Review: Bern Ballet in Wuthering Heights at Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House

Performance: 27-30 May 09
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Friday 29 May 2009

Performance: 28 May 2009

Is there some innate reason why so few women rise to the top of the dance-making profession, especially in the world of ballet? Classical choreography has been dominated by men from Petipa to Ashton/MacMillan, through to the current leading generation of Wheeldon, McGregor, Ratmansky et al. Thankfully, Cathy Marston remains a notable exception to this iniquitous norm. Having been an associate Artist of the Royal Opera House for a few years earlier in the decade, Cathy disappeared from our immediate radar in 2007 to take up the artistic direction of the ballet company based at the Stadttheater in Bern.

This brief stint of four nights at the Linbury (preceded by some performances of a mixed bill at Snape Maltings) is her first (and very welcome) return visit with a new work, loosely based on the front end of *Wuthering Heights* (‘Sturmhöhe’ in German). The ballet concentrates on only five characters (Catherine Earnshaw – known, of course, as Cathy – and the three men in her life – step-brother, Heathcliff, perhaps the darkest, most enigmatic man in English literature; Hindley, her brother; and Edgar, her eventual husband) – together with Edgar’s sister, Isabella, whom Heathcliff marries to complete the incestuous handful.

A previous interpretation of Emily Brontë‘s only novel is David Nixon’s version for Northern Ballet Theatre which is currently enjoying a revival. In Nixon’s work, Heathcliff is the towering character but for Marston there’s no doubt that everything revolves around her namesake, providing an opportunity for Jenny Tattersall to deliver a coruscating tour de force. She’s rarely off the stage in 70 uninterrupted minutes that are brimful of strong, passionate duets with each of the three leading men. Marston’s creative flow is always at a height in choreographing for couples and this remains the case in Sturmhöhe. It was initially difficult to tell the male characters apart but Tattersall’s sensitive performance skills quickly delineated these distinctions by showing, in dance alone, the different nuances of her separate emotional hold over each man; the brutal and jealous brother (Erick Guillard), the battered and brooding Heathcliff (Gary Marshall), and the needy and besotted Edgar (Chien-Ming Chang).

The downside for me was Marston’s decision to surround the five main characters with “alter-egos” (described in the programme as ‘echoes of Cathy and Heathcliff’). This allowed for an additional excellent pas de deux for Emma Lewis and Denis Puzanov and provided important stage time for seven other dancers from this small company but it created confusion in relation to the linearity of the narrative thread and, worst still – since we must acknowledge that the novel is itself non-linear, narrated largely in flashback accounts – it created some choreographic ambiguity that allowed the work to drift off course.

However, this was Tattersall’s ballet and on more than one occasion I found myself entranced by her soft, quick steps and mesmerised by her beautiful, finely arched and surprisingly unblemished, feet (she performed barefoot throughout). It’s great to catch up with a woman choreographer delivering emotionally-charged and watchable ballet and also to see the heroine of Wuthering Heights placed in the centre of her story. In both contexts, Cathy has come home.

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