‘Mrs. Robinson’ makes dance history at San Francisco Ballet

Until recently, the works and interests of female ballet choreographers were largely ignored

By Rachel Straus

Special to The Examiner

While ballerina prodigies abound, the precociously talented female ballet choreographer is a genus yet to be discovered. Which begs the question: Given that women make up the bulk of ballet’s workforce, why do so few female choreographers land significant contracts with big ballet companies?

The story of the British-Swiss choreographer Cathy Marston, whose “Mrs. Robinson” will see its world premiere by the San Francisco Ballet Feb. 1-12, provides some answers.

Marston, now 46, came up through London’s prestigious Royal Ballet School, whose parent company has a history of promoting male choreographers from within. Though Marston won two of the school’s choreographic competitions, she was not offered a contract to join the Royal Ballet as a budding choreographer.

“There were people,” Marston said in a recent phone call, “who felt that it wasn’t as easy to take a young woman into the company because she has to dance on pointe, and it’s obviously quite difficult work.” A young man with choreographic talent, Marston added, can perform less physically demanding character roles: “They fit in easier.”

Marston departed London in 1995 for a full-time contract with a Swiss dance company, but she kept her ties to the Royal Ballet, returning to showcase one small work annually. In 2002, she had her first critical success with “Facing Viv,” a one-act ballet based on the tormented relationship between the poet T.S. Eliot and his wife Vivienne. Describing Marston’s 13th work, Dance International magazine pronounced her “a rising star,” whose storytelling capacity mined the inner worlds of complex characters.

The Royal Opera House director Deborah Bull then made Marston its first associate choreographer. But the title was misleading: It was not a full-time contract, and she was not given the opportunity to make a large-scale ballet for the 100-dancer strong company on its main stage until 18 long years later.

Which leads us to Marston’s newest commission, “Mrs. Robinson,” for another one of the world’s top companies, the San Francisco Ballet. As Marston’s title indicates, the ballet reconsiders the infamous female character in the 1967 movie “The Graduate.” Mrs. Robinson — a wealthy, middle-aged, booze-swilling, San Francisco housewife — coldly seduces Benjamin, the just-graduated son of her suburban friends.

“I am often drawn to characters,” said Marston, “who somehow live beyond their original source. People know the name of Mrs. Robinson and what she represents. I love challenging that expectation.”

Marston’s ballet does just that. Created with the dramaturg Edward Kemp, 32 dancers and set to an original jazz-inflected score by Terry Davies, “Mrs. Robinson” goes beyond the concluding moments of the film, when Benjamin rides off into the sunset after having captured the heart of none other than Mrs. Robinson’s daughter.

Marston’s inspiration for choreographing more than what the story provides hinged on an important discovery. In 1963, the year that the novelist Charles Webb wrote “The Graduate,” Betty Friedan’s “Feminine Mystique” — about the unfulfilled lives of American housewives (“the problem with no name”) — hit bookstores and sparked second-wave feminism. Marston imagined a life-changing event for her character: “What if Mrs. Robinson read about Betty Friedan’s concept called ‘the problem with no name’ and thought, ‘I am going to leave my husband’?”

Marston’s ballet imagines a future for Mrs. Robinson in which the “problem with no name” affects large numbers of American women, represented by 18 female corps dancers. “We see them,” says Marston, “in their past lives being perfect housewives. Then we see, in increasing numbers, their lives breaking down. It’s not the usual revolution, but there is a revolution. They group together, hand on shoulders.”

Marston’s ballets shine the spotlight on under-investigated female characters from literature and history. Her ambitions can also be understood in terms of her loyalty to the syntax of classical ballet. While Western history’s most lauded female choreographers, such as Martha Graham and Pina Bausch, have shirked ballet, Marston has remained faithful to its key traditions, such as the expressive and ethereal qualities of female pointe dancing, whose shoe remains the most identifiable symbol of ballet. But like Graham and Bausch, Marston is reaching beyond ballet to develop her choreographic voice. While working for two decades in Europe, she absorbed the aesthetics of modernist theater, known for distilling complex narratives and underscoring the quotidian gesture.

Unfortunately, none of Marston’s 75 works have entered ballet companies’ permanent repertoires, and that is not surprising. Those works continue to be the 19th-century full-length story ballets, such as “Giselle,” “Coppélia,” “Swan Lake” and “Sleeping Beauty,” with their narrowly drawn set of aspirations for their female characters. In the wake of the #MeToo movement of 2017, those ballet narratives have been criticized as sexist and conversations about ballet companies patriarchally bound culture have surfaced.

With this shakeup, Marston has become an asset and a means to remedy a long-standing problem. In quick succession, Joffrey Ballet in 2019 and London’s Royal Ballet in 2020 commissioned Marston to choreograph big ballets with full ensembles. To date, she has made more than 75 works for companies across five continents and served as the artistic director (2007-2013) of the chamber-size Swiss company, Ballet Bern.

Marston credits activists like Dance Data Project founder Elizabeth Yntema and former Guardian dance critic Luke Jennings for working to demand change in the ballet world. The Dance Data Project recently reported that among the 72 largest ballet companies, only 29% of its resident choreographers are female and only 36% are artistic directors.

Marston, however, doesn’t see herself as a spokesperson: “I’m here to make the work and to make good work.” Still, Marston said she is encouraged that “more women are creating and leading companies,” like Tamara Rojo, a former principal dancer of The Royal Ballet recently named as San Francisco Ballet’s first female artistic director. In 2023, Marston will take the helm of Ballet Zurich, having earned her position by becoming that rare thing: an experienced female ballet choreographer.

Marston calls “Mrs. Robinson” her “first American ballet,” and admits it has been a rocky ride. The pandemic delayed the premiere by almost three years. “The dancers,” nonetheless, “have really stuck with it,” said Marston, who intermittently worked with them over Zoom. “I feel it has only gotten better through that brewing rather than growing stale.” The same could be said of Cathy Marston’s remarkable choreographic career.

IF YOU GO

“Mrs. Robinson”

When: Feb. 1-12

Where: S.F. Ballet, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.

Tickets: (415) 865-2000, tickets@sfballet.org

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