Charlotte Brontë's 1847 novel Jane Eyre has long been beloved by readers around the world; not only for its vivid first person narrative but for its story of Victorian-era female empowerment. Jane does not come from a nice family, she cannot rely on her looks, she has to work to survive, and when confronted with the fact that the man she loves is also a married man, she stays true to her moral core and walks away from the relationship. So her "Reader, I married him" happy ending is earned.

Devon Teuscher and James Whiteside
© Gene Schiavone

On paper Brontë's novel would seem like good material for a ballet. That and the growing movement to make more female choreographers' voices heard made British choreographer Cathy Marston's Jane Eyre seem like a perfect commission for American Ballet Theatre. Marston's Jane Eyre already premiered at the Northern Ballet in 2016. Expectations were high.

Things started out promisingly. Young Jane's Dickensian childhood was vividly portrayed by Catherine Hurlin who was wonderfully expressive. Her Jane was spunky and intelligent – she fought off her cousins, she settled into life at the orphanage, and in the ballet's best pas de deux she happily played with her friend Helen (Anabel Katsnelson).

Of course the heart of the story lies with the adult Jane (Devon Teuscher) and her time as governess to the mysterious Mr. Rochester (James Whiteside). Alas, it is exactly at this moment when Marston's ballet falls apart, and never recovers.

For one, the ballet is dreary to look at. The score compiled by and composed by Philip Feeney is monotonous. It sounds like movie music with the relentlessly moody melodies occasionally sprinkled with tinkly piano ditties. The sets by Patrick Kinmoth were a series of grey backdrops that moved around to reveal... more grey backdrops. The story is told in a rather A-B-C fashion, but each scene change is accompanied by "D-men" – a corps of sinister looking guys who crawl around Jane. Why?

But it is Marston's severely limited ballet vocabulary that kills this ballet. Marston's choreography is heavily influenced by Kenneth MacMillan in that all depictions of male-female relationships are limited to acrobatic lifts, women being dragged around on the floor, contorted torsos and flailing limbs.

Cassandra Trenary, James Whiteside and Devon Teuscher
© Gene Schiavone

I could accept that Jane and Rochester's relationship would be depicted by very acrobatic pas de deux, as this is supposed to be a relationship full of passion. But when Rochester lifted his housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax (Sarah Lane) in an aggressive pas with upside down lifts one didn't know what to think. Was Marston implying that Rochester and Mrs. Fairfax had a sexual relationship?

About Jane and Rochester and their anguished pas. There were so many of them, and all with the same acrobatic lifts, socket-popping drags, and limb flailing. When they met they had an anguished pas de deux. After the first Mrs. Rochester (Cassandra Trenary) almost burned the house down, they had another anguished pas. In the second act, after Jane expresses jealousy of Blanche Ingram (Stella Abrera), there's another anguished pas. Then it's their wedding day, and another one. Jane finds out that Rochester is married, and she leaves him, but not before another pas de deux. To drive home the point that this is the most anguished pas of all, Jane is actually lifted upside down, splits her legs, bares her crotch, and we see her panties. And after Mrs. Rochester dies in a fire and Mr. Rochester is blind, he and Jane reunite in a final anguished pas de deux.

The aggressive partnering actually changes one's perception of the characters. Is Jane really a strong moral beacon if she's repeatedly lifted like a sack of potatoes? Even worse, when Mrs. Rochester burns down the house Rochester tries to stop her, leading to another fraught pas de deux. He lifts her like a wheelbarrow and then proceeds to take her from behind. The choreography makes him so violent that one worries for Jane – is this really a man anyone wants to marry?

The dancing was generally fine, although the limited dance vocabulary made it hard to judge. Devon Teuscher has a low-key, foursquare quality to her dancing that is appropriate for Jane. But she's also somewhat dull and glum, without that inner passion that is so vivid in Brontë's writing. James Whiteside did his best in the thankless role of Rochester. His upper body certainly gets a workout with so much aggressive partnering, but he is not a Byronic personality and was reduced to scowling. Stella Abrera was very glamorous in the tiny role of Berthe. Cassandra Trenary's (Mrs. Rochester) talents were wasted in a role that called for little than running around with disheveled hair.

If you love Jane Eyre, stick to the novel. There's more female empowerment in those pages than in anything Marston cooked up for the stage.