwyl. She was a British/Bernese lady who, in her late teens during the 1920’s, accompanied her father into the heart of Africa on a hunting mission. He was killed by a lion but she continued to lead her native party relentlessly hunting until their mission was complete. The Bernese Natural History museum has an amazing collection of animal specimens from her travels but I am more interested in what motivated this outstanding and deeply interesting woman.

We’re reviving Didy Veldman’s full evening story ballet – ‘Momo’ – which has been a huge hit for us this year, and finally we will hold the annual young choreographer’s workshop.

It’s going to be a busy year and not without challenges. Ultimately though I feel very lucky to have this chance to develop new choreography, a team of wonderfully creative dancers, and an audience who are not ‘dance specialists’ but whose growing appreciation for our art form is a wonderful reward.

Bern:Ballett – Clara [Cathy Marston] Howl [Andrea Miller]
25-28 May 2011, 7.45pm
ROH2, Linbury Studio Theatre. Royal Opera House
Box office: 020 7304 4000
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