A love triangle, wonderful music and a tortured soul – the story of three music greats, Robert and Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms is brought to life by Bern Ballet.
The work, Clara, which had its premiere on Saturday, is the latest piece from the company’s British director and choreographer Cathy Marston, who during her tenure has done much to excite the public about dance.
Audiences in the Swiss capital will be able to see Clara as part of “auf immer und ewig” (forever and ever), a ballet double bill also featuring Howl, a work by guest choreographer Andrea Miller.
swissinfo.ch caught up with Marston as she put the finishing touches on her contemporary creation ahead of the premiere.
The choreographer said she had been inspired by a Clara Schumann’s dramatic life story. Clara escaped from a domineering father, married the composer Robert Schumann and had her own success, especially as a pianist. Later Robert suffered mental problems and was committed to an asylum after attempting suicide.
By then, Brahms, a young and promising composer, had already entered the Schumanns’ lives.
“This was a very fruitful relationship between the three of them, a sort of triangular relationship, the young Johannes Brahms inspiring this older composer Robert Schumann, and Clara was sort of in between them, and they both thought that she was an amazing interpreter of their work,” Marston explained.
Brahms helped Clara when Robert was ill. But was there anything more or physical to the relationship? Opinions are divided. Marston remains ambiguous in her ballet.
“I think it was a love that was more than just friendship, I think there was a strong attraction there,” Marston said during a break between rehearsals.
“It was an inspiring love, I think both were turned on by the art of the other, and I think they lived in this Romantic period where angst was part of the life and unrequited love would have been a source of inspiration probably as much as pain.”
Clara continues in the rich tradition of Marston’s other works, Juliet and Romeo and Wuthering Heights, which have been hits with audiences.
Raising the profile
The director has done a lot to raise Bern Ballet’s profile in the three years she has been there, including instigating open rehearsals, inspired by her time at the Royal Opera House in London. There have been 35 open rehearsals since last August, with around 1,500 people coming in to watch the creative process.
Marston, born in 1975, says audiences are getting to know her style and the company as a group of individuals.
“I’m very interested in narrative work, usually one to two of the pieces I’ve created are based on a story of some kind and I think that was something that was initially unusual for the people in Bern,” she explained. They had been used to more abstract work.
Marston had already built up a reputation as a young choreographer before she came to Bern, having spent time as an Associate Artist at the Royal Opera House, where she premiered works such as Ghosts, based on Ibsen’s play.
She knew Switzerland well, having spent six years there as a dancer, including in Bern. When she was offered the Bern post, she seized the chance to build up her own contemporary troupe. However, her contract allows her to create pieces for others. One of her next projects will be for the Finnish National Ballet.
Her vision is a company of classically trained, excellent dancers who have a lot of contemporary influences. They should have their own personalities and contribute to the creative process.
And they have to be versatile – Clara is more classical in flavour, whereas Howl is determinately contemporary.
It seems to be paying off – auditions last year attracted more than 600 applicants. Marston also managed to fight off a threat to cut off the ballet’s funding last year by rallying public support.
Overall, Marston says the Swiss dance scene is more fragmented than in Britain, as each city has its own theatre or dance company.
“There’s a sense of local support which is nice, which is different than towards the Royal Ballet which is a national company. You wouldn’t get people in Brighton thinking of one of the Royal Ballet’s dancers as being their dancer.”
There is no purely classical company, and that the art scene in general seems to be more contemporary.
Marston has found the dramaturg – common in German-speaking countries but not at all in Britain – very useful. As a dramatic advisor, a dramaturg puts the director or choreographer’s vision into context and offers advice about how to deal with the specifics of a story. This is a different approach.
“When I first came here I was very used to, for example, in England working with period costume, but here there’s much more the feeling, ‘Well, why would you dress in period costume? It doesn’t matter that’s what it would have been. What’s your take on it now’?” she said.
Marston doesn’t have any Swiss dancers in her troupe. Dance was only recognized as a profession in the country two years ago and formal training is in its infancy. A lot of young Swiss dancers go abroad to train and stay there, she said.
At present she has around 11 nationalities among her close-knit 12 dancers – and, as the rehearsals showed, the lingua franca is English.
Marston thinks some time will be needed in Switzerland for the dance situation to improve and for parents to be persuaded that dancing is a valid career.
As for the busy director, she continues to enjoy her work at Bern Ballet and will certainly stay in the city until her contract ends in 2012. And what spurs her on?
“Stories, often novels, biographies, pieces of music but, of course, always the dancers I’m working with are the ultimate inspiration.”
Isobel Leybold-Johnson in Bern, swissinfo.ch
Cathy Marston, born in 1975, is a British choreographer and has been director of Bern Ballet since 2007.
She was previously Associate Artists at the Royal Opera House in London. During this time she produced her highly acclaimed version of Ibsen’s Ghosts, as well as many one-act ballets. Some of her works have been featured on British television and she also formed her own company.
She started her career as a dancer, training in Britain. She later danced with the Zurich Ballet, Bern Ballet and Lucerne Ballet, as well as other companies.
She has also choreographed for the Royal Ballet, the Northern Ballet Theatre, and the Washington Ballet and continues to create new works commissioned by other companies, including “A Tale of Two Cities” in 2008 for the Northern Ballet Theatre.
Swiss ballet scene
There are six institutional ballet companies, including Bern Ballet and Heinz Spoerli’s Zurich Ballet, as well as Basel Ballet, Geneva’s Ballet du Grand Théatre, the Lucerne Dance Theatre and St Gallen Dance Company.
Also well known is the Ballet Béjart in Lausanne.
The Prix de Lausanne was set up in 1973 as a competition for young dancers.
The 38th Prix de Lausanne 2010 ran from January 26-31 at the Beaulieu Theatre in Lausanne.
It included two Swiss for the first time, with observers pointing to an improvement in Swiss dance training. One Swiss made it to the final.