This transcript is from an interview that was first published on 28th of May 2018. This transcript has been edited slightly to help with clarity, the audio of this episode and more information can be found here.
This interview came from season produced to complement a special report exploring gender equality in Australian Dance. You can find the full report: Turning Pointe: Gender Equality in Australian Dance at https://www.delvingintodance.com/turning-pointe. .
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The interview started by asking, where did dance start.
Cathy Marston: Dance began for me with tap, I loved movie musicals - Fred and Ginger, those sorts of people. And I started to do that fairly soon. And the teacher said I should try ballet too. But for a long time, it was really with an intention to come to musical theatre - I loved storytelling and theatre right from the get go. My parents were both English teachers, so I was taken often to theatre, to the Royal Shakespeare Company and so on. It was only when I went on a summer school at the Royal Ballet School, the White Lodge, that I realized it’s to actually deliver something that really had a bigger purpose and that attracted me. I'm not sure I thought about it in those words at that point. But looking back, I realized that discipline, and the space of storytelling was something that really pulled me in, so it became more and more about ballet. And then when I was 16, I auditioned for the Royal Ballet School and got in. As I went there I also did a summer school again, where some of the students practiced choreography with the lower summer school students, and I love with this part of the day - it was at the end of the day and evenings, and it was the most inspiring moment and so when I got to school, I wanted to choreograph and be part of that program.
Andrew: So what is that process, or what was the love of the choreography to the making of work, what was that about?
Cathy Marston: I love the collaborative aspect of it, I love that it was non-technical. So I've been a part of a rehearsal or class and I watch for the mistakes and then see where the possibilities lie in the mistakes. What happened if you fell off balance and things in the technical classes where they went wrong? I loved working with design students, so the Royal Ballet School did a collaboration with Central Saint Martin’s School of Art and Design, so we got to work with young designers and that was so much fun. And likewise, with composers I was already attached with a couple of composers in my student days; they bringing together a different form which is really exciting to me. I didn't want to be boxed as a storytelling choreographer. I think even then, when I look back, the form of trying to bring together ideas into some sort of narrative form wasn't anything that I recognise now.
Andrew: Because of course, that's such a strong feature of your work, your parents obviously being English teachers, and your passion for literature. Is there a connection there between the storytelling through dance as well?
Cathy Marston: Yeah, I'm sure. I mean, as a child, I was read to and was reading a lot of books and loved that. And now I've got two children and I equally love reading to them - I’m sure that was a heavy influence. And likewise, by taking me to see plays and how those stories could be staged was influential and I love going to theatre now, that's a big part of the cultural experience for me. But I think for me, looking back, dance was always a way of expressing an idea; it wasn't in any way a sport for me. It wasn't about the physical activity although obviously an important part of the learning process. But I was interested in what each step meant. And even doing very technical exams, like the RAD syllabus, I actually took that syllabus book to bed at 14 and write next to every plié what that particular port du bras meant to me.
So I think it was always about telling rather than how it was happening as a medium for expression and storytelling,
Andrew: What is it the dance can do to the other art forms or performance art forms might not be able to do?
Cathy Marston: I think a lot came from things in different ways and dance has particular ways to approach emotion and our inner world, so dance can be very ambiguous. But that ambiguity can also be incredibly precise. We can know, we can recognize an ambiguity, but you can't explain that recognition and dancers can tap into that in a very interesting way. And I think dance does relationships really well and it obviously can't as Balanchine said, explain mother in law for example, or technical things; it doesn't talk about money brilliantly and legal affairs. I find myself wanting to do a ballet for Hedda Gabler, for example - there are certain parts the story that I haven't quite solved yet in order to do that. So the connections between people, I think dance can really get straight to the heart of.
Andrew: One of the reasons I started really enjoying dance was coming from a theatre background and being able to go to a dance performance and be swept away by the skill, the technique, the different style of storytelling, whereas in theatre, I would get very critical and kind of almost be like, why have they done that? Or, that's an interesting decision. Do you find that theatre is a special dance space for you? Are there other art forms where you can kind of escape into or is it always still dance for you? [7.52]
Cathy Marston: Gosh, I think that really depends on the creator. So there are different sorts of theatre and different sorts of things. And many times I'll be watching a performance and know that’s not something that I could or would make, but that I can admire it very much. And then sometimes the reverse is true that might be in either a director, choreographer approaching a specific theme or story and I really disagree with the way that they have approached it. So both can happen. I think one influential experience for me was being based for a long time now in Switzerland, in German speaking Switzerland and when I came here I came to direct The Bern Ballet, and most of my choreographic experience had been as a British based choreographer, internationally, but it was really my anchor and coming from a storytelling, British background - things like costumes we absolutely approach costume in a kind of BBC costume drama way. Something is, for example, made a ballet on (Henrik) Ibsen’s, Ghost, and it was costumed beautifully in the period more or less 1900, and the critics here were really after me for that. I mean, they the German attitude is something called Regisseur Theater, which means directors theatre - the director and in this case, the choreographer should interpret the text, rather than put it on stage as written. So in England rather, the writer is the big boss, and you as the director or the choreographer say, you're trying to find the truth in the writing and put that on stage. And in Germany, it's really not about that; it's the director's vision. And so he can be quite reckless - that’s a bad choice of words, that you can cut the text up inside out, upside down, you could do whatever you want with the source in order to convey your vision. And so I really had to think about that. And I when signed a contract for three years at the time, but I ended up staying six in that particular job.
