Renowned British Choreographer Cathy Marston on her inspirations, creative process and words of advice

Renowned British Choreographer and Artistic Director Cathy Marston is world famous and critically acclaimed for her incredible works created for companies from The Royal Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Northern Ballet, English National, Cuban National, Ballet Black, and so many more. 

This month Marston saw the world premiere of her interpretation of Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke with Houston Ballet and we had the privilege of discussing her 25 year career, her choreographic approach to creating narrative works, and her inspiration for Summer and Smoke

Summer and Smoke tells the story of Alma Winemiller, a minister’s daughter who is in love with John Buchanan Jr., the son of a doctor. It explores themes of love, spirituality and repression as Alma and John struggle to reconcile their different worldviews and desires.

Houston Ballet Principals Jessica Collado as Alma, Chase O’Connell as John and Soloist Mackenzie Richter as the Angel in Cathy Marston’s Summer and Smoke. Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox (2023), Courtesy of Houston Ballet.

This podcast chat has been edited for length and clarity.

What inspired you to become a dancer?

When I was a child I did a lot of different things; I wanted to be an actress for quite a long time, but unfortunately my parents couldn’t find an acting class at that age. So I did all the things that might contribute to my acting career later on and one of those things, of course, involved dancing.

I actually started with tap, which I love. It didn’t last too many years, but it stuck, and I tend to always throw a tap step or two into my choreography – it comes in handy sometimes. So I began with tap, and then the teacher said I really should start ballet. 

I went to a normal school until I was 16, not a ballet school. My parents were both teachers and they felt strongly that I should get a normal education before concentrating on ballet. But I went to summer schools often with The Royal Ballet School or RAD. And when I was 16 I got a place at The Royal Ballet Upper School, and by that point my heart was definitely set on becoming a dancer, although the choreography took over pretty soon after that.

When did you discover your love of choreographing?

It was from one of the summer schools that I learnt what being a choreographer was – although I think I’d always been choreographing. At The Royal Ballet Summer School they had three students in the Upper School create works on the summer school students, and I was in a piece by Christopher Hampson (Director of Scottish Ballet) and I loved it. It was, by far, the highlight of the two-week course.

When I joined the school a few months later, you could choose to sign up as a choreographer and then create for your colleagues and your peers – and I was like ‘absolutely, I wanted to do this thing’.

I was so lucky to have brilliant teachers like Norman Morrice and David Drew MBE. Norman Morrice was an incredible person because he had directed both The Royal Ballet and Rambert, which is an amazing achievement. And he was so quiet and softly spoken, but wise. David Drew was his opposite, in that he was very loud and would go in with two feet and say things as he saw them, rather bluntly. But they just worked brilliantly together and were very supportive during my two years at the Upper School.

It was the choreography that got me through; the dance was hard going and of course I still wanted to be a dancer, but it was really the choreographic course that inspired me more than anything else. So I knew at that point that that’s where I really wanted to head. 

Houston Ballet Principal Jessica Collado as Alma and Artists of Houston Ballet in Cathy Marston’s Summer and Smoke. Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox (2023), Courtesy of Houston Ballet.

How do you describe your choreographic vocabulary and the subjects that interest you?

I think I’ve crossed the gap between ballet and contemporary dance vocabulary – that’s been there right from the start and that’s just my natural way of moving. I joke sometimes that at The Royal Ballet School, I’d stand at the side of a pas de deux class — you do it in two groups — and I’d be watching the other group, and if someone would make a mistake and sort of fall off balance a bit, I’d get quite inspired by that because something quite interesting would often happen. So, it’s definitely within that world. I do use ballet technique, I love working on pointe when it’s right for the character. There are some characters that actually feel that they should be on flat or even in barefoot. But I do find that the pointe shoe can enlarge the dance vocabulary, amplify it, in a large theatre. Ballet isn’t naturalistic, it speaks loud like opera and pointe helps I often find. 

Over the years I’ve tried not to be boxed into a specific area, but in 2013 after I’d directed the Bern Ballet for six years, it became so clear to me that the pieces I really loved making, that really made my heart sing, were the narrative pieces. And that’s been there since the beginning, but I’d resisted being put in that corner. Then I thought, “Actually, you know what? I really like being in this corner. That’s fine.”

And it’s weird how once you make that decision so many opportunities open up. Because I think from a commissioner’s point of view, and I understand that now from both sides, you want to know what you’re commissioning. You don’t want someone who says, “Oh, I could do anything you want.” That’s useful sometimes but, actually, you want to work with someone who really knows what they want, and you can then programme it. 

