Just for Fun
Royal Winnipeg Ballet revived Lila York's adaptation of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale earlier this month. Photo by David Cooper, Courtesy RWB

When American Ballet Theatre announced yesterday that it would be adding Jane Eyre to its stable of narrative full-lengths, the English nerds in the DM offices (read: most of us) got pretty excited. Cathy Marston's adaptation of Charlotte Brontë's classic novel was created for England's Northern Ballet in 2016, and, based on the clips that have made their way online, it seems like a perfect fit for ABT's Met Opera season.

It also got us thinking about what other classic novels we'd love to see adapted into ballets—but then we realized just how many there already are. From Russian epics to beloved children's books, here are 10 of our favorites that have already made the leap from page to stage. (Special shoutout to Northern Ballet, the undisputed MVP of turning literature into live performance.)


Northern Ballet in David Nixon's The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald)

Star-crossed lovers? Check. Wild party scenes? Check. The 1920s aesthetic is just bonus.

Dutch National Ballet in John Cranko's Onegin (Alexander Pushkin)

It's a novel in verse, but it still counts! Cranko's pas de deux work vividly paints the emotional turmoil of Pushkin's characters, such as this sequence in which Tatiana imagines being loved by the haughty Onegin.

The Royal Ballet in Liam Scarlett's Frankenstein (Mary Shelley)

It's spooky, it's sensational, it's a deep meditation on the nature of humanity—oh, and it's alive.

Northern Ballet in David Nixon's The Three Musketeers (Alexandre Dumas)

All for one and one for all! (And we're all in for this epic fight choreography the dancers took to a famous Abbey in their hometown of Leeds, England.)

Charlotte Ballet in Sasha Janes' Wuthering Heights (Emily Brontë)

The Brontë sisters had a knack for writing complex, tempestuous relationships—great fodder for pas de deux like this one.

The Washington Ballet in Septime Webre's Peter Pan (J. M. Barrie)

Sword-fighting, pirates, pixie dust and a ticking crocodile? This one simply flies off the page.

Hamburg Ballet in John Neumeier's Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy)

Some would argue that Tolstoy's epic is the greatest literature ever written, but you can't argue with the fact that the titular heroine is a deliciously complex character to tackle.

The Royal Ballet in Christopher Wheeldon's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll)

Why is a raven like a writing desk? We still might not know the answer to Carroll's riddle, but we do know that Wheeldon's blockbuster production is so full of incredible moments (like Steven McRae stealing the show as a tap-dancing Mad Hatter) that we had trouble narrowing it down.

Atlanta Ballet in Michael Pink's Dracula (Bram Stoker)

There's a reason it seemed at one point like every ballet company in America had a production of Dracula in its repertoire.

Northern Ballet in Jonathan Watkins' 1984 (George Orwell)

Just in case the dystopian nightmare conjured by Orwell wasn't vivid enough in your own imagination.

Just for Fun
Royal Winnipeg Ballet revived Lila York's adaptation of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale earlier this month. Photo by David Cooper, Courtesy RWB

When American Ballet Theatre announced yesterday that it would be adding Jane Eyre to its stable of narrative full-lengths, the English nerds in the DM offices (read: most of us) got pretty excited. Cathy Marston's adaptation of Charlotte Brontë's classic novel was created for England's Northern Ballet in 2016, and, based on the clips that have made their way online, it seems like a perfect fit for ABT's Met Opera season.

It also got us thinking about what other classic novels we'd love to see adapted into ballets—but then we realized just how many there already are. From Russian epics to beloved children's books, here are 10 of our favorites that have already made the leap from page to stage. (Special shoutout to Northern Ballet, the undisputed MVP of turning literature into live performance.)

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Dancers Trending
Photo by Brooke Lark via Unsplash

Happy New Year! Whether or not resolutions are your thing, I always find that a bit of wisdom from the people I admire is a great way to start the year. Here are some favorite nuggets from eight dancers, choreographers and directors who have appeared in our pages over the last year.

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Career Advice
Evan McKie with Tanya Howard rehearsing Genus. Photo by Karolina Kuras

As a kid, I often had trouble getting any words out the way I really wanted to. I developed a fantasy where I could find each character from each story I read within myself, and use them to communicate. I was always "Evan," but embodying different characters broadened the way I could connect with people. I felt that each character was like an instrument and that communicating effectively required the whole orchestra.

Then, when I was 8, I saw John Cranko's Onegin. I hadn't known that dance could develop characters in a way that would resonate so strongly. It was the first ballet that made me want to dive into this life of expressing the human condition through the body. The role of Onegin ended up following me through my career, and it taught me to rely on my humanness.

