Review – Sturmhöhe (Wuthering Heights) – Bern:Ballett at the Royal Opera House

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Last night J, W and I went to the Linbury to see what I’d got in my mind as “Wuthering Heights: The Ballet.” I was excited about seeing a new story ballet, and, boy, was this new – its debut was at the end of March! It’s proper name, though, was “Sturmhöhe,” as it was being done by Bern:Ballet, who’d kindly come to London to show off their chops.

And a fairly important work this was, in many ways. First, it was new, a stab at keeping ballet moving forward rather than letting it go moribund. Second, it was a ballet based on character, rather neatly meeting the plea of the Washington Post‘s Sara Kaufman for leaving behind the twin shackles of Full Night Story Ballets and Plotless Pretty Balanchine and instead having more one act ballets created (created!) that told stories (stories! with human interactions at the core!)

So here we have it: a new work, with new dance, and a story newly told on stage. Not seeing it was completely out of the question, even though I only vaguely know the story of Wuthering Heights. I trusted that, like every story ballet I’ve been to, I would be able to understand.

And wow. Or perhaps, woe (or even whoa!), did we have character and people dancing like it mattered last night. A happy young woman (Jenny Tattersall, “Cathy”), carefree, swung around and played with by a happy, handsome young man (Gary Marshall, “Heathcliff”) … whose closeness with the girl sets off another man (Erick Guillard, whom I figured out was her brother without reading the notes). She tries to reconcile them, Hindley gets between her and Heathcliff, the brother eventually humiliates the young man in a way that to me spoke of long-lasting psychological effects, shoving him into a box, then using his arms to draw lines around Cathy. She “broke” these lines by repeating them with her own, much more graceful, movement, an action I read as, “You may try to cage me, but I will always be free.” She also did a great runn up one man’s back (as he knelt before her on the floor), followed by a leap – not so much a metaphor about “using someone to get ahead” but more of a symbol of taking flight with someone else’s help. The movement was quite original in many ways but very clear to read.

The set was fairly simple – a few ramps representing the hills and moors, and one more boulder-shaped piece that seemed at times a rock, an informal prison (when Heathcliff was inside it), a well (when the crazy woman was hovering over it), and a tombstone (in the final scene). The dancers ran and rolled up and down the long ones, slithered over their tops, and really used them far better than most set pieces ever could be. The small one was used just as much for its edges as its top and underside. Meanwhile, four chairs were at time a prison, at times rolling hills, and sometimes just chairs, though when turned back to back they seemed to express well the emotional action on the stage. All of this was accompanied by some very abstract music done with a bowed, electified double bass (Mitch Gerber), and strange electronic sounds (Dave Maric). It provided atmosphere without dictating the movement and worked well for me.

The two leads characters were caught up and reflected by mirror couples onstage, who also wore cream (a slip dress or t-shirt and trousers) and had their hair loose. As society put its hold on them, Cathy returned wtih a sort of corset around her waist and a much stiffer shirt, while Heathcliff returned in a shocking black – yet their doppelgangers stayed the same. To me, it reflected their inner beings, their true desires, acted out behind them while they dealt with whatever circumstances came their way.

The emotional intensity ratcheted up with the introduction of two more characters, a brother (Chien-Ming Chang) and a sister (Hui-Chen Tsai), both clad in purple. Cathy danced with the brother, and seemed fairly joyous, but didn’t have the same focus as she did before – in fact, she seemed somewhat indifferent to her effect on the young man. Cathy’s brother, meanwhile, was spurned (as expressed by the back-turned chair) by the woman.

Through all of this Cathy seemed to have an innocence or, perhaps, ignorance – when Heathcliff returns, she seemed unaware of the competition between him and “Edgar,” through they both lifted her and carried her and tried to monopolize her. Meanwhile, she wanted to be able to (as expressed in dance) have them unite so they could “carry her together” (as it were). I imagined in the 19th century this seemed to be playing the tease but I imagined her in a more free-love future where the guys actually could have shared her time. And then Cathy seemed to be trying to set up Heathcliff and the other girl, which was odd as she seemed to be giving away the person who caused her the most joy. I found myself wondering just what she was trying to accomplish. (Reading the program for clues, I see that Heathcliff was her step-brother – was she trying to marry him or not? Hmm. Only Bronte can answer this for me.)

At this point, I’d imagine anyone who knew the book would have a clear line on what was coming, but for clueless me, I instead found myself watching Heathcliff dance rather savagely (tossing her around, burying her under chairs) with the woman in the purple dress – though her movements on the edge of the upside-down rock made it seem like she was “teetering on the edge” mentally. I was amazed by the powerful, emotionally fraught relationships that all of these dancers, the five leads had been able to create just through movement, with nary a word, and then …

I am so sorry, but I flashed back to a Jasper Fforde book I’d read and it was just as terrible as remembering the Ballet Trockaderos when watching the Swan Lake pas de quatre. In his book The Well of Lost Plots there’s a long section about anger management classes for the characters in Wuthering Heights, and I was suddenly remembering how all of the characters in the novel behaved like such ridiculous twits. This made it very difficult for me to take the rest of the ballet seriously, as I was recalling Heathcliff as a giant ball of ego and Cathy as just too much of an innocent simpering thing for me to take her struggles at all seriously. I tried to pull back and focus …

And mostly succeeded. The dance went on just a tad too long in the end (80 minutes or so), but managed to wind up to a great powerful ending that I found very theatrical and emotionally hard-hitting. And both of the guys I took with me liked it, too. And it’s convinced me to read Wuthering Heights, even if I think I’m going to find Heathcliff just a bit too much of a ball of ego and Cathy a bit too innocent for her own good.

(Wuthering Heights continues at the Linbury Studio through Saturday, May 30th, and still has availability. Catch it while you can! For an alternate take, see Clement Crisp’s summary in the Financial Times.)

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3 Responses to “Review – Sturmhöhe (Wuthering Heights) – Bern:Ballett at the Royal Opera House”

  1. Julia Says:

    Cathy in the book is anything but innocent…

  2. Best London theater, 2009 « Life in the Cheap Seats – Webcowgirl’s London theatre reviews Says:

    […] ballet this year (even though I do try to go see them when I can – well, okay, there was the Wuthering Heights ballet but it seemed more like a thought than a […]

  3. On becoming a better dance writer « Life in the Cheap Seats – Webcowgirl’s London theatre reviews Says:

    […] to ask my god of dance writing, Clement Crisp, whom he thought I should be reading (before a dance performance at the Linbury; meeting him broke my concentration so hard I was barely able to pay attention to ). His answer: […]

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