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REVIEW: Joffrey ‘Jane Eyre’ triumphs, gives timeless story modern appeal

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By Crista Zivanovic
Contributor

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Joffrey Ballet has scored another lush, engaging hit based on a 19th-century novel with its new “Jane Eyre,” on the heels of last season’s marvelous “Anna Karenina,” which so movingly brought Tolstoy’s novel to life. But in the case of “Eyre,” the audience can revel in a happy ending, celebrating the triumph of love between two equals. “Karenina,” alas, depicted love’s destructive potential.
“Jane Eyre” is the much-beloved 1847 Charlotte Bronte tale of a young woman’s coming of age and shaping her own destiny in an era when that was nearly impossible for most women.
British choreographer Cathy Marston masterfully blends classical ballet with a modern sensibility by expertly incorporating Bronte’s first-person narrative of Eyre’s adventures – and, more challenging, successfully depicting Eyre’s and others’ emotions, as Eyre navigates the harsh circumstances and eventual triumph of her life.
The three-year-old ballet, which opened at Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre Wednesday, Oct. 16, is a

Edward Rochester, played by Greig Matthews, tries to save his mad wife, Bertha Mason, played by Christine Rocas, during the second fire at his grand estate, Thornfield, in the Chicago Joffrey Ballet performance of “Jane Eyre” through Oct. 27, 2019. (Photo by Cheryl Mann)

co-production with American Ballet Theatre, which premiered it in June in New York. Joffrey dancers Amanda Assucena as Eyre and Greig Matthews as Edward Rochester performed opening night, and brought strong, alluring chemistry to the pairing, reflecting impeccable artistry as well as sensually navigating the complexities of the fictional couple’s intense, sprawling relationship. A Northwest Indiana connection, Joffrey dancer Evan Boersma, who grew up in Dyer, is one of the D-Men, the male dancers who serve both practical and shadowy metaphorical roles throughout the production.
Marston gave a talk Oct. 10 as part of a Driehaus Museum program at Joffrey headquarters at Randolph and State streets with Mary B. Galvin Artistic Director Ashley Wheater and DePaul University English professor Jennifer Conary about the ballet. She said when she was creating the ballet for Northern Ballet in Doncaster, England, she didn’t include many men in her original vision. It wasn’t because she had anything against men, she said, laughing, but instead because there were only four men in Eyre’s life – her tormenting and taunting cousin John Reed, the imperious and cruel Rev. Brocklehurst, the cold and self-serving St. John Rivers and her eventual love match, Rochester.

An orphan at Lowood School, played by Yumi Kanazawa, looks lovingly at departed orphan Helen Burns, Jane Eyre’s best friend as played by Brooke Linford. In the background are the D-Men, who represent demons and death throughout the ballet “Jane Eyre,” a new performance run through Oct. 27 at Chicago Joffrey Ballet. (Photo by Cheryl Mann)

But she was reminded that ballet corps have many men as well as women in need of roles to fill, which prompted her to devise her “Greek chorus of D-men,” representing both demon and death, who swirl around Eyre throughout the ballet, serving as the ideal theatrical construct to help move Eyre from scene to scene, as well as move the changing scenery – and become a fortuitously artistic solution that enhances and advances the overall story arc.
To say Marston’s effort to give women equal play in all aspects of the production – including using the classical music of Fanny Mendelssohn as well as her more famous younger brother, Felix Mendelssohn – in no way diminishes its universal themes and appeal. More conductors and musicians are discovering and playing Fanny Mendelssohn’s music, which makes the choice all the more timely. Fanny Mendelssohn, born in 1805, died at age 41 in 1847, the same year “Jane Eyre” was published.
Composer and pianist Philip Feeney composed original music for the ballet as well as incorporating music by the Mendelssohns to arrive at a score that seamlessly blends the varying styles into a beautiful, moving whole, much as Marston has created a ballet in the classical tradition that feels fresh and modern.
Marston said she did, however, refuse to budge on one element of her vision – the ending. Most adaptations of the novel portray Eyre and Rochester together at the end, having both overcome personal and joint obstacles to achieve a touching and profound unity, prompting many of us to remember the novel’s famous line, “Reader, I married him.”
Marston wanted the final scene to focus a small spotlight on Jane for a brief, illuminating moment. It is, after all, Eyre’s story from start to finish, Marston said, and she wanted the ending to reflect that. And it does, in a quietly powerful and satisfying moment that truly gives Eyre – and Bronte and Fanny Mendelssohn and Marston, and all women artists, their due.
“Jane Eyre” is as fresh, lovely and exciting a ballet as Chicago audiences have come to expect from this premier dance company. To see it in the gorgeous Art Nouveau Auditorium Theatre, designed by Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler, always adds a special frisson to any Joffrey Ballet performance.
FYI: Through Oct. 27 at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Ida B. Wells Drive, Chicago. Tickets start at $35 and are available at 312-386-8905, or www.Joffrey.org.

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Crista Zivanovic has spent four decades as a veteran journalist and editor writing about and experiencing the arts and culture scene in Miami, Chicago and Milwaukee, among other favorite cities. She joins Columnist Phil Potempa on-air as a contributor on Potempa’s weekly “Of Notoriety” radio show broadcast on WJOB 1230 AM. She can be reached at Crista.Zivanovic@gmail.com.