No matter whether you a ballet-mad youngster or all grown up and looking for an escape from adult cares, ballet stories weave a wonderful spell on the imagination. As eternal as fairy tales, the classic ballet plots combine sweeping emotion and magic with darkness. And, just like the best-loved fairy stories, it’s a mistake to think of them as being only for children.
If you love the tales behind the ballets, take a journey further into their enchanting world. These novels come from four different centuries and some are easier reads than others. What unites them is that they all have a ballet theme, and are all written for adult readers (or, in the case of the first, young adults).
This spin on the classic tale of the beautiful girl trapped in daylight hours as a swan offers something new. The heroine, 19 year old Odette, is a determined young woman. Bold and brave, she wears masculine clothing and leads her group of smugglers with confidence.
Prince Siegfried is in this novel displaced by — or transformed into — Prince Alexsei. Described as ‘kind and witty’, he is intrigued by Odette and soon commits himself to finding a way to lift the curse. As they fall in love, the threat from the villain Rothbart grows.
Coronet of Straw is a retelling of the beloved Giselle ballet story. The novel is aimed at adult and young adult readers. It takes inspiration from the poetry and fiction that themselves inspired the ballet, particularly the poems of German Romantic Era poet Heinrich Heine.
Giselle herself is at the heart of the story, as her backstory and the events leading up to that fateful grape harvest festival are revealed. Her best friend Ilse, who is caught between her friendship for Giselle and her love for the gamekeeper Hans (as he is known in the Russian version of the ballet), narrates this part of the tale.
Other chapters are taken up by Berthe (Giselle’s mother) and by feisty young noblewoman Myrtha. No longer simply shadowy figure, both Berthe and Myrtha emerge as fully-rounded characters with dangerous secrets of their own. As the story unfolds, the novel explores what drives each to her ultimate fate. If you always wondered caused Myrtha to become the merciless Queen of the Wilis here at last you will discover the answer!
Inspired by Christmas favourite, The Nutcracker, Hiddensee delves deeper to imagine the backstory of toy maker Drosselmeier. This novel comes to us from Gregory Maguire, the writer behind Oz retelling Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West.
Based on a character in one of German author E.T.A. Hoffmann’s classic tales — Tales of Hoffmann — Maguire takes the mysterious Godfather Drosselmeier and explores the dark side of his story.
Be prepared to enter a strange underworld that follows the style of a fairy tale. The novel is heavy on symbolism and tends to divide readers, so it’s worth taking a look at the reviews before buying. Not for younger readers.
Marguerite and Armand
For this classic tale of the courtesan and her young lover, we return to its source. The Alexandre Dumas who wrote The Lady of the Camellias (La Dame aux Camélias) was not the famous author, but his son. Following in his father’s footsteps, he went on to become a respected novelist and playwright in his own right.
This Victorian romance opens up the world of 19th century Paris and its courtesans. The book was partly autobiographical, based on his love for a famous Paris courtesan called Marie Duplessis.
As well as Sir Frederick Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand, there is a ballet adaptation that shares the novel’s English title (The Lady of the Camellias). The ballet Camille is also based on this story.
We have to travel back even further in time to discover the novel behind Kenneth Macmillan’s ballet Manon. In many aspects a similar story to that of Marguerite and Armand, it was based on Manon Lescaut by Abbé Prévost.
The novel dates from 1731. While not the most readable of ballet stories for modern-day readers, it was a steamy novel in its day and even ended up as a banned book.
Interestingly, the libretto of the ballet is based on one very brief scene in the book. If you read it expecting to spend hours in the company of Kitri, you will be disappointed. Her story has barely a mention. Don Quixote himself, his faithful companion Sancho Panza and farm girl Dulcinea (Aldonza) are the focal points.
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