Story Ballets for the 21st Century: What Are the Secret Ingredients of Today's Successful Narrative Works?

March 31, 2016

This story originally appeared in the April/May 2016 issue of

In the Prologue to Christopher Wheeldon’s recent ballet The Winter’s Tale, two boys, princely playmates who one day will become kings, are joined onstage by two women veiled in black. They stand, one beside each child, mysterious, disquieting. They hint at the power that women in the ballet will have over men’s imaginations as objects of fierce passions or idealized love. In a brief, evocative tableau, the choreographer foreshadows the darker themes of Shakespeare’s play, the ballet’s source, and their joyful resolution, distilling in a brief passage the story’s emotional arc.

Choreographing story ballets that will appeal to contemporary audiences presents unique challenges even for experienced dancemakers. A too-literal approach or too-traditional staging can seem quaint or flat. And what makes a suitable narrative for those coming of age in a digital era, where there are no strictures on what can be searched, seen and shared? How can a story ballet hold audiences’ attention? If mere distraction becomes the goal, how can a ballet achieve the resonance that will give it continued life?

Zachary Kapeluck in “Sunset, o639 Hours.” Photo by Alexander Izilaev, Courtesy BalletX.

Many current choreographers nevertheless have made narrative a component of their work, though not all have been critically successful. Even Wayne McGregor, celebrated for his form-breaking abstract experiments, recently choreographed Raven Girl, a disturbing fable, and Woolf Works, a three-act exploration of several Virginia Woolf novels for The Royal Ballet. Liam Scarlett, an associate choreographer with The Royal, has created numerous narrative one-acts for the company, including the 1950s-era The Age of Anxiety. Alexei Ratmansky has created his own distinct versions of classics like The Nutcracker, Romeo and Juliet and Don Quixote, and reimagined several staples of the Soviet repertoire, like The Little Humpback Horse. And perhaps more than any other, Wheeldon has staked his claim to the contemporary story ballet with his full-length Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Cinderella and now The Winter’s Tale.

“The art of storytelling is timeless,” says Wheeldon. “We lose ourselves in books, movies, theater, music. I think that an evening of abstract dance can be quite intimidating for new audiences. A story ballet gives them an escape into a world of characters and emotion.”

That emotional tug can pull audiences in, at least initially. “It’s human nature to want our feelings about life represented on the stage,” says Karen Kain, artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada, which co-produced Winter’s Tale with The Royal Ballet. “We can relate even if the stories are told in a different time or a different medium.”

Kain feels her core audience will go to new story ballets, but with certain expectations. “There is a public for Swan Lake and The Nutcracker,” she says. “These are not the people who come all year. If we are going to do story ballets for today’s audiences, we need them to look extraordinary. It comes at a cost.” The sheer expense of mounting a three-act ballet does not present the only challenge. “Once audiences see what can be done with lighting and projections, they love it,” she says. “And young people expect it—they would not accept an old-fashioned approach.”

Sarah Lamb in Wayne McGregor’s “Raven Girl.” Photo by Johan Persson, Courtesy ROH.

Wheeldon agrees. “Design and the use of technology are important tools in storytelling,” he says. He praises “the well-integrated use of projection,” a signature of his Alice and Winter’s Tale, but notes that a ballet’s action cannot be separated from the choreography. Wheeldon’s solo in Winter’s Tale for Hermione, the queen wrongfully accused by her jealous husband of adultery, conveys both her despair and her dignity. No stage magic, however expressive, could portray her anguish better than the vocabulary of movement. Nevertheless, the ballet’s full-scale boat chase—with two onstage ships tossed upon a simulated ocean—remains one of Wheeldon’s favorite moments: “Eye candy isn’t such a bad thing.”

However, choreographer Matthew Neenan, who recently created Sunset, o639 Hours—a semi-abstract ballet that examines a 1930s airplane crash near New Zealand—for BalletX, cautions against relying on technological wizardry. “If it’s done well, multimedia can be revolutionary,” he says. “But it has to make sense—it must have a strong ‘Why.’ When it doesn’t, it’s not worth it.” Sunset, o639 Hours used a created soundscape featuring New Zealand birdsong, for instance, in a scene where the dancers became birds. But to portray the airplane at the story’s heart, the artists themselves became propellers, wings and gears.

Since staging and technology alone cannot guarantee a new story ballet’s appeal, perhaps choreographers must look back to tap the narrative power that has given ballets like Giselle and Swan Lake their place in the repertoire. “A ballet needs a good libretto,” says Robert Greskovic, who covers dance for The Wall Street Journal. In the 19th century, a libretto described settings and a detailed narrative. “In the old days, that was where you started,” says Greskovic, who notes that when the great classical choreographers came of age in the 1800s, the librettist had a more prominent role than the dancemaker. “Audiences used to ask, ‘Who wrote the ballet?’ People knew what the next new ballet was by reading it.”

Piotr Stanczyk and Hannah Fischer in “The Winter’s Tale.” Photo by Karolina Kuras, Courtesy NBoC.

Today’s ballet librettos run the gamut from adaptations of classic literature to original material, like Sunset, o639 Hours. Ratmansky has tapped existing librettos, like Little Humpback Horse, but, as Greskovic notes, he gave it “great snap and pizzazz,” putting his own stamp on it. Notably in Ratmansky’s Nutcracker, the choreographer tweaked the traditional libretto, creating a new character, a mischievous mouse, to start the ballet on a comic note—and adding other elements to clearly signal when the narrative moved into the realm of Clara’s imagination.

The ingredients of a successful contemporary libretto, however, are harder to pin down. “The biggest challenge today is getting the right story to tell through dance,” says Royal Ballet principal Sarah Lamb. She cites McGregor’s collaboration with graphic novelist Audrey Niffenegger on Raven Girl. “The Raven Girl is half-human, half-bird,” explains Lamb, who danced the title role. “She’s born without wings and her absolute obsession is to fly. The ballet deals with the issue of being born into what one feels is the wrong body.” Though the evocative staging used projections, she feels its power lay in its emotional content.

Stories, Lamb continues, are what help people better understand life. “It’s reassuring to have a clear narrative arc when real life is unpredictable and unknown,” she says. And how can choreographers tap that? “The choreographer can’t just be assigned—’Give me a story ballet,’ ” says Greskovic. “The impetus must come from the dancemaker: ‘I want to create this narrative,’ and he or she must believe in it.”

Perhaps to create successful narratives, choreographers now must look to ballet’s storytelling tradition and, as Greskovic notes, make their own investment in a given story. “I’m trying to read more novels that I think could make a good ballet,” says Neenan, “to find my own narratives. It’s important as choreographers for us to do our own research. It’s good for anyone’s craft, before you attack a story, to just think about it, to take it in and do your homework.”