“Zürich always makes me feel 18!” laughs Cathy Marston, quite possibly the first and last person to make such a claim. Marston is the recently appointed director of Ballett Zürich, but she still holds close the memory of her teenage self in 1994, fresh out of London’s Royal Ballet School and arriving in Zürich for her first job as a company dancer.

“I was never ‘the ballerina,’ never that type,” she says. “I knew choreography was my direction.” For 30 years she’s done little else. Marston has received commissions from companies that include the Royal Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, and the Royal Danish Ballet. Her distinction comes from the fresh eye she brings to old stories and the range of stories she tells—the classic Jane Eyre, the unlikely Mrs Robinson, and the visionary The Cellist, a searing and award-winning paean to the tragic life of Jacqueline du Pré.

The choreographer Cathy Marston during a rehearsal last year.

Marston has been committed to storytelling from the start, resisting the 21st-century preference for plotless abstractions shorn of classical form. Whereas some living choreographers scorn narrative ballets as “an old-fashioned thing to be chasing after,” says Marston, she sees the pendulum swinging back. “Even Wayne [McGregor] is doing them!” (Quite the volte-face for a man whose work tends toward the gymnastic.) What Marston is too modest to admit is that she has been at the vanguard of this shift.

And now she’s broken ground again with her first creation for Ballett Zürich: Atonement, an ambitious adaptation of Ian McEwan’s epic 2001 novel. Premiered at Opernhaus Zürich last Sunday, it runs through June 7 and then has its U.S. premiere on October 17, at the Joffrey Ballet, in Chicago. Remembering her first encounter with the novel, Marston says, “As I read the space between the words, I could see the dance. I have held it in my heart for 20 years, perhaps naïvely!”

Max Cauthorn as Robbie Turner, Dores André as Cecilia Tallis, and Giorgia Gani as Briony Tallis in Atonement.

Naïveté? Try bravery. The novel’s teenage narrator is famously unreliable; its timeline moves from 1935, through W.W. II, to 1999; and there’s a smorgasbord of emotional traumas. “Atonement is by far the most difficult thing I have attempted,” Marston acknowledges.

In transposing McEwan’s complex dramaturgy into dance, Marston was aided by her long-standing partnership with Edward Kemp, the former director of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. She calls him “my outside eye.” And her decades working in Europe, including a Swiss stint from 2007 to 2013 as director of the Bern Ballett, exposed her to the Germanic modernist tradition of Regietheater (director’s theater), which frees a production from the constraints of the script.

In Marston’s version of Atonement, the protagonist, Briony, is not a wide-eyed aspiring writer who becomes a novelist but an aspiring ballet dancer who becomes a choreographer. The first part of the story is set in an intimate manor house, where Marston creates an Ashton-esque atmosphere and lets various pas de trois navigate triangular relationships. The second part uses the corps de ballet on an epic scale, as soldiers, nurses, prisoners, and civilians in Blitz-ridden London. “A recorded interview from Briony is woven into the score,” Marston explains, “so the ending twist is revealed as part of the soundscape.”

The corps, made up of dancers from Ballet Zürich and the Junior Ballett.

As she admires Lac Zürich from a window in the monumental Opernhaus, Marston retains her trademark humility. “The past is prologue,” she says. “We stand on the shoulders of those who came before.” She is already at work on her next full-length narrative ballet, premiering in Zürich in October. It’s a biopic of the life of Clara Schumann.

Currently showing at Opernhaus Zürich until June 7, Atonement will make its U.S. premiere on October 17 at the Joffrey Ballet, in Chicago

Genevieve Marks is a London-based dance writer and dramaturge