Cathy Marston Reimagines “The Graduate” for San Francisco Ballet

January 31, 2022

This is an updated version of an article that appeared in Pointe’s Winter 2020 print edition.

Celebrated in her native Britain and across Europe, choreographer Cathy Marston is conquering America with her contemporary, literary story ballets. In 2019, American Ballet Theatre and The Joffrey Ballet staged her interpretation of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, and in 2018, San Francisco Ballet commissioned Snowblind, based on Edith Wharton’s novella Ethan Frome.

Pointe spoke with Marston about her newest work for SFB, Mrs. Robinson, which, after a two-year postponement due to COVID-19, will finally premiere February 1–12. The ballet is inspired by Charles Webb’s 1963 novella The Graduate and the iconic 1967 film of the same name, which tell the story of an unhappily married woman who enters into an affair with her friends’ son, who ends up dating her daughter.

What intrigued you about the character of Mrs. Robinson?

The Graduate was published in the same year as Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Friedan talks about the dissatisfaction that many women were beginning to feel in their homes and marriages. I found it interesting that these two things coincided historically, and wanted to imagine an end for Mrs. Robinson in which she might encounter this wave of women who were also feeling like they needed to make a big change in their lives.

How do you develop characters who tell a story through movement, rather than mime?

For each character or group of characters, I develop a list of verbs and adjectives that are a distillation of the research that I’ve done. I’ll read them out to the dancers and we’ll brainstorm and start to make up movement phrases, not related to any scene but just to create a movement vocabulary. And then I’ll start putting a scene together.

You created the role of Mrs. Robinson on SFB principal Sarah Van Patten, who also danced the lead in your Snowblind. Why was Van Patten the right fit for this character?

She’s an amazing actress. She has this ability to understand the character’s journey and put it together almost like a translator makes sense of something they’ve never heard before.

George Balanchine famously said, “There are no mothers-in-law in ballet,” yet your ballet has mothers-in-law, fathers-in-law, daughters, sons—it’s like a play. 

I remember that quote every time I’m thinking about which stories to tell. He was absolutely right!

The Graduate is an icon of American culture, and audiences will come to your ballet with their own visual imprint of the story. Does that make you nervous? 

A little bit. But I’ve become braver about that over the years. I don’t want to reproduce the story, but rather to look at it from a different angle. That’s part of the art I want to make. It’s not just about dance for me; it’s about a wider cultural discussion.