Reconsidering Mrs. Robinson

by Caitlin Sims

Choreographer Cathy Marston was reminded of Charles Webb’s novel The Graduate—on which the 1967 film is based—while browsing in a bookstore in the summer of 2018. Her ballet Snowblind had recently premiered at San Francisco Ballet and her mind quickly flitted to dancers who could embody the central characters of Mrs. Robinson and Benjamin. Glancing at the book jacket, she learned that the book had been written in San Francisco, and something clicked. “I immediately thought—this is it,” says Marston. “This is the piece that I need to make for San Francisco Ballet.” 

Marston has become known for her skill in re-envisioning literary works through dance; in addition to her Jane Eyre, which premiered at Northern Ballet in 2016, she’s drawn inspiration from Wuthering Heights, A Tale of Two Cities,Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Dangerous Liaisons, Lolita, and, for SF Ballet’s 2018 Unbound festival, Ethan Frome. In choosing source material, she is often drawn to complex female protagonists such as Mrs. Robinson. “I like characters that aren’t straightforward,” she says. “I like stories where you can’t say who’s the good one and who’s the bad one, who’s guilty and who’s innocent.”

Dores André and Lonnie Weeks rehearsing Cathy Marston's Mrs. Robinson // © Erik Tomasson
Dores André and Lonnie Weeks rehearsing as Mrs. Robinson and Benjamin in Cathy Marston’s Mrs. Robinson // © Erik Tomasson

The character of Mrs. Robinson is so embedded in American pop culture that calling someone a “Mrs. Robinson” conjures an immediate mental picture: a sophisticated, cool, calculating older woman who seduces a younger man. But who really is Mrs. Robinson? “In the film, Anne Bancroft is impenetrable,” says Marston. “And that’s genius, because it means you project your own feelings onto hers. I suppose that was the inspiration for the ballet. I wanted to get underneath the surface and find out why Mrs. Robinson is as she is, why she does the things that she does, and make specific choices based on those answers.”

The characters of The Graduate walk a tightrope between the buttoned-up world of post-war American values and a just-emerging youth counterculture. In researching America in the 1960s, Marston realized that Betty Friedan’sThe Feminine Mystique was written the same year as The Graduate. Friedan’s watershed book introduced “the problem that has no name”—the widespread unhappiness of housewives expected to focus exclusively on cultivating domestic perfection. That Mrs. Robinson herself has no name other than her husband’s was not lost on Marston, and the correlation of the timing of the publication of the two books gave her an idea. “Wouldn’t it be lovely to rehabilitate Mrs. Robinson, so her destiny is not one of the lonely alcoholic? To give her a chance to have a new life, like some of the women of that era went on to find?”

Mathilde Froustey and Benjamin Freemantle rehearse as Mrs. Robinson and Benjamin in Cathy Marston's Mrs. Robinson // © Erik Tomasson
Mathilde Froustey and Benjamin Freemantle rehearse as Mrs. Robinson and Benjamin in Cathy Marston’s Mrs. Robinson // © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet rehearsing Cathy Marston's new work // © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet rehearsing Cathy Marston’s Mrs. Robinson // © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet rehearses Cathy Marston's Mrs. Robinson // © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet rehearses Cathy Marston’s Mrs. Robinson // © Erik Tomasson

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Marston has a tried-and-true method of creating narrative works, one that involves significant planning long before she arrives in the studio to work with dancers. Since 2002, she has worked with dramaturg Edward Kemp, director of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, to map out the stories she creates onstage. It’s a rare collaboration in the dance field. “When I met Ed, he had systems that you don’t learn about in dance, in terms of structures, hooks, and just a sense of pacing and timing,” says Marston.

In reconsidering Mrs. Robinson, Marston and Kemp went through scenes step by step to anchor the story in her perspective. In the film, “the camera follows Benjamin very, very effectively,” Marston notes dryly. In the ballet, “we’ve tried to follow Mrs. Robinson. What does she want? Need? How does she feel? Where does she want to go?”

