What can you do with an apron in a ballet? A lot if you are British choreographer Cathy Marston. She was in town recently setting her narrative work Snowblind on Atlanta Ballet. Based on Edith Wharton’s 1911 novella Ethan Frome, Snowblind will be performed February 10-12 at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. Classical Symphony, Concerto Grosso and Love Fear Loss complete the mixed bill.
Snowblind portrays a tangled web of love, betrayal and dependency. The title character is a farmer in an isolated village, trapped by poverty and an unhappy marriage. His cold, hypochondriac wife Zeena brings in a young helper, Mattie, and Ethan is besotted by her. The two of them plan to escape together, but when a blinding snowstorm sweeps through the village, their plan goes desperately awry.
In one crucial scene, Ethan pulls Mattie’s apron toward him and buries his face in it. It is both sensual and unexpected. Marston says she stole the idea from the 1993 Ethan Frome movie. “It’s a beautiful moment in the film, where Mattie is sewing,” Marston explains during a break from rehearsing the Atlanta dancers. “Ethan touches the fabric she’s working on and you totally feel the electricity between them, through the fabric.”
Marston’s ballets are full of these dramatic moments. Her one-acts are based on literature as diverse as Jane Eyre, Of Mice and Men, Ibsen’s play Ghosts and Charles Webb’s novella The Graduate, best known for the 1967 film adaptation. It’s no surprise to learn that both her parents taught English literature.
She’s had a successful international career for more than 25 years, choreographing for companies such as England’s Royal Ballet, the Royal Danish Ballet and Joffrey Ballet. This year she is creating a new work for Houston Ballet based on Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke. A co-production with American Ballet Theatre, it will open in Houston in March and move to New York in the fall. Mid-summer she’ll fly to Australia to create a work for Queensland Ballet based on the novel My Brilliant Career.
Marston came across Ethan Frome when San Francisco Ballet commissioned her to create a ballet in 2020. She spent a summer reading American literature, looking for source material, and eventually landed on the Wharton novella although it didn’t appeal to her on the first read. “It has this annoying tone,” she says. “Musty and dusty.” But on the second reading, the emotional entanglement at the end of the story fascinated her.
In Snowblind, the pull and push between the three characters is complicated, but Marston has found ways to express tormented or ambivalent states of mind through movement. A dancer’s leg can be extended out, while at the same time her arm or head can be leaning into her partner. “That way you are saying there is a reach away [from the person] and a lean toward them at the same time. To draw relationships that way is endlessly fascinating to me,” she says.
Casting for her ballets is always tricky because they demand more nuances and emotional sensitivity from the dancers than classic story ballets such as Swan Lake and Giselle, where feelings are portrayed through stilted gestures and traditional ballet mime.
Most companies, however, have dancers who embody the basic characters she needs, Marston says. Snowblind requires a young Juliet type, an Everyman, and a more mature dancer in the role of Zeena. For Atlanta Ballet, there will be two different casts. One of the Matties will be danced by 23-year-old Mikaela Santos, who was named one of Dance Magazine’s “25 to Watch” this year.
Santos is relatively new to narrative works, and the youngest dancer Marston has cast in that role so far. “I am encouraging her and pulling it out of her,” says Marston.
With Marston’s coaching, both casts have had a great opportunity to develop their dramatic skills, in part because the choreographer has an unusual technique. She asks them to verbalize each feeling as they move through the choreography. It’s something she learned from the dancers in England’s Northern Ballet. “It’s incredibly helpful because it gives the energy of the movement more specificity,” she says.
“I sometimes end up doing voice-overs for the choreography during rehearsal in quite a ridiculous way,” she says. “They do the steps and I say the thoughts and feelings behind the steps — full out, with feeling. If I thought about it too much, I would be completely embarrassed, but you have to risk a bit of yourself so the dancers feel OK to risk in their performances.”
Marston stays relatively true to the books on which her ballets are based, but occasionally makes changes to create a more satisfying dramatic moment. The final trio in Snowblind evokes need, dependency and an unexpected kind of tenderness, and Marston felt she could develop it into something “more hauntingly beautiful,” than either the book or the movie. She chose Arvo Pärt’s Lamentate, a melancholy and haunting work, as the musical framework and then went to work.
That final trio is the key to Snowblind, she says. “Everything else in the ballet is about getting there.”
Gillian Anne Renault has been an ArtsATL contributor since 2012 and Senior Editor for Art+Design and Dance since 2021. She has covered dance for the Los Angeles Daily News, Herald Examiner and Ballet News, and on radio stations such as KCRW, the NPR affiliate in Santa Monica, California. Many years ago, she was awarded an NEA Fellowship to attend American Dance Festival’s Dance Criticism program.