Classic Romantic Novels as Ballet

Ballets Inspired by Timeless Love Stories

Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy. Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester. Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara. Heathcliff and Cathy. The pages of classic novels hold some of the most romantic (and tempestuous) stories of all time.

Happily, for those of us who love novels and dance with an equal passion, there’s an exciting trend in ballet choreography. In recent years some of our most romantic novels have been transformed into ballets. At last, the romantic heroes and heroines of timeless love stories are reliving their tales in dance. After all, can anything else express the wordless emotions of love better than a pas de deux?

Here, discover:

Anna Karenina Ballet

Also see:

Classic Romantic Novels Becoming New Ballets

What’s exciting is that, though the novels are not new, the ballets themselves are. Unrestricted by the 19th century traditions of classic ballet, modern-day choreographers have had free rein to create something meaningful to 21st century audiences. It has also allowed them to  match innovative dance with the music of modern composers (or a fresh take on classic ones).

Thanks to them, some of our best-loved characters are reliving the romance of novels in dance.

The 100 Most Popular Novels in 2018: Which are also Ballets?

In a previous post, we discovered the Gone with the Wind ballet production — surely a dream project for any company. Gone with the Wind was of course one of 2018’s top 100 books of all time by US readers as part of the PBS series The Great American Read. The alphabetical listing doesn’t give away its rank, but it’s a safe bet it won’t be far from the top.

But what of other favourite novels from the list? Have any of them been turned into ballets?

Well, yes. A handful, at any rate.

Jane Eyre: The Ballet of A Troubled Romance

Charlotte Brontë was the longest-surviving and most prolific of the three Brontë sisters. Of her novels, the story of the governess Jane Eyre is the most well-known.

Readers have long loved this tale of love that must cross not only a social divide but survive a terrible secret. The mad wife in the attic adds a perfect dramatic counterpoint to the romance.

The UK’s Northern Ballet saw the potential in such a plot, and worked with choreographer Cathy Marston to transform it into a ballet. A touring company, Northern Ballet bring dance to stages across UK and further afield. However, their home base is the Yorkshire city of Leeds, making them the perfect company to interpret the work of the Brontë sisters.

The ballet Jane Eyre premiered in 2016 and is again touring in 2018.

Discover more about the creation of the ballet and view rehearsal footage in this short film.


Wuthering Heights: Ballet Production

The Northern Ballet lends some ballet magic to the work of another Brontë sister — Emily this time — in Wuthering Heights.

The Wuthering Heights ballet production also took to the stage in 2016. David Nixon OBE choreographed the ballet to a score by Claude-Michel Schönberg (of Les Misèrables and Miss Saigon fame).

A wild and reckless love between dangerous Heathcliff and passionate Cathy, set on the bleak and wind-swept Yorkshire Moors. As you’d expect, the ballet is full of drama and emotion.

So much for late Victorian novels, what of the Regency and everyone’s favourite: Jane Austen?

Is There a Ballet of Price and Prejudice?

It’s the question we’re all asking. Have Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet ever put on ballet shoes?

Not as often as you might think. The American Repertory Ballet appears to be the only company to choreograph the much-loved tale as a ballet. Fortunate ballet-goers might have caught the 2017 premiere in Princeton, NJ. The Pride and Prejudice ballet could also be seen in Philadelphia.

The ballet is by the company’s artistic director, Douglas Martin. You can hear him talk about it and catch a glimpse of the ballet (on-stage and in rehearsal) in this short documentary.

It’s curious that no British company seems to have attempted Pride & Prejudice. Perhaps that’s something that will change as more women are represented in choreography?

An American Love Story: The Great Gatsby Ballet

English companies may have missed an opportunity so far with Pride and Prejudice… Ironically you’ll have to look here in the UK though for the ballet of that great American novel, The Great Gatsby.

We return too to Northern Ballet, whose production of The Great Gatsby took to the stage in 2013. Capturing the elegance and decadence of the Jazz-era, the ballet was choreographed to the music of Sir Richard Rodney Bennett.

But before this turns into an ad for the repertoire of the Northern Ballet, enchanting as it is, let us cross the miles to far off places…

Anna Karenina Ballet: The Ultimate Russian Romantic Novel

Fittingly enough, we must look to Russia to find the ballet version of novel Anna Karenina. This Russian tragedy of forbidden love is a production by Alexei Ratmansky. Ratmansky, who also choreographed the Bolshoi’s new production of Romeo and Juliet, is currently artist-in-residence at the American Ballet Theatre. It was the Mariinsky Ballet (formerly the Kirov) of St. Petersburg that brought Anna Karenina to the west, however, in their 2017 tour to London’s Royal Opera House.

It’s a production full of snow, gorgeous costumes and high emotion. In this clip you can see Diana Vishneva in the title role. Xander Parish, formerly of the Royal Ballet, also appears.

Admittedly, Anna Karenina is not on the 2018 list of favourite novels for Americans, but it is in the top 100 of the most downloaded novels on Project Gutenburg.

Other Ballets based on (Not Necessarily Romantic) Classic Novels

Returning to the PBS list of the top 100 reads, there are a number of books which are beloved classics but don’t fall into the romantic category. Here too we can find ballet versions.

Two of these were created for The Royal Ballet. Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland explores the magical world of the children’s classic. Adding his own spin on the tale, Wheeldon does add a touch of romance to the ballet. Through his vision, it becomes a love story between a teenage Alice and one of the household servants (in her dreamworld, he becomes the Knave of Hearts).

The second classic-novel-turned-ballet is the gothic horror Frankenstein. Again, not what we’d think of as a love story in the usual sense. Liam Scarlett’s tragedy is a dark affair. The ballet has divided audiences. If you fall into the “love it” camp, or simply want to discover it for yourself, you can get Frankenstein on DVD. (Wheeldon’s Alice is also available.)

Northern Ballet is again the star when it comes to adapting classic novels for ballet. Yes, they have also created a ballet from another of the top 100 books: dystopian classic 1984.

Finally, another children’s classic, Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince). This charming tale by Saint-Exupéry dates from 1943 and has captivated generations. A 2016 production by the National Ballet of Canada brought a suitably dreamlike ballet version to the stage. The same year saw a more classic look (with tutus) in a Russian production of Le Petit Prince, performed in St. Petersburg.