10 Classic Books That Have Somehow Been Turned Into Ballets

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Next season, Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet will be presenting an adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s beloved novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. While there’s no denying the power of the book, it does seem somewhat strange fodder for a ballet — given that it’s a dystopic indictment of fundamentalism and gender norms and all. However, as it turns out, a number of surprising novels have been adapted for the stage as ballets or operas — check out a selection of these after the jump, and feel free to add to the list in the comments.

The Handmaid’s Tale

The fact that Atwood’s masterpiece has already been adapted into an opera doesn’t really make the ballet version any less surprising. But at least it won’t be slapped together — apparently, the project has been in the works for eight years, and artistic director André Lewis sees it as connected to Winnipeg’s relatively new Canadian Museum for Human Rights. “It’s an important aspect and we’re also bringing a message that is important to say,” Lewis explained. “It’s a very powerful book and we felt it was appropriate.” Well, if you say so.

Photo Credit: Brianne Bland

The Sun Also Rises

Next week, an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises will open at the Washington Ballet, something that might or might not make the manliest of authors roll over in his grave. Or maybe he’ll be convinced from the beyond? “One of the challenges is to distill the story so the audience isn’t dealing with secondary plot issues,” artistic director Septime Webre explains. “In our art form, what we do best is make the feelings foremost.” Which might just be something Hemingway could get behind.

As I Lay Dying

In 1948, modern dancer and choreographer Valerie Bettis adapted William Faulkner’s stream-of-consciousness novel into a dance play — to some critical success. Apparently, the New York Times dance critic called it “a completely authoritative work of art,” and Doris Hering of Dance Magazine wrote, “Only an artist with the deepest feeling for movement and drama could have worked the wonders Miss Bettis did with the material at hand.” Right, because that material was so shoddy.

Sophie’s Choice

William Styron’s 600-page novel has appeared in many forms, including a four-hour opera, but the most puzzling adaptation is Cathy Marston’s 40-minute ballet Sophie, which ran at the Royal Opera House in London in 2003. The truncation of the name is apt, since Marston removed Sophie’s famous choice from her presentation of Sophie’s Choice. Critics had mixed feelings.

Dracula

Could Dracula the ballet be anything but impossibly hokey? It depends on which one you’re talking about — after all, there are several, ranging in degree of camp and often performed around Halloween. Probably the most famous Dracula ballet is the one created by Michael Pink and Christopher Gable, premiered in 1997 to commemorate the centenary of the novel’s publication. “It’s been loosely referred to as the Rocky Horror Show of ballet,” Pink has said. “It comes back and back again because it sells out. People adore it. It has that cult status.” Plus, “Dracula himself is a man of very few words.” So there you go.

Great Expectations

Dickens — and Victorian literature, for that matter — doesn’t exactly scream out for a balletic adaptation. Indeed, the Guardian‘s theater critic, Judith Mackrell, judged Stefano Giannetti’s 2000 production at the Northern Ballet Theatre thusly: “though he simplifies hard, with flashbacks condensed into neatly contrived tableaux, he’s left with far too much to explain within a two-act ballet. Between the dance numbers there are mad dashes of storytelling, barely comprehensible to anyone who has not read the book, and occasional episodes of overburdened symbolism. When Pip encounters the mature Estella she has, like her guardian, perched herself on top of a shell-like plinth – and Pip’s fumbling endeavours to lift her down to human happiness are more absurd comedy than touching resolution: Woman Escapes from Giant Mollusc.” Yikes.

The Yellow Wallpaper

Actually, Charlotte Gilman Perkins’s novel is a perfect candidate for a ballet, chiefly concerned as it is with a solitary woman’s descent into madness, locked away in a room by herself — but somehow, that fact doesn’t make its existence any less surprising. In this version, performed by the Chantry Dance Company at The Village Underground in January of 2013, the Narrator is divided into three parts — mind, body, and voice — in order to underscore her eventual dissociative psychosis.

Heart of Darkness

One would think that Conrad’s classic novel would be too much of an enigma to turn into an opera, but one would be wrong. In 2011, 33-year-old composer Tarik O’Regan adapted the book into a chamber opera that actually doesn’t sound half bad. “One of my favourite lines in the book is when Marlow says, ‘It seemed to me as if I was also buried in a vast grave full of unspeakable secrets,'” O’Regan told the Guardian . “And that’s the drama of all this, that he is finally able to say, ‘I saw all of this’, and the real tragedy is that he also kept it a secret. And it’s in that gap between the truth and the narrative of the truth where our piece of drama can fit. That’s what music can do; it can amplify the ambiguity of the story.”

Of Mice and Men

Again, something about this book seems too subtle, too ethereal, to be captured by an opera — and then there’s the fact that, well, Lennie singing an aria? Yikes. That said, the opera, which was composed by Carlisle Floyd in 1969, has been performed in multiple theaters, most recently this March in Sarasota. One reviewer notes that “the musical structure that supports this complex of motives is often as bi-polar as Lennie,” which really should make no one feel any better.

1984

If you’re going to do an operatic version of 1984, you’d better do it right. The critics hated this 2005 production, written by Lorin Maazel and directed by Robert Lepage. The Guardian said it was “both shocking and outrageous that the Royal Opera, a company of supposed international standards and standing, should be putting on a new opera of such wretchedness and lack of musical worth.” The Financial Times suggested that the “only reason we find this slick perversion of Orwell on the Covent Garden stage is because super-rich Maazel bought his way there by stumping up the production costs.”