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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.

The Music Man

Mark Morris Dance Group is plenty busy this month, headlining Luminato, Toronto’s annual arts festival, with Morris’ masterwork L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato in its Canadian premiere June 21–23. Morris directs this year’s Ojai Music Festival (the first choreographer to do so), where his dancers will perform; and at Ojai North!, a collaboration with Cal Performances in Berkeley, MMDG will premiere Morris’ Rite of Spring, danced to a new arrangement of Stravinsky’s music by The Bad Plus jazz trio. www.luminato.com and www.ojaifestival.org.

 

MMDG in L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato. Photo by Elaine Mayson, Courtesy Luminato.

Adventures in Action

Two daring dancemakers return to this year’s Festival TransAmériques in Montreal. Lemi Ponifasio brings Birds with Skymirrors, in which frenetic limbs contrast with intense stillness. At 54, the indomitable Louise Lecavalier performs So Blue, a whirlwind solo and duet for which she receives her first sole choreographic credit. May 29–June 7. www.fta.qc.ca.

 

Lecavalier in So Blue. Photo by André Cornellier, Courtesy FTA.

 

 

Feast for 40

This year marks John Neumeier’s 40th anniversary at the helm of Hamburg Ballet. To celebrate, the company has expanded its annual summer festival Hamburg Ballet-Days. HB will dance in 16 productions over the three weeks, joined by its school and two guest troupes led by former company dancers: Ivan Liska of Bavarian State Ballet and Jean-Christophe Maillot of Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo. While companies all over the world have been feting the centennial of The Rite of Spring, Neumeier, whose personal collection of Nijinsky memorabilia is legendary, has dedicated several evenings to his idol/muse. June 9–30. www.hamburgballett.de.

 

Neumeier rehearsing Carsten Jung in his Liliom. Photo by Holger Badekow, Courtesy HB.

 

 

Swiftly but Gently

A free series of site-specific performances around San Francisco, presented by Dancers’ Group/ONSITE, honors a local pioneer this month. Amara Tabor-Smith, a former associate artistic director of Urban Bush Women who now directs Oakland-based Deep Waters Dance Theater, pays tribute to her mentor, choreographer Ed Mock, an AIDS casualty in the 1980s. June 15–23. www.dancersgroup.org.

 

Amara Tabor-Smith. Photo by Alan Kimara Dixon, Courtesy Tabor-Smith.

 

 

Rudi Remembered

Twenty years after his death (and 75 after his birth), Rudolf Nureyev’s impact on ballet is still felt worldwide. Tributes to the unrelentingly charismatic star have been happening all year, and this summer brings still more. In addition to a gala at the Vienna State Opera Ballet at the end of the month and a production of his Swan Lake at Teatro alla Scala later this summer, Le Palais des Congrès de Paris hosts the Noureev and Friends gala May 31–June 1. The fabulous lineup of today’s stars come from companies like the Bolshoi (Obraztsova), the Mariinsky (Kondaurova and Somova), and English National Ballet (Rojo). www.viparis.com.

 

Nureyev in costume for Don Quixote. Photo by Serge Lido, DM Archives.

 

 

The Supremes

Three enduring goddesses of downtown dance—Sara Rudner, Vicky Shick, and Jodi Melnick—come together at The Yard June 22–30. Each one alone is glorious to behold, but together they’ll be an irresistible pileup of brainy female sensuality. Also on the agenda at Martha’s Vineyard’s largest dance festival: Faye Driscoll (see “Word Play,” April), Doug Elkins, Everett Dance Theatre, and Deborah Lohse (see “Nine Who Dared,” Nov. 2012). Without a doubt, The Yard, now helmed by former DTW chief David White, is undergoing a major revitalization. www.dancetheyard.org.

 

Melnick. Photo by Matthew Karas.

 

 

Forsythe: Former and Future

William Forsythe’s approach to ballet technique was revolutionary in the 1980s. His style is still often imitated, never matched. In recent years, with his own Forsythe Company, he has moved into the realm of dance theater—where whimsy and crazily delicious dancing play equal roles. His latest piece, which comes to Sadler’s Wells this month, aims to cover it all. Study #3 incorporates movement sequences, choreographic methods, music, costumes, and technical effects from 30 works spanning the last 30 years. www.sadlerswells.com.

 

 

 

The Forsythe Company in Study #3. Photo by Dominik Mentzos, Courtesy Sadler’s Wells.

 

 

Contributors: Suzannah Friscia, Wendy Perron, Kina Poon

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