Transforming Books into Ballets

Wei Wang in Scarlett's Frankenstein // © Erik Tomasson

Fairy tales and Shakespeare plays are tried-and-true sources for story ballets: see The Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella; as well as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Othello, and, of course, Romeo and Juliet. But novels? How do you condense 200, even 500, pages into a three-hour ballet? A number of choreographers have done so over the past couple hundred years. One of the earliest was Jules Perrot’s Esmeralda, choreographed in 1844 and 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 a novel, taking on Miguel de Cervante’s Don Quixote in 1869.

More recently John Cranko’s Onegin, choreographed in 1965, retells the classic Pushkin story; Kenneth MacMillan transformed Abbé Prévost’s Manon Lescaut into the ballet Manon in 1974; and John Neumeier, like Perrot, has turned to Victor Hugo, creating Lady of the Camellias in 1978. British choreographers are currently at the forefront of adapting novels into ballets, including Liam Scarlett, whose Frankenstein was a co-production with The Royal Ballet, and two of our Unbound festival choreographers: Christopher Wheeldon, whose Alice in Wonderland premiered in 2011, and Cathy Marston. Marston frequently uses novels as inspiration, creating works like Jane Eyre and Dangerous Liaisons. Her new work for the Unbound festival, Snowblind, takes its starting point from Edith Wharton’s novella Ethan Frome.