And I could have just ignored it and said, ‘well, that brought me here, I'm going to do my thing.’ Or I could listen to what the criticism was. And I realized that what was important to me was telling stories. And that was still something quite unfashionable and unusual at the time. But what I hadn't really ever considered properly was how to tell the stories. I followed the people that had been in front of my leaders, my mentors, and so looking around at how other people were doing it in Europe, as opposed to Britain was really interesting and approaching costume, I mean, they had a good point, if you put a huge frock on every dancer, however, many hours I spent inventing a vocabulary movement specific to that character, it was just going to get covered up by the dress. I really started to question, well do I need a big dress to give a sense of this period? Or do we really need to give a sense of this period? Or do we need to use these props? Or how much or how little can we use to suggest a location so that you ignite the audience's imagination straightaway, make them lean in and work a bit rather than delivering it all on a plate? And so that was a really interesting experience for me and it was about dance and theatre it was just about a different theatrical culture. [11.48]
Andrew: And did that change your practice going forward in your thinking, or is that something that is very much -
Cathy Marston: Shaped who I am? I mean, I think that's been really exciting to see how my journey has affected the work that I make, and I still absolutely feel my British roots and I love going to see British theatre but going to see European theatre is equally influential and literature from places and attitude to music and collage of music all of those things that are now part of me. [12:23]
Andrew: What are you working on at the moment?
Cathy Marston: Little portfolio of current projects, a couple of the next things coming up I'll be making Lady Chatterley's Lover for Les Grands Ballets in Montreal and I'll be working on a ballet inspired by Queen Victoria for Northern Ballet, I'm making ballet for Ballet Nacional de Cuba and that's going to be more of an abstract piece that’s loosely based on Prospero from The Tempest and some other characters in The Tempest. I have various pieces in different stages of development.
Andrew: What was your process into choreography as a career or as an idea that could be something that could be a job?
Cathy Marston: It's pretty early for me. And so as I said, I start choreographing when I was at the Royal Ballet School and had some talent for it, probably more talent than ballet and say, when I left school, I got a contract with the Zurich Ballet as a dancer. But there were several people at the Royal Opera House in London that wanted to continue supporting me as a choreographer. So I got some early invitations to come back and work on Royal Ballet dancers as small projects, one of which we've seen by Sir Anthony Dowell, who at that point was director of The Royal Ballet, and he then commissioned me to create a piece for the company.
I was very lucky at that moment to be working as a dancer in Luzern Ballet in Switzerland, with a British director, Richard Wherlock. And he recognised the opportunity; he saw that it was a really exciting thing for me to do. And for three years, let me go back to the Royal Ballet, once a year to make a piece which is incredible stuff at 21 years old. You get exposure with the top companies straight away. And then when I was 24, I changed jobs as a dancer to the ballet. And I was able to get that time off to choreograph. And I couldn't, I couldn't find that outlet within that job. So I decided to stop being a full time dancer and go back to London and freelance, partly dancing in projects. I started primarily giving priority to choreography and it became a job. I mean, I got commissions internationally and soon became the first Associate Artistic at The Royal Opera House. And The Opera House at that point had recently been renovated and there were two new theatres, The Clore and the Linbury Foyer, which needed to be programmed and Deborah Bull was a principal dancer at that time and started programming. She created the Department of the Opera House called are ROH2, and her job was to automate all spaces of the Royal Opera House, except the main stage and she had various strategies, but one of which was to create this position of Associate Artists. And that was a gift because you know, I had a regular gig, and I could work sometimes with Royal Ballet dancers, but other times, they hired freelancers for me. At that point, I think five years later, in about 2006, I thought I felt like I wanted my group of people with whom I could work regularly. And so I started to create my own company, the Cathy Marsten Project, and we managed to get our first four books, we got our first Arts Council funding.
