Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is one of the most adapted books in the English language. Since 1910, there has been at least one Jane Eyre film every decade. The novel has spawned at least 24 movies, 15 TV series, 13 radio plays, two operas, four musicals, and a symphony. And this summer, New York’s American Ballet Theatre staged Jane Eyre as a ballet choreographed by Cathy Marston, making Marston’s Jane Eyre the third Jane Eyre ballet.
For a book that’s pushing 200 years old, Jane Eyre remains a remarkably attractive story. And in large part, that’s thanks to its heroine: prickly, sarcastic, unlikable Jane, who is furious with the world and furious with herself and who nevertheless demands respect. No matter when you meet Jane Eyre, she is always a startlingly modern character.
Jane Eyre might be celebrated for Jane’s romance with the saturnine Mr. Rochester, but it’s immortal because of Jane, because of Jane’s journey toward self-acceptance, and because of Jane’s anger. Which makes it a perfect subject for a ballet adaptation, because ballet bypasses language to build its stories purely out of emotion. And in Marston’s Jane Eyre ballet, which was developed at the UK’s Northern Ballet in 2016 and played this June in New York City at the Lincoln Center’s Metropolitan Opera House, Jane and her anger are front and center.
When Jane first appears as a young girl — played by Breanne Granlund on the night I saw the production — she dances with her elbows cocked aggressively out at the world, reacting in fury to the wicked and wealthy Reed relations who raise her and abuse her. (The Reeds themselves dance like Edward Gorey illustrations come to life, all sleek and spiky and self-satisfied lines.)
But time and accumulated hardship eventually force Jane to turn her anger inward, toward herself. At Lowood, the charity school where children are starved and scolded into submission, Jane meets saintly Helen Burns (Anabel Katsnelson), who teaches her to smooth her arms into elegant balletic arcs. Lowood is where Jane learns to perform meekness, restraint, modest femininity.
It’s not until the now-adult Jane (danced by a sparkling Isabella Boylston when I saw the production, and on other nights by Devon Teuscher and Misty Copeland) reaches Thornfield Hall and Mr. Rochester that she learns once again that she is allowed to be angry: We know she can be her true self with Rochester when she starts pointing her elbows during their first pas de deux. Meanwhile, Rochester (Thomas Forster) shows that he’s self-assured enough to be as vulnerable as Jane when she takes on all his weight and he swoons into her arms.
But Rochester has a secret: His first wife, Bertha (Stephanie Williams) is the woman in the attic. She is still alive, which means that Rochester and Jane cannot marry. In Marston’s ballet, Bertha is Jane’s shadow self, the embodiment of all the unruly feelings Jane will not allow herself to truly feel. When Jane writhes in confusion and anxiety after she first meets Rochester, Bertha is silhouetted behind her, echoing her movements — except Bertha is writhing in lust.
It’s not only Bertha who is a reflection of Jane’s inner self: The entire production is built so that every element helps us think about Jane. Jane is constantly menaced by the D-Men who represent her inner turmoil (the D is for “demon” and also “death”). On the vast and cavernous Met stage, Patrick Kinmonth’s minimalist sets keep peeling back as though we are traveling further and further into Jane’s mind. And Philip Feeney’s delicate score is anchored by the music of Fanny Mendelssohn, a composer like her better-known brother Felix, in a constant reminder of all the women like Fanny and Jane and Charlotte Brontë who are talented and accomplished and do the work and who are still ignored and degraded by the world in which they live.
But the great miracle of Jane Eyre is that Jane is able to rise above the world’s neglect, to decide that if no one else will respect her, then she will respect herself. That’s what makes her such a vital character.
And so in Marston’s ballet, there comes a moment when Jane is at her moment of greatest emotional turmoil. She has just received an offer of marriage from the icy St. John Rivers (Duncan Lyle), and she can’t decide what to do about it. In a daze, she sees all the men in her life dancing around her — St. John, Rochester, her cousin John, the wicked school teacher Rev. Brocklehurst — and her childhood self in front of them.
Jane pushes those men away, even Rochester, and she chases after herself.