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Cathy Marston: Lockdown Swiss style

Cathy Marston talks about her ballet The Cellist, based on the life of Jacqueline du Pré,  lockdown Swiss style and “throwing darts into a cloud.”

The Cellist will be broadcast on Friday 29th May at 19:00 BST and available to view for 14 days free – visit roh.org.uk, YouTube and Facebook

How does it feel to be part of the #OurHouseToYourHouse series knowing that the ballet is going to be aired on the Royal Opera House website and available for two weeks?

It’s really exciting. I’m thrilled, especially at a time when you feel that you’re on your own, in your little bubble, so it’s more special that in might otherwise have been – it’s got such a reach.  When I look back at the timeline now, I know we were so lucky.  Of course COVID-19 was around. I don’t know if the lockdown would have happened earlier if everyone had known what we know now. The only COVID related shame was that César [Corrales] was supposed to perform The Conductor with the second cast. He’d been to Milan for the weekend and it was all taking off in Italy, so he wasn’t allowed to perform, he had to isolate. He would have been great, he will still be great!

So do you know if it is going to be revived at any stage?

There was certainly a plan pre coronavirus – and I don’t know if that is still the plan, I don’t think anyone knows at this point, but we were definitely talking about bringing it back.

Northern Ballet’s Jane Eyre, a ballet by Cathy Marston. Photo Emma Kauldhar

How daunting was presenting your first work for the main stage at the Royal Opera House?

The advantage is that I’ve had such a long, uphill climb. It’s not been steep. It’s been over twenty-five years. So I have been exposed to doing these big stage pieces before, just not at the Royal Opera House. Certainly putting on Jane Eyre at The Met [for American Ballet Theatre] was a big deal. That felt quite scary – it’s vastly bigger than the Opera House. It’s huge! I had done it before for Northern Ballet but it was definitely scary. There were various technical things; they were building the whole set again. Then working with San Francisco Ballet, the Opera House there is very big. It was also a new piece for the Unbound Festival. They had invited 12 choreographers, really big names. That was quite high pressure because a lot of people came to see it. So I had been working with companies that had that [very high] level of dancer and big stages, exposed to high profile situations, for the last two or three years. What might have felt very scary ten years ago, perhaps wasn’t so nerve-racking this time. Having said that, it was much more loaded for me emotionally. It feels like home; I went to the Royal Ballet School; I’ve always wanted to make a piece for that stage, for that company. It’s literally been a goal for twenty-five years. I wouldn’t say it was terrifying but I had to ‘control the weight’ and keep calm about it. I wasn’t scared about the dancers – they were lovely and the staff, Kevin [O’Hare]. It was more about the significance of the event for me and my own story. That was the big thing! I didn’t know quite how emotional it was going to be but we did a run through in the studio near the end of the process and the little girl (Emma Lucano) who was playing young Jackie, comes to the front and it’s when grown Jackie has broken down but is remembering her young self, and she did it so well. My chin was wobbling, and I was sitting next to this lovely lady, Caroline Wyatt, a BBC reporter who has MS and she’d been a consultant/friend for me on the piece and she was bawling her eyes out. I did think – how is this going to work on premiere night for me?

Marcelino Sambé and Lauren Cuthbertson in Cathy Marstons The Cellist ROH©2019. Photo by Gavin Smart

It must have been a great experience working with such emotive dancers [Lauren Cuthbertson, Marcelino Sambé, Matthew Ball]?

Yes – not only seeing them on stage but actually creating with them because it really was a collaborative thing. With Lauren particularly – I’d known very early on that she would be Jackie. We had been sharing research. We’d both done a lot of reading. She has her own style and way of preparing for a performance but I knew that she was absolutely behind what I was trying to do.

 I’m thinking about the final duet – how did you bring that out of them?

We were on the end strait by then. When you’ve got music like that and you all know where it’s going, it’s not hard at all – it was probably the easiest duet to make. I think Marcie’s part [The Instrument] was the hardest to develop. I had started working with them in the previous September but it was very stop/start. It was over a long period of time with gaps. When I first started talking to them, I wanted them to think about the particular qualities of that instrument. It’s old, it’s very expensive, it’s very good quality, it’s known great loves and losses before because this instrument has had relationships with the best cellists. And yet, somehow Jackie is special. Marcie is so creative. At no point did he feel like a wooden, inanimate thing – he became the soul of the music. You can invest human qualities in an object and he just ran with it.  We had done it pretty much in chronological order and I’d left that duet until the end. All of us were keyed into the loss and the love that they were feeling. I really wanted them to be wild.  I didn’t want them to be restrained at all. There was one awful rehearsal where Lauren had to launch herself backwards at Marcie. The bit before, she had pushed Marcie and he skimmed across the floor, stands up and Lauren does a deep plié and launches herself backwards. He’d gone a bit further and his fingertips were just on her hair and he didn’t get to her, so she landed on her back. She said it was one of those moments that played in slow motion. She felt us at the front, that sharp intake of breath and leaning forward, she felt that mid air and somehow cushioned her fall. We were all incredibly shocked but she was okay. She wasn’t badly hurt (maybe a bit sore the next day…). They were so emotionally invested, throwing themselves into it, 100% – of course you then have to find technical ways to not have that happen again.

