Returning to artistic directorship: a conversation with Cathy Marston

Jeannette Andersen talks to Cathy Marston, who this summer succeeds Christian Spuck as artistic director of Ballett Zürich, about her work and aspirations for the company.

Cathy Marston is one of the few women working as both ballet choreographer and company director. From 2007–2013 she headed Bern Ballett, since when she has spent ten years freelancing, during which time she has choreographed for companies all over the world. As of next season she returns to artistic leadership, taking over the reins at Switzerland’s premier ballet company in Zürich as Christian Spuck leaves for the Staatsballett Berlin.

Cathy Marston
rehearsing The Cellist at Ballett Zürich
Photo Admill Kuyler

At a meeting squeezed in between the Ballett Zürich premiere of The Cellist on April 30 and her leaving for Queensland Ballet in Brisbane where she is creating a new piece, Marston recounts that she was not actively looking for a job as head of a company, because “I love freelancing. But then within a matter of three weeks, I had several calls with offers from different companies.” Having danced with the company from 1996-1998, her first job, she says it does feel a bit like coming full circle.

“I know the company is a great size for me,” she continues. “With the Junior Ballet, it is 50 dancers. It feels like a good development from the 12-15 dancers with Bern Ballet, and it is not as large as a classical company with 80 dancers and the responsibility to do a lot of classical repertoire. I was invited as a choreographer, so I am very free.”

Even as a 16-year-old student at the Royal Ballet School, Marston knew she wanted to become a choreographer, and during her career as a dancer she choreographed all the time. For a while, she created both abstract and story ballets, but the latter are her favourite. When she stopped in Bern, she says, “I just got to the point when I realized that I do not need to be everything. I can just focus on the things I love doing.”

The novels she chooses to turn into ballets are sometimes inspired by her travels. She read a lot of American literature before her first commission for San Francisco Ballet in 2018, Snowblind, based on Edith Wartion’s 1911-novel Ethan Frome. In March, her latest piece, Summer and Smoke, based on Tennessee William’s play of the same name, had its premiere with Houston Ballet.

San Francisco Ballet in Cathy Marston’s Snowblind,
which will receive its Ballett Zürich premiere in October 2023
Photo Erik Tomasson

Biographies sometimes inspire works too. The Cellist is based on the life of the legendary cellist, Jacqueline du Pré. But Marston always finds new perspectives to tell the stories from. She says, “I want to get to the heart of the matter.”

In Victoria, created for Northern Ballet in 2019, she tells Queen Victoria’s story from the perspective of her youngest daughter Princess Beatrice. “The ballet was tricky, because there are so many aspects to that woman,” she says. “She is very controversial, and I did not want to be the person who says ‘this is how it was,’ because there is not a ‘this is how it was.’ Princess Beatrice found her mother’s diaries after her death, and rewrote them, very unreliably, so the ballet is just one version of Victoria’s life.”

Cathy Marston’s Victoria for Northern Ballet
Abigail Prudames as Victoria and Joseph Taylor as Albert,
with Pippa Moore as Older Princess Beatrice
Photo Emma Kauldhar

Returning to The Cellist, she says, “I just was drawn to this story of love and loss but from the perspective of the instrument, which I turned into a dancer. As soon as you make this decision, comes the question how does it move, what are its qualities, what does it feel; and then inevitably it becomes a really important voice.”

When you turn a novel into ballet you translate language into movement, a completely different means of expression. But what is it that dance can do which language cannot?

Ballett Zürich in Cathy Marston’s The Cellist
(l-r) Wei Chen (The Instrument), Guilia Tonelli (The Cellist),
Esteban Berlanga (The Conductor)
Photo Gergory Batardon

Marston explains, “Dance describes emotion very directly. There is so much in our everyday life that is not communicated verbally, and we all understand it. The other thing I find dance can do really well, is say more than one thing at the same time. If you want to say, ‘She wanted to go there, but she didn’t want to go there,’ it takes two sentences, whereas in dance you can show it in pretty much one movement, the upper body pushing forward, the legs pulling back. Also, I think dance does relationships very well. There is moment in The Cellist, when Jackie is laying collapsed on the floor not paying any attention to the Cello, and he nudges her with his head. I do not know how to describe what that actually means. I could try it in probably three sentences, but the movement just says it.”

Wei Chen as The Instrument in The Cellist by Cathy Marston
Photo Gregory Batardon

Music is an important factor in Marston’s creative process. She often works with contemporary composers and gets very involved. She explains, “The first thing I say to a composer is, ‘This is going to be very collaborative.’ I absolutely need them to be able to provide digital demos, so I can hear the music, and we have weekly discussions on each little bit. I love working with composers, because when the story is the driving force, to just take some music and put the two together means that you are trying to shove the story into a structure that has nothing to do with it.

“I am much more interested in starting with writing a scenario, which I often do with the dramaturg Edward Kemp. We are really specific about the length of each section. Then we can control the overall shape and arch and dramatic structure. So, to then collaborate with a composer, who will work with us on that structure, I think really helps the ballet. In a piece like The Cellist there was music [played by du Pré] that we wanted to include. But I think Philip Feeney did an incredibly job at mixing that with his own composition and making it sound like one piece. At other times it is great to work with an entirely new score.”

Ballett Zürich rehearse Cathy Marston’s The Cellist
l-r: Melanie Borel (The Mother), Giulia Tonelli (Jacky), Wei Chen (The Instrument), Kevin Pouzou (The Cello Teacher)
Photo Photo Admill Kuyler

Marston is very happy about the way she was brought into the company. She says, “Christian Spuck has been warm, welcoming and supportive. Also, the dancers were very present in rehearsals and open and enthusiastic to try my style.”

A change of director invariably seems to lead to changes in company roster and about half of Ballett Zürich’s present dancers will leave, some going with Spuck to Berlin others retiring or pursuing new careers. For those who stay Marston says, she hopes to “develop and nurture a creative group of individuals, where each single dancer stands out on stage.” Among new dancers joining are Birmingham Royal Ballet principal Brandon Lawrence.

San Francisco Ballet’s Mathilde Froustey and Ulrik Birkkjaer
in Cathy Marston’s Snowblind, which can be seen in Zürich this autumn
Photo Erik Tomasson

Marston says she will show old and new pieces of her own. “But I also want to commission other choreographers to work with the company, to make sure that the dancers’ creative muscles are exercised not only in my work. The past matters to me, so we will do pieces from the 19th-century repertoire, but also key works of the 20th-century, even possible the early 21st-century. Next year we do Nijinska’s Les Noces. I think it is a key work of that period, and we will be celebrating its 100th birthday. For the coming seasons, I will be looking at pieces that feel seminal in their own way and combine them with a new repertoire in ways that feel inspiring and enlightening.”