When she came to SF Ballet’s studios last summer, Marston worked on the nuances of each character with the dancers, coloring in the details within the overarching scaffolding. She set the characters of Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson on three different pairs of dancers, embracing the distinct interpretations they brought to the characters. “They’ve all got such interesting ways to bring emotion, physicality, and themselves to the roles,” she says. “I want to celebrate that. I don’t want to make them the same.”

Mathilde Froustey and Steven Morse rehearsing the roles of Mr. and Mrs. Robinson in Cathy Marston's Mrs. Robinson // © Erik Tomasson
Mathilde Froustey and Steven Morse rehearsing the roles of Mr. and Mrs. Robinson in Cathy Marston’s Mrs. Robinson // © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet rehearsing Cathy Marston's Mrs. Robinson // © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet rehearsing Cathy Marston’s Mrs. Robinson // © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet rehearsing Cathy Marston's Mrs. Robinson  // © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet rehearsing Cathy Marston’s Mrs. Robinson // © Erik Tomasson

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In reframing the story, it was important to Marston to give Mrs. Robinson some sense of agency. When viewed through Mrs. Robinson’s eyes, the story “becomes much more about a woman who’s trapped in a situation that she didn’t plan,” says Marston. “We know that she got pregnant as a student. Like so many women at that time, she fell into a life that is not what she imagined and not what satisfies her.” In a final duet with his wife, Mr. Robinson puts his arms in a circle, a protective gesture that creates a symbolic shelter. Mrs. Robinson goes under the circle, explores it, then emerges, closing his arms gently but firmly, leaving him and the protection the marriage has provided.

The film The Graduate is also, of course, known for the iconic song Mrs. Robinson, written for the film by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. Because she was shifting perspectives, Marston asked composer Terry Davis to create a new score. “I was after music that was not as much about youth culture as about a woman who is in middle age,” says Marston. Davis incorporated saxophone and guitar into two distinct voices: the saxophone—with a sultry, late-night sound that references an earlier era—represents Mrs. Robinson, while the guitar adds a sense of the simmering counterculture.

In addition to the central characters, Marston enlists a corps de ballet of women, who move with the crisp efficiency of ideal mid-century femininity—and express the crippling impact of maintaining it. As the piece unfolds, the domestic goddesses are swept into the feminist movement in waves. Does Mrs. Robinson join them? Marston demurs. “I like that the film is ambiguous at the end,” she says. “And I’d quite like to echo that and leave it up to the audience as to the destiny of Mrs. Robinson.”

Cathy Marston’s Mrs. Robinson is part of Ballet Accelerator, which runs from March 24 to April 4.


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Header image: Mathilde Froustey in Marston’s Mrs. Robinson // © Erik Tomasson

Your Ultimate Guide to Ballet Accelerator

What is it? Ballet at full speed for the 21st century featuring works by two Brits, Cathy Marston and David Dawson, and our own Helgi Tomasson. 

Who’s it for? Anyone who loves a modern update on a classical theme, picked up The Feminine Mystique in undergrad, or enjoys the pure thrill of watching elite athletes compete. 

 

Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets in Tomasson's 7 For Eight // © Erik Tomasson
Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets in Tomasson’s 7 For Eight // © Erik Tomasson

7 FOR EIGHT

What Am I Seeing? 7 for Eight does what the title says: it’s a ballet in seven sections for eight dancers created by SF Ballet Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson in 2004. Its black-on-black color scheme, dramatic lighting effects, and shifting moods update the Baroque music for a modern era.

What Am I Hearing? Seven keyboard concertos by J.S. Bach written between 1729 and 1741. Six are played with a piano. One, played during a man’s solo, is performed on a harpsichord, as it would have been in the period.   

What Should I Look For? Notice how the number of dancers on stage shifts and morphs throughout the ballet. The eight dancers seem to be able to make an infinite (or, rather seven) number of shifting groups, from solos, to duets, to trios, and full ensemble configurations. And notice how the ballet’s mood changes throughout: from yearning and reaching to playful and clever.

