Cathy Marston’s Riveting Dance Warms Wharton’s Frosty Story
by Pamela Feinsilber
Two words come to mind after watching “Snowblind,” a gripping dance tale inspired by Edith Wharton’s 1911 novella Ethan Frome. Immediately after: Wow. Once its spell lifts slightly: More.
Not more of the ballet itself, which at 31 minutes is perfect, given its intensity. When an exhilarating ballet such as “Don Quixote,” which opened the season, concludes, an audience can’t wait to burst into applause. With “Snowblind,” a few seconds of stunned silence indicates that we need to take a deep breath first.
We want more by British choreographer Cathy Marston. She has created some 50 ballets, but “Snowblind,” with its deep dive into human emotion, is the first presented by San Francisco Ballet. In fact, it was created for this company, with its world premiere here last year. I wouldn’t mind if it were in the lineup every year.
You don’t need to be familiar with the book to understand the impossible web tangling Ethan Frome; Zeena, his sickly wife; and Mattie Silver, the new household help. Ethan and Zeena never dance the usual romantic pas de deux: When he lifts her, it’s because she seems too weak to stand. When he carries her, she can’t walk upstairs to her bed, alone. Zeena is literally Ethan’s back-bending burden.
Meanwhile, Ethan is just eking out a living on his land. How could his poor starved soul not fall in love with lively young Mattie?
The two lead-role casts are wonderfully adept at expressing in dance, body language, and mime the characters’ deeply conflicted feelings. Ulrik Birkkjaer and Luke Ingham both make a strong yet despairing Ethan. Mathilde Froustey and Dores Andre beautifully convey Mattie’s life-loving quality and her hopeless passion.
But looking at what they’re asked to do as Zeena, Jennifer Stahl and Madison Keesler have to be the most impressive. Ballet is the most athletic form of art you can imagine, and they convey Zeena’s physical frailty and weakness in toe shoes!
The rest of the cast portray townspeople and the ever-falling snow into which, finally, Ethan and Mattie dramatically fling themselves, again and again, hoping to find an escape from Zeena in death.
Theater lovers will adore Marston’s work, because she is partial to literary sources. In recent years, she’s created ballets based on “Three Sisters,” “Blood Wedding,” “Jane Eyre,” and “Hamlet” from Gertrude’s point of view. If “Snowblind” indicates her dancemaking gifts, she is astoundingly good at creating emotionally expressive movement and complex relations. Our hearts get a workout as our minds admire her intricate, imaginative choreography.
Here, Marston has created a less hellish, more hopeful ending to Wharton’s work. When Zeena finds Ethan and Mattie, alive but irreparably damaged, in the snow, she tries to save them both. The final moments of “Snowblind,” with the three bearing one another’s weight, forever inseparably linked in mutual support and even love, are truly moving. More, please.
“Snowblind”—choreographed by Cathy Marston, for San Francisco Ballet, on Program 3: “In Space & Time,” with “The Fifth Element” and “Etudes,” at the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, through Sunday, February 24, 2019. Info: sfballet.org
Tuesday, February 19 and Wednesday, February 20, at 7:30:
Ethan Frome: Luke Ingham, Zeena Frome: Madison Keesler, and Mattie Silver: Dores Andre.
Friday, February 22, at 8:00 and Sunday, February 24, at 2:00:
Ethan Frome: Ulrik Birkkjaer, Zeena Frome: Jennifer Stahl, and Mattie Silver: Mathilde Froustey.