In her first work for San Francisco Ballet (SF 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 love triangle.
In developing her ballets, Marston begins with emotions. She uses prompts in creating movement for specific characters and situations: among them “torn” and “hope” for Ethan, “numb” and “bitter” for Zeena, “dreamy” and “hyperventilate” for Mattie, “caress” 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. This found movement, rooted in emotion, “brings a few non-balletic steps in, which I think helps pepper [the choreography],” Marston says. “It’s like putting flecks of black on a watercolor.”
Abstraction is key for Marston, in both choreography and design. “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 I will keep challenging the designers to reconsider how we can suggest something without spelling it out. I love ambiguity in the right moment; it can be quite beautiful.”
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. For the ballet’s ending, Marston chose Arvo Pärt’s Lamentate—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.”