Written on the Body turnes the Brontës works into dance
Margi Cole reads into the lives of the Brontë sisters.
Folks seem to go mad for novels by Jane Austen. The recent PBS marathon of television adaptations certainly attests to that. But the Brontës? The world they depicted was so much darker, the emotions so much more raw, that—despite the charms of Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon in the 1939 Samuel Goldwyn production of Wuthering Heights —the tales of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë have never won the hearts of readers in quite the same way. But don’t tell that to choreographer Margi Cole, whose piece based on the sisters’ lives is being restaged at the Dance Center this weekend.
While not one to make a habit of basing her work on literary classics, Cole has found unalloyed inspiration in the world of the Brontës. Three years ago, she debuted Written on the Body, a danced musing on the isolation and imagination that defined these women as both Victorian ladies and singularly creative writers. Not that she was some Brontë aficionado—until recently, she hadn’t done more than read Jane Eyre in college.
Don’t expect the performance to be a dance version of the Brontës’ novels. “It goes beyond that,” Cole says. “It reflects my interest in the masculine and the feminine.” She’s fascinated by the Brontës’ personae as authors.
“The thing that intrigues me about the Brontës is they published their work under masculine pseudonyms in the 1850s,” Cole says, explaining that this wasn’t unusual at the time. “I think the writing itself has a very masculine voice. And it’s intended to.” Cole’s work explores the gender-role issues the Brontës grappled with: “These women were living very stereotypical female lives, studying to be governesses and teachers. They had to do all the things that were required of them as women, but they [also] had this [male] privilege of writing.”
In preparatory research for the piece, Cole traveled to England, where she investigated folk music and funerary customs of the period (death was a constant in the lives of the Brontës and all three sisters died early), visited the Brontë family home and walked the moors. Later, she had her dancers do a bit of work themselves, asking each one to read a book by the sister she was portraying, as well as a Brontë family biography. “I had them keep journals,” Cole says, “tracking their observations about the writing style, the voice of the narrator, and the ways that the masculine and the feminine play out in those works.” Then, as is her custom, Cole asked her performers to contribute movement material to the piece. “I think when you invite someone to collaborate, they have much more ownership of the work.”
The duality that defined the Brontës’ lives—women writing as men in a masculine voice, while living oh-so-properly as the daughters of a parson—explodes with possibility. To the contemporary sensibility, the reality of the Brontës’ lives may seem a case study in prefeminist repression, but their determination to practice their art—even in disguise—can be reckoned a formidable act of self-empowerment.
In its last outing, Written on the Body featured three female dancers as Charlotte, Emily and Anne, and three male dancers as their alter egos—Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, respectively, the names under which the women wrote. “I did that on purpose,” Cole says. “One, I wanted to challenge myself, because I didn’t normally work with guys, and two, I wanted to capture the masculine physicality. Now all the masculine roles will be danced by women. It was always my intention to have it all women. Because anytime you put a man and woman together onstage people tend to perceive that as a traditional relationship. So I think having all the roles danced by women brings us closer to the Brontës’ experience.”
Written on the Body imprints the space of the Dance Center through Saturday 23.