And so for me, making that decision to specialise was quite liberating – I make narrative work, and I love it. Very occasionally, I still will make a work that’s more musically inspired. And in fact, I made one in the pandemic and another one quite recently for Joffrey Ballet to Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll. And even in those works that are not based on a book or a play or a biography, they always end up having some sort of narrative thread, because it’s just how my mind works.

I like working with meaning, whether there’s a character that I’m specifically trying to portray, for example, Alma or John in Summer and Smoke, or whether it’s an abstract character that I’ve invented, I have to go from somewhere. And often, that somewhere is word-based. That’s just my method now; I define the character or emotional world that I’m trying to convey before I actually start making movement.

Houston Ballet Principals Jessica Collado as Alma, Chase O’Connell as John and Soloist Mackenzie Richter as the Angel in Cathy Marston’s Summer and Smoke. Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox (2023), Courtesy of Houston Ballet

How do you approach making the movement and what is your process in the studio?

I’ll prepare very deeply before I get into the studio, so by the time I arrive in the studio I’ve identified the story, I’ve done a lot of research, I’ve made a structure — which I call a scenario — I’ve worked with a composer or I’ve chosen the music, so I’ve got a template. I’ve worked with the designer, so I know what the design is going to look like, so all of those elements are in place.

I’ve also written lists of words which are kind of distillations of that research. The list of words are usually for each character or group of characters. Sometimes the character has multiple lists. So for example, if you’re going to create Romeo and Juliet, obviously there’s transformation throughout that piece, so they start with one list of words, but those words will change during the course of the ballet. 

I’ll talk those through with the dancers and often try and expand on them with the dancers. Because I find that the more I can engage their minds early on with the character development, character definition, it’ll feed into the choreography straight away. So we’ll talk about the character, often sitting down in the middle of the studio, and then we’ll stand up and begin to create a vocabulary for that character which isn’t, at that point, connected to a specific scene. 

Often we’ll start looking at how the character walks – do they walk toe heel or heel toe or turned out or on pointe or heavily, how do they walk? And are there any particular hand positions that they might hold? Just simple things like that. Then we’ll create movement phrases using those words as little prompts or cues.

We’ll have a few phrases for each character that we’ll save in videos – it gives the dancers a vocabulary to draw on, so then when we get to the point after a few days or a week when we settle into the rehearsal room and say, “Okay, we’re now working on this pas de deux or this group scene,” they have things that they can offer me. With group scenes it’s very difficult – you can’t tell 10 people what to do all at the same time, unless it’s a unison scene — which I use sparingly. I have questions about unison. So if the dancers have something that they can bring to the table that they know is in the right world, they can do that more confidently and more fluently. And it’s very collaborative process. 

What inspired you to select Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke?

It actually came up around 2017-18, I’d been invited to create a piece for San Francisco Ballet for their Unbound Festival, which was 12 choreographers making half-hour pieces that they were all premiering in a week. It was very intense. And it was an opportunity for me, being the first piece that I created in the US, to look at American literature. So I read a ton. And in San Francisco I actually fell upon Edith Wharton’s novella Ethan Frome, and that became a ballet called Snowblind, which is currently being performed and premiered in Atlanta, and it’s now going to Nashville Ballet, and I’m going to bring it to Ballett Zurich in October.

In the course of finding that piece, I read some Tennessee Williams and came across Summer and Smoke. So that’s been in the back of my mind as a piece that I’d like to create. 

Then I was asked by American Ballet Theatre to make a new work and I suggested Summer and Smoke. And we were planning that and then the pandemic came and it got delayed and shelved. Then Stanton Welch (Houston Ballet Artistic Director) asked me to make a piece for the company. And I thought, Summer and Smoke would be great for Houston, being in the south. As it was looking tricky for ABT after the pandemic, I asked if both companies would be interested in making this a co-production; and they were, so we decided to create it in Houston and then in the autumn it will go to ABT.

Houston Ballet Principal Jessica Collado as Alma and Soloist Mackenzie Richter as the Angel with Artists of Houston Ballet in Cathy Marston’s Summer and Smoke. Photo by Amitava Sarkar (2023), Courtesy of Houston Ballet.

How did you interpret Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke characters for the stage?

Take Alma – in the play, she’s got this sort of nervous laugh, and she gets breathless and her heart beats too fast. So I find visual interpretations of those qualities. She’s pulled, often, in two directions, so there’s little hand gestures where she pushes something away and pulls it back at the same time.

The dancers actually gave me this wonderful good luck gift, some earrings in the sort of shape of an ‘S’. And they said, “Well, the S’s are all over the piece.” And I hadn’t really thought about it, but they are, like Yin and Yang, the S-type of shape. Take the set  — you need a two-level set for the play to provide two separate spaces, one that could be John’s house or surgery and one that could be Alma’s. So we have two levels, but it’s not in a straight line across the back of the stage – there’s an S-shaped curve to it and there’s a fountain curve, where an angel lives and a slightly larger platform in a circular shape. 