When you were creating, did you start with the central characters and then the others evolved around them or did you always have an overall vision?

That’s a hard question! It wasn’t that the main characters came first but to a great extent I was at the mercy of the scheduling of the Royal Ballet. I have what I nickname ‘a masterplan’: a spreadsheet, I’ve got the scenario written up and the music, the storyboard, the model that the designer has made and lots of quotes and other information. I literally went in every morning and sat with Phil [Moseley] for about two hours, trying to get any extra rehearsal. If he had the possibility to give me the whole corps de ballet for an hour, I’d take it. If I could get the couple, I’d take it, so it was a real hotchpotch. It was like filling in a jigsaw or colouring in an outline and it wasn’t until really late in the day that I had to beg and stamp, to get two full rehearsals to put it all together.  I think that would be the main thing – having seen it now, that I might get the chance to tailor it more carefully.  That was definitely the most stressful thing.  Not the thought that loads of people would be watching but – am I going to have enough time to put the whole thing together? With an abstract piece you can work around it but with a narrative – you’ve just got to get to the end.

Cathy with her familiy in Bern

So you’re living in Bern – tell me how the virus has affected you and your lifestyle?

It really started to go bonkers after I’d done the premiere [The Cellist] at the ROH and I came back home to Bern.  It was starting to get edgy.  My husband is an engineer and at his offices he was being told: take these precautions, super hand wash and I think they’d already started to give possibilities to work from home. I was going off to San Francisco [for Mrs Robinson] – I’d spoken to them before I went. I asked if it was okay and if we were going ahead.  They said, yes, yes – they’d shut the theatre, we think it will only be for two weeks and then we’ll be back.  I didn’t really have a choice.  I went with my mask on the aeroplane, got there and it seemed fine, as positive as it had been on the phone. There was a definite intention to tech the piece. I was only there for about 4 or 5 nights. Then it was like a steep downhill trip.  I had a chat with the CEO – she said she could probably persuade them to perform for a thousand people in the theatre, socially distanced.  What did I think? I thought maybe we should just get the show on and do it.  It could be restaged later. I went home to the hotel and Trump had announced a travel ban to Europe and of course it was suddenly a pandemic rather than an epidemic. The company were really good and got me on a plane the next day.  So I got back and it was lockdown, schools had just closed and we were home and have been ever since! Although I have to say that we are now at stage 3 of the ‘opening up’ so it’s much better.  We’ve had no new cases for the last two days.  It’s been a real struggle for me watching the news [regarding the UK] as I usually open up my computer to The Guardian – it’s dramatic to say the least.

San Francisco Ballet in Marston’s Snowblind.
(© Erik Tomasson)
Ballet Black, Cathy Marstons The Suit, Photo by c. greenwell

What has been the immediate impact to your career?

Apart from postponing Mrs Robinson in San Francisco which I hope will happen next season. I don’t want to make any kind of season announcement, but Helgi [Tomasson] and I are working on how it will get to the stage.  So right now I should have been going to Karlsruhe in Germany to stage The Suit and that’s obviously not happening.  We’re trying to figure out at the moment how they can do it next year – they really want to but they’re trying to shape the season so that everything fits in somehow. They actually want to postpone it until this time next year which I think is a good idea.  The problem is always to do with who’s doing the staging and what they’ve been booked in to do next year.  The repercussions are endless.  I was literally on the phone an hour ago to the director there and she had a brilliant phrase – she said she feels like she’s “throwing darts into a cloud.”  That’s exactly how it feels.  Ballet companies are so interdependent.  It’s the same people moving around – if something moves for me, then something is going to move for that company etc.  After that I should have gone on to New York to do a second season with ABT of Jane Eyre. Of course they have the intention to put it into another season but I know they have the same uphill journey. I know nothing is going to happen quite yet.

Next year, I should be doing Of Mice and Men [based on John Steinbeck’s novella] for Joffrey Ballet. I was supposed to be doing that in August, then it was pushed to September and now we’ve found a way to push the whole thing to next January and into the spring. We hope that’s a good bet – you never know because there may be a second wave [of COVID] in the winter but that felt like the safest thing we could do. The next work that I should be doing is in October, going to Atlanta Ballet to rework a ballet that I’ve done before, but in quite a big way. I’m hoping that happens. But like everyone – I just don’t know!

Interview by Deborah Weiss

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