And literally about a week later I got this phone call from Switzerland, saying would I interview for the Directorship of The Bern Ballet, which was too good of an opportunity to miss. I interviewed and got the job and ended up moving back to direct the company, which was wonderful. Because at that point, I could easily choreograph a couple of pieces a year, one full evening and one half evening. But I was also able to commission other choreographers, which I loved and bring together a group of dancers who I absolutely respected, and with whom I could build my ideas and develop my ideas that lasted until gosh, 2013? And then I went freelance again. I'm still based in Switzerland with my family. But I travel pretty much all over the world. At the moment, I feel incredibly lucky with some of the commissions that I'm getting in incredibly exciting places. I was just in San Francisco, which was wonderful, premiering a piece called, Snow Blind for the San Francisco Ballet, and that was based on the Edith Wharton novella, Ethan Frome. And as I said, I'm going to be in Cuba in a month and Canada - I feel really privileged to be in this position right now.
Andrew: It’s amazing how the importance of those early opportunities is something that frequently comes up in conversations that I've had with many choreographers and people. I guess investing time and providing those opportunities at some of those really critical points. And that seems to be the case with yourself, I guess the remit of companies is to maintain their audiences. So to take a punt and provide opportunities for people who are unknown can come with a financial risk for the company. How important is it for these companies to consider and continue providing opportunities from emerging choreographers?
Cathy Marston: Now I think companies have different remits, for example, as Director of The Bern Ballet, I realised that I had a relatively small budget, but I did have two stages and a group of 14 very creative dancers and a very nice ballet studio and I could have them all year you know, there's opportunity in that and ironically what we can do relatively cheaply is commission up and coming, emerging choreographers to make new works. What gets really expensive is when you want to license the masters like Forsythe, Kylián’s ect. Then you're paying a lot of money for their fee, and also the person that comes to teach it and not to mention the other the other members of the team. So what I did in Bern Ballet was almost exclusively commission creations and I worked really hard to be on the pulse and try to recognise and the choreographers who were just stepping out so for example, in my first season, I'm really proud to say, I commissioned by Alexander Ekman and Hofesh Shechter in the same program. And I think that for both of them it was the first piece that they made outside of their own company or at least in Alex’s case NDT2. So you can take a punt you just have to realise what sort of company you are and as a young choreographer, look for those companies and recognize the opportunities and being strategic about where you try to build relationships.
Andrew: That's amazing that you program both of them, you know in a season.
Cathy Marston: Together in one evening, can imagine! I mean, there's a few - there was a commission with Alexander Ekman, Hofesh Shechter and Guilherme Botelho in a wonderful piece that we then toured the world - not with us. So I also realised I hadn't got so much money, so if I could commission for example, a piece by Guilherme Botelho to make a group piece, which he wasn't able to do in his company Alias but give him the rights to do it straight away or after a year, that he could tour the world with that piece. So we got a great piece of performance in Bern and he got a wonderful piece for headlining festivals all over the world ever since - it was called Sideways Rain, and maybe Andonis Foniadakis was another name who I respected the choreography and I brought him to Bern in a early period for him.
Andrew: There's many similarities between the UK and Australia and parts of the rest of the world, around classical dance, overwhelmingly programming male choreographers, particularly in those full length, main stage, for a lack of a better word, works, while women are often running the ballet schools and are high profile administrators creating amazing foundations for the company to succeed. What is that gap? Why is there such an overwhelming gap between the participation of men and women within those roles?
Cathy Marston: Do you know what’s really interesting, I just listed off some of the names of people that I commissioned as the director of Bern, and I didn't list any of the women and that worries me, that the names that sprang to mind straightaway were the men. I'd like to comment that I commission a full evening by Karole Armitage and Andrea Miller, who is director of Gallim Dance. And we bought them twice for new works - Karole Armitage and several others. So it's tricky. I think men tend to be on the tip of the tongue at the moment. And I think that's beginning to change. But I do feel when programmers and directors its the people that are in your consciousness at that moment. And that might be because t's one of the things, the more you work the more you get. If you've been seen at a premiere party last week, you're going to be in someone's mind, if you've had great critics piece that you've made on one side of the world, likely that people on the other side of the world began to think, ‘Oh, that must have been good, I wonder what he's like?’ It's a worry that it's always men. Can you ask me the question again? I’ve forgotten where it came from…
Andrew: Just I guess why there is that overwhelming gap in the programming numbers in many of these; let's say classical dance companies. I mean it's obviously not all. But when you look at many of the works that have been commissioned, or that are being reprogrammed are kind of dominated.