Mathilde Froustey and Benjamin Freemantle rehearsing Cathy Marston’s new work // © Erik Tomasson

Cathy Marston World Premiere

What Am I Seeing? Cathy Marston is one of the hottest names in choreography right now. Following major premieres in New York and Chicago, this ballet is her second commission for SF Ballet. Set in 1960s California and focused on a love affair between an older woman and a younger man, this new work explores questions of love, sex, identity, femininity, and feminism.

What Am I Hearing? A newly commissioned score by British composer Terry Davies. Written specifically for this ballet, the score provides a structure for the movement. 

What Should I Look For? Cathy’s ballets tell stories, but not through traditional mime. Rather, she creates movement phrases and gestures based on words that help establish character and narrative. See if you can identify these repeated movements throughout the work and what they tell you about its protagonists. 

San Francisco Ballet in Dawson’s Anima Animus // © Erik Tomasson

ANIMA ANIMUS

What Am I Seeing? An example of physically emotional virtuosity by dancemaker David Dawson. Anima Animus is ballet pushed to every extreme; technique stretched to its outer limit. Playing with the idea of opposites—man-woman; black-white; lifted-grounded—this work nods to ballet’s past while pointing toward its future.

What am I hearing? Ezio Bosso’s Violin Concerto No. 1 “Esoconcerto.” Bosso’s score creates a sense of driving motion matched by the dancing.

What should I look for? The second movement and its virtuosic play between the two principal women and the four men. For the way that Dawson manipulates ballet technique: rarely is a dancer truly upright—everything is leaning, at an angle, off-balance. And for the wing-like gestures the dancers’ make with their arms, evoking flight.

Ballet Accelerator plays at the War Memorial Opera House on March 24, 25, 27, and 29, as well as April 2 and 4.


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Header image: Norika Matsuyama in Tomasson’s 7 For Eight // © Erik Tomasson

About Helgi Tomasson’s 7 for Eight

Helgi Tomasson’s 7 for Eight will be part of SF Ballet’s 2020 Season. It will be performed as part of Program 05, Ballet Accelerator, running March 24, 25, 27, and 29; and April 2 and 4. . 

Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola

“Bach is timeless,” says San Francisco Ballet Artistic Director & Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson, referring to the music for 7 for Eight, an elegant, black-on-black construction. For many, including Tomasson, Johann Sebastian Bach represents the pinnacle of baroque music; consequently, choreographing to his music was a daunting prospect. And George Balanchine had set the bar high in perfectly melding dance and Bach’s music when he made Concerto Barocco in 1941. That precedent could have intimidated Tomasson, but instead he focused on what Balanchine once told him: “You have to love the music—that’s half the battle.”

And Tomasson does indeed love the music for 7 for Eight, even though “it’s so pure that it was a challenge [to work with]; it doesn’t need anything from me,” he says. At first he heard music that’s “very mathematical and beautiful,” he says. “But once I got into the studio, I started finding a lot of emotion in it. You get ideas. Maybe that is a combination of really knowing the music and having the dancers in the studio.”

What Tomasson chose for 7 for Eight were portions of four keyboard concertos composed between 1729 and 1741, when “keyboard” meant the harpsichord, which until then had not been featured in concerto form. He substituted the more dynamically versatile piano for the harpsichord for most of the ballet, keeping the harpsichord for one section to “make the connection back to the baroque. I want audiences to hear how these concertos were played.” Acknowledging that the piece is musically distinctive, Tomasson increased the contrast, distinguishing it choreographically as well by making it a male solo.

Yuan Yuan Tan And Tiit Helimets in Tomasson’s 7 For Eight // © Chris Hardy

In designing 7 for Eight, Costume Designer Sandra Woodall and Lighting Designer David Finn chose a spare but sculpted design — “a little freshness, but also that classical look,” says Woodall. The ballet’s emotional core led them to their black-on-black, light-and-shadow design concept. “I think Helgi relies on a sense of the music and what he likes about it,” Finn says. “There’s a lot about partnership, about relationships. It’s elegant and formal, but there’s this underlying turmoil that’s very modern.”


