From Beach Read to World Premiere Ballet
Finding Inspiration from the Written Word
It’s summer, which means it’s time to dive into some great vacation reads. You never know, the next book you read—be it classic tome, romance, or thriller—might give you an idea for your next ballet.
Choreographers have always looked to novels as a source of inspiration for their ballets. One of the earliest was Jules Perrot’s Esmeralda (1844), based on Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Marius Petipa—the “father of classical ballet” and the choreographer of Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker—also tried his hand at adapting a novel, taking on Miguel de Cervante’s Don Quixote in 1869. In the 20th century, John Cranko retold the classic Pushkin story Onegin (1965), Kenneth MacMillan transformed Abbé Prévost’s Manon Lescaut into Manon (1974), and John Neumeier turned to Victor Hugo to create Lady of the Camellias (1978). Books remain a source of inspiration for today’s leading choreographers, including Christopher Wheeldon (whose Alice in Wonderland premiered in 2011), SF Ballet Choreographer in Residence Yuri Possokhov, and Cathy Marston.
Yuri Possokhov's Swimmer
Possokhov’s Swimmer is inspired by John Cheever’s short story The Swimmer, which follows a man as he makes his way home through his neighbors’ pools. But Possokhov broadens his ballet to include nods to Jack London’s Martin Eden, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, as well as Edward Hopper’s painting Nighthawks and Mike Nichols’s film The Graduate. All these influences create a surrealistic odyssey through 1960s American culture.
Cathy Marston's Mrs. Robinson
Choreographer Cathy Marston frequently uses novels as inspiration, creating works like Jane Eyre, Dangerous Liaisons, and for SF Ballet: Snowblind and Mrs. Robinson. Snowblind, which premiered at the 2018 Unbound Festival, takes its starting point from Edith Wharton’s novella Ethan Frome. And Mrs. Robinson takes its inspiration from not one book, but two. Its main inspiration is Charles Webb’s novel The Graduate, with its complex female protagonist (Mrs. Robinson) and its setting of a 1960s world torn between buttoned-up, post-war American values and an emerging youth counterculture.
Marston’s interpretation of Mrs. Robinson also takes inspiration from Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, written the same year as The Graduate. Friedan’s book gave a name to the widespread unhappiness that many 1960s housewives were feeling as they strove for domestic perfection. The coincidence of the publication of these two books in the same year gave Marston an idea. “Wouldn’t it be lovely to rehabilitate Mrs. Robinson, so her destiny is not one of the lonely alcoholic?” says Marston. “To give her a chance to have a new life, like some of the women of that era went on to find?”
Swimmer and Mrs. Robinson are both part of SF Ballet’s 2021 Repertory Season. Swimmer is part of Program 01, running January 19–30. Mrs. Robinson is part of Program 03, running February 16–21.
Header Image: San Francisco Ballet in Possokhov’s Swimmer // © Erik Tomasson