Cathy Marston: Yeah, I think there are lots of reasons and asked I’m this question often. And I think there is something to be said for going back to training and trying to work out when, sort of, 18/19 year olds in that professional trading environment - why is it that the boys will the young men seem to feel in the element when they are different. And yet the young women stand in line. Obviously, that in a young women are taught to stand in line, in ballet, because that's what they're going to be asked to do in many of the classical ballets. I think we need to encourage students at that point to become individual artists, as much as group members. And look at that period in their dance life or career, and try to work out how can we ignite their creativity as much as their team building skills or the ability to fit in group. Which is what I think young women often feel they need to do. And then you go into the companies. And of course, I think it is, it's very competitive for female ballet dancers, if they have an ambition to become sad. So as a principal dancer, stepping off the ladder for a moment and go choreographing; going off for a month or two months; you are out of that picture of the cast list, you know, you're out of the directors head when they're trying to think of who to use next. So it's really hard, I think, directors that could do more to encourage female dancers within that company to create and make that okay, make it possible for them to go somewhere else, and it’s usually quite difficult to choreograph on your colleagues that can be tricky, can be wonderful but also tricky. And then of course, there comes that moment of motherhood, and that really, everyone deals with in a different way, to kids. I am continuing to have a career but I continue to do it alone. And that's a choice that has to be made. And some people might not work to make that choice. And even if you do want to keep your career going and have young children, you have to somehow find a way to get the support around it. And as it happened for me, because I've been choreographing quite a long time when I came to have children, I was able to get fees for each piece that were at least as much as I would be needing to pay for child care and hopefully more. But you know, that's not always the case if you're starting to choreograph and you're, let's say, 35 and you're wanting children at the same time that’s really quite tough.
So I think that could be more support and infrastructure put in place to find ways for women to become mothers and to develop the choreographic careers at the same time. And beyond that, I can't say, I'm sure there are be more challenges but those are the ones that I can identify to my experience.
Andrew: This comes up in many of the interviews that I've done, also about role models. And when you look around at opportunities, or career sustainability, and you're not seeing women in these high profile positions to the same level as men, you don't see it even as an option or as a possibility or something to pursue.
Cathy Marston: I guess that could be a factor or subconscious factor. I don't think that ever occurred to me because choreography was something I was driven to do. It wasn't something I thought, what should I do after dancing? Should I become a choreographer? It was something that I was always doing and couldn't not do it. And so I don't think I ever considered whether it was a case that maybe that's why I'm doing it. And there are many women doing it and maybe that is one of the reasons. [27:14]
Andrew: Are there particular things that have helped you along your career?
Cathy Marston: I think that the few people that I've mentioned, who gave me opportunities, technical and making Associate Artists at The Opera House, Richard Wherlock in being the director of company which I was dancing for and recognizing that he could find a way to let me off a month and go choreograph away each year. So people thinking a little outside the box and with generosity, I think it really has made a difference. And to be honest, Debra not only making me Associate Artist, she also introduced me to a wonderful man who is now the chairman of my board, the Cathy Marston Project, a very dear long-time friend. And he supported my decision in a philosophical way at the Opera House.
But when I left The Opera House continued to support me, help me build my company and offered me advice as a mentor, and as a friend for many, many years now. And just those introductions are hugely valuable, I can't tell you how valuable that has been. And not only financially, although he has of course supported some of my work over the years - but also in terms of having someone who you absolutely know is loyal to you on your side, and you can turn to for advice anytime. And those you don't have those people necessarily, as a young dancer, need introducing to those people. And I'm very grateful for that.
Andrew: If you were to, you know, speak to, or mentor emerging female choreographers, somebody that was perhaps looking at choreography as an option or a possibility, what advice would you give them? What things would you get them to consider or think about? [29:07]
Cathy Marston: Gosh, it's very much related to the individual person. I guess one of the things that I've noticed in recent years is that I have come to accept and love the box that I've been put in as a choreographer. So some years, I really wanted to choreograph narrative work, but also choreograph abstract work with ballet companies, but also contemporary companies. And that's pretty hard, I realized as a director, because you might like someone's piece, but you don't really know what they're going to make when you commission them. I mean, my first piece that I created for Northern Ballet, they were absolutely a narrative ballet company. I mean, that's what they're known for. And I went made my most abstract work ever and I don’t know why. It was really good abstract work actually, I was proud of it. I don't know why I made it there. And then - I don’t think you can put this on, but I have come to realize what I love doing is storytelling. And with that clarity has come a whole more work because I think people realize what I do it's a little niche that I want to say to perfect - that sounds like I'm getting towards perfection - I don't think there is a perfect version of it. But I'm just investigating and digging down into it each time I make a new work and I think that particular strand knowing that I created that particular strand people feel braver about commissioning me to make larger works, which is what I want to do. So knowing yourself is really important. And then once you know yourself, look around and it kind of matches and to be strategic - there’s that word again, but I think it's important to be intelligent. Also, that as a director at Bern, I couldn't stand it when you get people writing to you wanting to audition and they obviously had no idea what the company's repertoire is and even if they felt like they should let you know that they love your work and really want to audition for the Bern Ballet, and then cc that email to 10 other companies, that just really irritated me. And I think the same advice would apply to all - know what you want to do, and look at where the best place to do that is, and then find a way towards that place.