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Header image: SF Ballet in Tomasson’s 7 for Eight // © Erik Tomasson

About David Dawson’s Anima Animus

David Dawson’s Anima Animus is part of SF Ballet’s 2020 Season. It will be performed as part of Program 05, Ballet Accelerator, which runs from March 24 to April 24, 2020.

Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola

David Dawson’s first commission for San Francisco Ballet, Anima Animus, is, as he puts it, “physically emotional virtuosity combined to make something human.” It is indeed physical, emotional, virtuosic, and human—but there’s something transcendent about this combination. It’s most tangible in the section Dawson calls “Angels,” when the dancers seem to move beyond their mortal selves into a state of throat-clenching beauty. “Don’t do what you know,” he tells his dancers in rehearsal, “do something beyond. Unbound.”

Anima Animus offers a rich mix of contrasts, most meaningful among them Carl Jung’s concept of animus (the male aspect of the female psyche) and anima (the female aspect of the male psyche). Another contrast can be found in the music by Italian composer Ezio Bosso. “It felt to me like music that looks to the past and the future at the same time, much how I like to make dance,” Dawson says.

In making this ballet, Dawson found himself responding to the polarized present-day world. He understands the world’s opposites—light and dark, humanity and architecture, individual and group—“but between those opposites, there’s so much room where people can have choice without judgment,” he says. The spaces between extremes are a kind of fluidity, which Dawson wanted to explore within dance. “My language is the classical art form; I’m trying to do something with that,” he says. Historically, some ballet steps are for women or men only; Dawson shifts this by giving “the opposing energy as a starting point”—in other words, giving animus choreography to a dancer who seems more anima, and vice versa.

In the “Angels” part of the second movement, “we go to archetype,” Dawson says. “In Jung’s philosophy, the female is the nurturer, the mother, the angel, the pure. And the man is the warrior, the strong, the hero. I’m trying to show it all.” Even in these archetypes, the theme of contrasts shows. When the female dancers women float high above the stage, “that’s when they show their form as angels,” Dawson says. “That’s when they touch the sky and they show who they really are.”

San Francisco Ballet in Dawson's Anima Animus // © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet in Dawson’s Anima Animus // © Erik Tomasson
Wona Park in Dawson's Anima Animus // © Erik Tomasson
Wona Park in Dawson’s Anima Animus // © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet in Dawson's Anima Animus //© Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet in Dawson’s Anima Animus //© Erik Tomasson
Carlo Di Lanno in Dawson's Anima Animus // © Erik Tomasson
Carlo Di Lanno in Dawson’s Anima Animus // © Erik Tomasson

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Dawson sends his dancers skyward, but he wants them grounded too. This reads as a paradox—the dancers fly through intricate moves that do indeed make them seem as untethered as angels, and yet they have weight, form, and substance that goes far beyond the light, lifted aesthetic of classical ballet. In rehearsals, Dawson constantly asks the dancers to let their classicism go, asking for movement that is “deeper, squashed, crunched. I want it odd.”

But don’t think for a minute that Anima Animus is odd or ugly. Dawson compares traditional ballet to Rembrandt or Leonardo da Vinci, “and of course I’m not that. I don’t want to be that; I want to be [graffiti artist] Banksy. I want to take history and show somebody my view on it.” To get there, he starts with an internal process—which leads us back to this idea of physically emotional virtuosity. In choreographing, “I feel my way through the movement,” he says. “Because for me, physicality is driven by emotion. If someone’s angry or sad, it becomes physical—it’s expressed through the body.”

In Bosso’s music, Dawson hears both hope and doom. “You are here to tell us something,” he tells the dancers. “You’re saying to the public, ‘Be careful. It’s not going to end well if you keep going this way.’” Though his message acknowledges doom, it keeps reverting to hope. He’s interested “in the power of the human being,” he says, a mindset that is, in effect, his spirituality. “I believe in the universe,” he says. “We’re energy and carbon and atomic; creation is happening all the time. That’s why I love what we do, because we’re embodying what life is all about.”


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Header image: Wona Park and Joseph Walsh in Dawson’s Anima Animus // © Erik Tomasson