No ballet based on a novel can be a substitute for reading the original. But in this production of Jane Eyre by the Shanghai Ballet, choreographer Patrick de Bana's focus is not on replacing or replicating Charlotte Brontë's text, but instead in taking inspiration from the lead characters. The title role takes centre stage, as does Mr Rochester, but the 'mad' wife Bertha, confined for most of the novel to the attic, also becomes a key figure.
The ballet commences mid-way through Brontë's narrative, as Jane (Xiang Jieyan) arrives at Rochester's house to begin work as governess to his (unseen in this ballet) ward. From her very first steps across Rochester's land, her movements are mirrored and haunted by Bertha (Fan Xiaofeng), who the choreographer sees as the "eternal shadow of Jane Eyre". But confusingly, inside the house, Jane's movements are also echoed by the housekeeper, Mrs Fairfax, making de Bana's vision somewhat muddied.
Nevertheless, the three characters portrayed are engaging and multi-dimensional. Jane starts out shy and restrained but blossoms into a confident, sexual woman under Rochester's attention. He (Wu Husheng), in turn, begins by trying greedily to have his metaphorical cake and eat it too, but softens as he sees the pain of his two women. Bertha, the most interesting character, is danced beautifully by Xiaofeng, and goes from anger to heartbreak to bliss, all conveyed impeccably in the emotive and varied tones of de Bana's choreography.
The ballet's narrative is hard to follow and there are sections that don't make sense. For example, when Bertha holds her wedding dress at the end of Act I, the intention is to convey her unhappiness and illusion, but the red confetti she is showered with seems at odds with this idea. There are also a number of unclearly-defined characters who make fairly brief appearances and have little chance to assert themselves fully into the storyline. The music is an eclectic mix of composers, from Elgar and Debussy to Britten, and it works better in some sections than others.
We love Brontë's book and the ballet makes us long to re-read it, with an undoubtedly renewed interest in the 'mad' and hidden character of Rochester's long-suffering wife. The Shanghai Ballet's performance is excellent and though the choreography could use a clearer narrative, Jane Eyre – in ballet form – is certainly work a look.
Jane Eyre is at the London Coliseum, St Martin's Lane, Westminster, WC2N 4ES until Saturday 17 August. Tickets, priced £20-75, are available from the London Coliseum website. Londonist received a complimentary ticket to this performance.
Pictured: Jane Eyre poster image