Andrew: Yeah, I think that's very good advice. The template email is incredibly frustrating. Yeah, somebody sent me one to interview him about a children's book about a boxing mouse or something. Do you even know what the podcast is about? [32.14]
Cathy Marston: Yeah, it's crazy. One more piece of advice is just to keep putting yourself out there and writing to people and going to meet people going to meet people is almost always more effective if you can manage it. And but it's disheartening sometimes when you will write each 50 letters and you get one reply, but you just have to keep doing it. And it's okay.
Andrew: Yeah, that's one of the things that's actually come up in the research is confidence and women feeling, not necessarily as confident as the men, to pursue those opportunities, or dealing with knock backs, I guess, develop that resilience and keep kind of knocking on the doors.
Cathy Marston: I mean, I really have written and approached hundreds of people over 25 years, and obviously, what I have achieved is a fraction of those approaches that you really didn't have to make many in order to make a few hits.
Andrew: Where do you get your motivation from or resilience to just keep going? Are there times where you just want to give up?
Cathy Marston: No I haven’t had that and I don't know where I get that resilience. I think that might be natural, because it's, it's not learned particularly.
Yeah, I mean, I think it would be hard if I hadn't gotten anything back. Obviously, I've, you know, learned that - okay, that's not true, there's resilience there, because it's natural. But also I’ve received a lot of encouragement from people as well. So for every 10 people you write to, you might only get one more or less, but that one reply can sometimes make a huge difference. So the resilience comes from myself, but also from the support I have had around me.
Andrew: Great, we mentioned before that in dance education, there kind of seems to be a place where the gender difference starts to occur. Are there things that need to be done or thought about within this space, to better equip young women to think outside the box or have opportunities? [34.58]
Cathy Marston: I think having a conversation is really important. And I'm pretty sure that the situation within dance education now must be very different. And then when I was at the Royal Ballet School, and I have one story that I've told a few times to various people, it makes me laugh each time. My first parents evening at the Royal Ballet School, age 16, and my parents came up and you know, it was a new world for them, but they work in education, their teachers, so they went to speak to my ballet teacher, and she said, Oh, well, the problem with Cathy is that she thinks for herself. They were horrified and it took me several hours of just calming them down to so not to pull me out of the school. But I think I do understand what that teacher meant. You know, sometimes in dance education, you need to go with what the teacher says, and just try it. And that's the same in making choreography. If every dancer questioned every step that I asked them do before they tried it, it would be really, really tough. And at the same time, I didn't really want to work with dancers who did question; I just want them to know when and how to question it. And that's what I think needs to be taught. So perhaps emotional intelligence is something that could be fostered in schools and amongst the students, as well as the staff - really learning how to meet two individuals, and not to follow a line, which is the house style or school style - that needs to be done for the individuals. And there may be a certain technique or expecting them to have a certain style. But in terms of people, you can't just say, ‘Well, she's not like this is, not going to work for her - is certainly not true. I was really lucky at the Royal Ballet School to have two wonderful teachers of choreography, and sadly they both passed, but David Drew and Norman Morrice were amazing to me, and when he mentored me through that two year period of time, in a way that I can't imagine how I would have of got through it without their encouragement.
Andrew: That has come up quite a few times in regards to audiences, in a lot of the interviews I've done, and the role that audiences have actually in their buying power, or agitating for change, or for a more diverse programming. Do you think that audiences are blinded or unaware of gender equality in dance or is that something that’s on people's radar? Because it seems to be some people are talking about but not everyone.
Cathy Marston: No, it's not everyone and I don't think it'll ever be everyone because some people very obstinately believe that there should be no I to equality. Like an artist is an artist no matter what the agenda and I can understand that, you know, the work is the work at the end of the day. However, I do think we need to work harder to make sure that everyone has an equal opportunity to make that work. And for some reason, even though we might not be deliberately favouring men and giving them more opportunities. I think that’s what has been the case in the past, but it is changing and that the conversation is being had is really, really important.