There’s also a lot of S’s in the choreography, which I think must have been subconscious – the angel often moves her arms with one arm curved upwards, and one arm curved downwards, and she swaps them in a sort of turning step. That’s one of her motifs. We must have talked about it to have got in there, but I’d forgotten it, to be honest. But this two-way opposite motif is certainly integrated a fair bit. And the swirl, the circular swirl of everything, is part of the choreography. 

And then John has different characteristics; his material is blunter, he uses flexed feet or he’ll do joking things like he’ll jump into a forward roll and he’ll surprise Alma or he often has his hands in his pocket. He’s more sunken into his lower back and his hips and a bit more casual.  

What do you hope audiences take away from Summer and Smoke?

I think there’s two things. Hopefully, they will engage with the story and feel moved by the story, and feel proud of Alma or happy for Alma — because at the end she actually steps into the fountain and splashes herself and renews herself, and starts her life again in a way. So I hope there will be a certain engagement with that journey. 

From a slightly more philosophical perspective, I feel like we’re in a time in the world where there’s this pressure to choose — are you in this camp or that camp — on so many different themes. I’m British, and of course Brexit was a big thing. Are you for Brexit or against Brexit? So many subjects, you have to be one or another. I think Alma and John are such a clear example of that. Do you go through life from a religious perspective or a bodily perspective? And actually, it doesn’t need to be that cut and dry. There’s so much space in between those two polarities. I hope that if you did spend time thinking about that, having seen the piece or read the piece, that you might be encouraged to look at other people’s points of view a bit more.

Artists of Houston Ballet in Cathy Marston’s Summer and Smoke. Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox (2023), Courtesy of Houston Ballet.

You’re the 12th woman who’s choreographed a world premiere for the Houston Ballet. What has been your experiences as a female choreographer?

My experience goes back a long way now. I mentioned David Drew and Norman Morrice at the beginning. Interestingly, it was back in 1994 that I was at The Royal Ballet School, and they really drew to my attention that there were so few, almost no, female choreographers, and they were very encouraging from that perspective. I think they would’ve been encouraging anyway, but they made sure that I was aware of the situation. 

Did I feel that it was a problem? Yes, probably, in ways – but that would be another interview. But over the years, I think I did feel that there were difficulties that I had to get over or around. But it certainly has started to change in a massive way.

Maybe 10 years ago now, there were a few people that started to really speak up, and one of them was a critic for The Observer, Luke Jennings. I remember he wrote a significant article, which must’ve been for The Observer in the UK and it created some momentum. It certainly feels like in the last five or six years things have really started to change. And in America, the Dance Data Project is making a difference, bringing the statistics clearly to the table. 

I don’t like being called a ‘female choreographer’. As incoming Director of Ballett Zurich (from Summer) I actually just wrote an email to our press department saying, please never put the word ‘female’ in front of the word ‘choreographer’. I don’t want to see it. Because we will have choreographers of all genders, or any gender, on stage, and they’re there because I love their work.

Having said that, I do think it’s important to be aware of the diverse voices that you are bringing and giving opportunities to. So I can understand both points of view, but it does bother me, in press material, to use those words together, because you would never do it for a male choreographer. I also understand that the reason it happens is for good intentions, so I can live with it, and I am sometimes in programmes that are described as ‘programmes of three or have many female choreographers’, and it’s okay. But it won’t be the approach I’ll take in Zurich. 

Finally, what words of advice would you give to other aspiring choreographers?

You have to just stick with it. I’ve had a slow-burn career. And ultimately, that’s probably the big difference that I see between my trajectory and that of male colleagues and peers of a similar generation. It just happened slower. I don’t regret that at all, because it’s given me time to find my way. So I really have absolutely no regret about the way it’s gone, but I have had to stick with it. 

And now, as a director, I’m receiving so many emails from pupils that are wanting me to watch their work and get opportunities. And I see the other side, where realistically you have one or two opportunities a year to offer to other choreographers if you’re going to present a repertoire that’s bringing in some existing work, some new work, and some of your work. There are not that many chances. So you just have to stick with it and keep trying. And if you get an answer from someone, that’s great. If you don’t get an answer from someone, don’t take it personally. They’re under a huge amount of pressure too. 

Also, use any opportunity you can to develop yourself and find new skills, because you never know where one thing is going to lead. That’s something I’ve also experienced, that sometimes it can be unclear why you take up an opportunity; maybe it’s not really well paid, but you never know where that’s going to lead. As much as you can, take on and learn from different moments, just do them. Just be open and do them.