Storied Success

December 31, 2013

What’s behind the recent comeback of narrative ballets?


The Royal Ballet’s Jonathan Howells and Sarah Lamb in Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Photo by Johan Persson, Courtesy Royal Opera House

Everyone loves a good story. They drive our imaginations, teach us life lessons and entertain us. They also warn us not to hold grudges against cradled babies, trust seductive women in black tutus or casually flirt with vulnerable peasant girls. From its historic beginnings, ballet has been a narrative-driven art form, so it’s not surprising that tradition has held fast, even through the era of postmodernism.

But the recent proliferation of new story bal­lets, usually full-length, by popular choreographers such as Christopher Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky, seems exceptional. Even choreographers who made careers in abstract works have recently followed the temptation: Peter Martins created the underwater fantasy Ocean’s Kingdom in 2011; Twyla Tharp took on the children’s novel The Princess and the Goblin in 2012; Wayne McGregor collaborated with author Audrey Niffenegger to make The Raven Girl in 2013. And last September, the Joffrey Ballet received a $500,000 challenge grant from the Rudolf Nureyev Dance Foundation towards an endowment specifically for the creation, production and performance of full-length story ballets.

Right: Scottish Ballet in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s
A Streetcar Named Desire. Photo by Andrew Ross, Courtesy Scottish Ballet

But wasn’t Balanchine’s aesthetic—dropkick the libretto and allow the choreography to tell its own story—supposed to have dramatically shifted the focus of American choreography to pure dance? Certainly, over the past few decades, audiences came to expect innovation from the abstract more than from the literal. Few would have predicted evening-long narratives to be the future of ballet.

Yet today there seems to be an increasing need to feed the public stories. Hamburg Ballet artistic director John Neumeier has been creating psychologically driven narrative ballets for over four decades and discovered something interesting when speaking with a PhD candidate writing her thesis on his work. “There’s a theory that while postmodernism condemned anything that seemed to have a narrative,” he says, “post-postmodernism (or metamodernism) has turned toward drama and the necessity to give in to the desire for drama in one’s life.”

But how does that play with members of the millennial generation who want something right this nanosecond on their iPhones? Is there patience for a full evening in the theater? Neumeier points to the enormous popularity of television series like “Homeland,” “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” that require committing to the long haul. “They involve the lengthy process of the destiny of a person and others,” he says. “In addition to the quickness of this generation, there is also a desire for the long, big story.”

Left: Carsten Jung and Alina Cojocaru in Neumeier’s
Liliom. Photo by Holger Badekow, Courtesy Hamburg Ballet

William Whitener agrees. “People are accustomed to a narrative in film and TV,” says the former artistic director of Kansas City Ballet, whose original three-act Tom Sawyer was a hit in 2011. “Depending on an audience’s level of exposure to dance, they might find they’re more comfortable with the familiarity of the story.”

Yet passion for drama is one thing and successfully conveying it is another.
Christopher Wheeldon, his global success with pure dance works like Polyphonia notwithstanding, has choreographed a number of full-length ballets: His most recent include Cinderella, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Winter’s Tale, which The Royal will premiere in April. Wheeldon points out that ballet’s ethereal properties often work against the grounded nature of linear contemporary stories. “Choreographers gravitate to fantasy, escape and romance because these are themes that work in the pointe shoe,” says Wheeldon. “I think it’s more of a challenge to depict modern stories using such a refined and specialized dance form. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but I think it poses more complex problems. You’re more likely to see a contemporary dance choreographer tackle themes of today.” For Wheeldon, a return to stories means that new ballets often have more in common with Tchaikovsky’s fairy tales than they do with the gritty contemporary realities audiences typically see in other art forms today.

But that doesn’t mean classical choreographers haven’t tried tackling more current themes. In 2012, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa (collaborating with director Nancy Meckler) choreographed a highly successful A Streetcar Named Desire for the Scottish Ballet. “I chose Tennessee Williams’ play because it’s an amazing and poignant story that I feel is still relevant nowadays,” says Ochoa, who had never choreographed a narrative work before. “I’m not the fairy tale type of gal, so my aim was always to choreograph a ballet about real people’s drama.”

Right: Kansas City Ballet in William Whitener’s
Tom Sawyer. Photo by Steve Wilson, Courtesy KCB

Neumeier choreographed his version of A Streetcar Named Desire for Marcia Haydée in 1983 because Williams’ play “is full of music and layers of dreams and desire and poetic substance.” But, he adds, “I don’t think I could create a ballet on a play by Arthur Miller because the words are so important and the material is so realistic that it doesn’t really lend itself to a nonrealistic structure or form.”

According to Neumeier, just as in translating texts to another language, the worst kind of story ballet is a word-for-word translation to the stage. He thinks it’s necessary to find “blocks of structure and to invent a parallel world.” When Neumeier begins working on Tatiana based on Eugene Onegin, which premieres this June, he won’t be discussing with the dancers what Pushkin said about Tatiana or Onegin. “When I’m making a story ballet, it’s not retelling the story, or acting out in movement the text of the prose, but actually doing a ballet about my reaction to that piece,” says Neumeier. “Translating it into a wordless medium means I have to take liberties with it. I have to find a form that will convey something that’s immediate, something of today.” Depending on the choreographer, that can result in solipsism or ingeniousness.

Arguably the most commercially successful choreographer of story ballets has been Matthew Bourne, whose iconoclastic attitude has remodeled the Tchaikovsky trifecta (Swan Lake, The Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty). He finds the pacing of ballets critical to keeping audiences engaged. “One of the things that bugs me now about the classics is they’re so slow,” says Bourne. “When the tempo becomes funereal, it loses the spirit of the music and the story.”

Left: Matthew Bourne’s
Sleeping Beauty. Photo by Mikah Smillie, Courtesy New Adventures

Bourne adds that for him, creating story ballets isn’t about maintaining tradition: “My instinct is always to do something different. When I make a work, I always try to imagine there is someone sitting there who knows nothing about the ballet or the story.” Thus in his Sleeping Beauty, Aurora turns 21 amidst Edwardian tennis matches and awakens in the 21st century. “I found the timeline really fascinating—the idea that there is a hundred-year interval in the middle of the ballet,” he says. “For my version, the styles of dance change to reflect the manners and dances of the periods.”

It seems that story ballets are here to stay. So how can they dodge Disneyfication, eschew schlocky themes, avoid portraying women as victims and stay relevant to today’s culture while representing people and circumstances that are recognizable and riveting? Perhaps with a blend of live onstage musicians, actors and dancers, suggests Ochoa, the story-ballet form can become more flexible. Commissioning new scores and including teams of all types of artistic talent, as did Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, could potentially keep things fresh. How about a Hitchcockian ballet thriller set to the music of Bernard Herrmann? Or diving into the realm of magical realism with something along the lines of the fantasy-driven film Pan’s Labyrinth? The possibilities are only limited by imagination.

Joseph Carman is a senior advising editor for
Dance Magazine.