Cathy Marston's Snowblind

By Cheryl A. Ossola 

In her first work for San Francisco Ballet, British choreographer Cathy Marston zeroes in on the heart of Edith Wharton’s 1911 novella Ethan Frome. Her ballet, Snowblind, tells a story of repression, love, desperation, and dependence—the forces underlying Wharton’s tale, a classic love triangle. After watching rehearsals, Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson commented that Marston, a storyteller at her core, “was approaching it from the drama, as you would with an actor, and that is the driving force to make this work come to life.”

Cathy Marston with SF Ballet rehearsing her Snowblind // © Erik Tomasson

Acting is central to Marston’s method, focusing as she does on the emotional dynamics of a story. In Snowblind, Marston draws us into the lives of Wharton’s three central characters—Ethan, a farmer trapped by poverty, loneliness, and a dried-up marriage; his somewhat older wife, Zeena, a hypochondriac; and Zeena’s helper, beautiful young Mattie. The snow that dominates the setting, embodied by 11 dancers, becomes a metaphor for the passion and torment Ethan and Mattie share. They are blinded by love (or at least infatuation), blinded by the intensity of winter whiteout, and bound together when they sacrifice themselves, in an attempted suicide, to the brutal environment.

As the child of two English teachers, Marston was immersed in literature, and early on she was drawn to the drama and passion of theater. She first realized that “you could take a really solid classical [work] and look at it from an alternative point of view,” she says, when she studied Shakespeare’s Hamlet and its absurdist spinoff, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. She began to play with this kind of alternative perspective choreographically while she was training at London’s Royal Ballet School; an early effort involved a meeting of characters from Hamlet and Macbeth. Marston says she might not have begun choreographing as early as she did if, as a dancer, she had been “put in the studio with someone like me. I wanted to be thinking about those things.”

For SF Ballet, Marston wanted to tell an American story, which is one reason she chose Ethan Frome. “What I love about it is there’s a lot of passion,” she says. “And I liked the elemental feel”—the snow and the wind, which she realized could reinforce the story’s powerful emotions. Best of all is the ending, with its complexities and room for interpretation. “The fact that Ethan and Mattie don’t die, and they [and Zeena] have to come together, seemed to me good reason for exploring how that can happen,” Marston says.

In developing her ballets, she begins with emotions, collaborating with the dancers to find ways to physicalize them for specific characters and situations. She comes to the first rehearsal with lists of prompts to use in creating movement: among them, “torn,” “hope,” and “frantic” for Ethan; “numb,” “bitter,” and “shock” for Zeena; “dreamy,” “blush” and “hyperventilate” for Mattie; “silent,” “float,” and “stinging” for the snow. At times she sends the dancers off with her assistant Jenny Tattersall to explore how these words feel in the body. Rather than creating choreography, “they find the state,” Marston says. This found movement, rooted in emotion, “brings a few non-balletic steps in, which I think helps pepper [the choreography] a bit,” she says. “It’s like putting flecks of black on a watercolor.”

In Snowblind, every move is character driven. With a fist to his chin, Ethan forces his head to turn; alone with his wife, he shows despair, slumping from the waist, arms like a pendulum marking endless time. “Show us your pain,” Marston says to Principal Dancer Sarah Van Patten (Zeena) as Principal Dancer Ulrik Birkkjaer (Ethan) lifts her, and Van Patten, her body rigid, adds an agonized twist of her head. Their bodies show anger and resentment, the pain of their coexistence. In contrast, dancing a suppression-fueled, erotic pas de deux, Birkkjaer and Principal Dancer Mathilde Froustey (Mattie) are desire personified. They dare not kiss, yet they cannot stay apart. Even Mattie’s apron becomes an extension of their desire.

Mathilde Froustey and Ulrik Birkkjaer rehearsing Marston's Snowblind // © Erik Tomasson

In adapting a piece of literature for dance, Marston starts with “the bits I already want to choreograph.” She and designer Patrick Kinmonth spent hours discussing “how abstract we were going, how we could resolve the emotional story without dealing with props,” she says. “Obviously there are the central relationships, and then how do we get around some of the narrative corners?” Abstraction is key for Marston, and she wants it in the designs too. “I’m not working with the classical vocabulary, so all these details of movement do get rather drowned by a big dress [in a period piece],” she says. “We start at the point where a story is based, and that might be 1900 or it might be 1950, and I will keep challenging the designers to reconsider how we can suggest something without spelling it out. Because while I want this story to be clear, I love ambiguity in the right moment; it can be quite beautiful.”

Ambiguity is exactly what she wants—and achieves—in the ballet’s ending, a trio that illustrates the characters’ struggles but also their interdependence. “There’s warmth; there’s passion” in the way the story ends, Marston says. “I wanted to find what makes it a beautiful story, and not just one that punches you in the gut.” On first reading, she says, the book seems like “a horror story; it must be living hell for the next 30 years, those two women and Ethan in a room together with no way out. And that is one reading. What I’m trying to do is look under that surface—how do you live with someone? Well, you have to forgive a little bit, and you have to take their weight, and you have to trust. And that’s got beauty to it.”

Tying story and movement together is the music, a compilation of pieces by Amy Beach and Arthur Foote, arranged and augmented by composer Philip Feeney. “I was looking for something from the period and place, and by chance I discovered a group of composers called the Boston Six,” Marston says. Feeney wrote the love pas de deux music along with transitional sections of the score. For the ballet’s ending, Marston chose Arvo Pärt’s Lamentate, which Feeney left untouched. “He did a good job of weaving a story piece out of it,” says Music Director and Principal Conductor Martin West. “The Arvo Pärt movements are played exactly as he wrote them. The other bits are a mixture of Feeney, Foote, and Beach. [Feeney] makes tiny quotes from the Pärt earlier on, so that when it comes, it’s part of the story line, which I thought was very, very clever.”

When that final portion of the Lamentate comes in, for the final trio, it is delicate, haunting, and forgiving. Ethan, Zeena, and Mattie, moving together, inseparable and acquiescing, literally taking one another’s weight, are “a tangle that traps and supports at the same time,” Marston says. “That’s what I’m trying to get at, and to make something that is bittersweet, beautiful and human.”