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Wanted: new story lines for a 21st Century Swan Lake

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On the "Is Giselle "dead"?" thread, Alexandra makes the following point and raises an interesting question:

Of course there are people who love modern/postmodern/whateverpostmodernis work, but to sell out a big house for more than an occasional program, it's "Swan Lake." Now, if we could just have a new "Swan Lake"..... [no. Not a new improved old Swan Lake, but a new classical ballet of the same resonance).

Surely there must be "new" stories -- allied with classically-based choreography -- which could become the basis of a full-evening work that would have the universal appeal and exceptionally long life of the Big Three -- Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and Giselle, not to mention the uniquitous Romeo and Juliets, Cinderallas, etc..

We've had things Dracula. :thumbsup: It musts be possible to come up with something better.

What "new" story do you suggest that might have a chance of becoming -- in the hands of an exceptional classically-based choreographer -- a Swan Lake for the 21st Century and beyond?

Or is something like that no longer possible in the modern world?

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I don't accept the notion that a new narrative full-length 'classic' is no longer possible. After all, a large portion of the ballet audience wants to see narrative full-length ballets.

I think one problem is that the narrative full-lengths that have been created in the past few years have either not been 'real' ballets (i.e. Matthew Bourne) or not been 'good' ballets (i.e. Dracula), and this has led many of the more knowledgable or adventurous audience members away from the narrative full-lengths.

Another issue which is addressed in the way bart phrased the original post is that the ballets we consider 'classics' exist in any number of different versions, and that is part of what makes them a classic. Today of course ownership of intellectual property has evolved since the 19th century and no one could get away with adapting a ballet as stagers do with the Petipa ballets.

For instance, as far as I know the MacMillan Manon is the only one out there. Why is that? Has no other choreographer been interested? Is the ownership of the choreography linked to the music so no one else can use the music?

As to which stories could be choreographed, there are dozens. For my part, the key should be that the story can be easily understood with just a brief glance at the synopsis and that the story has universal appeal. Greek myths: for instance, the story of the house of Jason and Medea, the Oedipal stories and so on still strike a chord and are very relevant to our life today. If these stories succeed as straight theatre and as operas, why not ballet?

On the other hand, I wouldn't recommend adapting Jane Austen's books. Even though they too strike a chord in our hearts today and can be easily adapted to the ballet stage because you can alternate intimate scenes with ballroom gatherings, they require a very understated and low key approach which is usually the opposite of dramatic dance. (My mind is boggling imagining Nureyev as Darcy :thumbsup: ).

For an original story, I would like to see an original story set in a period/location with lots of social dancing. What about a story set in the Prohibition era - a DEA agent (or whatever they were called then) falls in love with a dancer in a speakeasy. You know it can't end well... :thumbsup:

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I don't think we're lacking great composers; I think we're lacking great ballet composers, who write what Balanchine described as "musique dansant." (Contrary to popular belief among contemporary choreographers, Arvo Part is not a ballet composer :thumbsup:) Almost all composers who are writing "by-the-yard" music these days are writing for film.

If I wanted to do choreograph a narrative ballet, I would hire a film composer or Stuart Kershaw, who crafted a beautiful score for Kent Stowell's underrated "The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet" out of mostly obscure Tchaikovsky, and one that supported the story that Stowell wanted to tell.

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Very, very good point. We may not be lacking great choreographers so much as great composers.

We are lacking in great composers, but you don’t necessarily need great ones, good ones will do almost as well. Tchakovsky and Stravinsky were indeed great, but it was also important that they came from a culture that loved, revered, and understood the art form. It’s my impression, and this is related to Helene's point, that many composers today might think of ‘trying their hand’ at a ballet, but it would be only that – doing something that might be challenging and interesting but is essentially outside their central concerns.

I don't want to hear any music by the yard. It's bad enough getting it from Minkus.

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Greek myths provided great characters, and sizzling stories, for Graham (Jocasta, Medea, Clytemnestra) They also worked on a more rarified level for Balanchine: Orpheus, Apollo. But these were shorter pieces. Only Apollo is preformed regularly any longer.

The Greek myths had an almost universal cultural resonance among educated western audiences during much of the 20th century. Do they still have anything like this appeal today? The stories are good. The situations are simple. The emotions and the issues involved are on a grand scale. But which myths could sustain a full evening ballet? Eugene O'Neill combined the three plays of the Oresteia into a single work, Mourning Becomes Electra. But longer, multi-scene ballets based on classical myths -- Diana and Acteon, Sylvia -- don't seem to be in that league, however lovely they are to watch.

How about literary classics, which worked well for Cranko, Neumeier, Ashton, Macmillan. The basic story of Romeo and Juliet does seem to speak to audiences from diverse cultural and historical backgrounds. The same with Cinderella and possibly Carmen.

But does Manon transcend its place in culture and history? Ondine? Month in the Country? Eugene Onegin? Taming of the Shrew? Marguerite and Armand? Don Quixote (even the Balanchine version)? Spartacus? .... Washington Square(!)?

How about the new mythologies of Tolkien and others? They're NOT simple stories, but maybe something could be abstracted out of them.

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What about Wuthering Heights? Or Jane Eyre? Not enough action?

I suppose Tom Jones is too convoluted in terms of plot, but its a lot of fun...

I'm just thinking of books I love to read and reread.

This is a hard topic! There are loads of stories I love, but translating them into ballet...well its not easy, even in concept.

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Speaking on behalf of the Tolkien works, which need no endorsement, I would have to limit the scope of a ballet libretto to one storyline, like Beren and Lùthien, or else the ballet world would have its own Ring cycle that would rival Wagner's for sheer length.

the hobbits also present somewhat of a logistical problem for dancers... who wants to dance in giant fake feet???

and of course no female hobbits figure prominently in the story.

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Children today still learn the Greek myths in school, and one might even be able to do an ancient Greek play as a ballet.

I've noticed that opera seems to be a little more adventurous as far as plots go--we recently had "Margaret Garner" at NYCO, and there is one about Harvey Milk. There is (or soon will be) an opera about Erzsebet Bathory, written by one of her descendants, no less. Admittedly, opera uses words, so it's easier to get certain specific things across to the audience without using a story everyone already knows. I'm not saying the above operas are the artistic or box office equivalent of "Swan Lake," but they are at least new operas that people go to see/hear.

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Two comments:

Great story ballet:

My vote is for the Greek tragedy, Antigone by Sophocles. Most middle to high school kids read this play, and its theme - who do we obey? the state or a higher authority? - still resonates just as strongly today as it did during its author's day. It's already at least fairly familiar to audiences, and holds all the elements of a great story ballet: young love, conscience, sibling and generational conflicts, and then there's that stone vault Antigone is led into to die! As a story ballet, it works on so many levels.

My middle and high school students are enthralled by this story, as am I each year when I reread it; it's seen me through several presidential elections and a couple of wars. Antigone's theme is always relevant no matter what current events issues are in the forefront.

Regarding the posts about new composers:

I wonder if the issue isn't as much about a lack of composers available, but a lack of funds available to pay them! What ballet company has the funds to commission John Williams, say, to write ballet music?

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Regarding the posts about new composers:

I wonder if the issue isn't as much about a lack of composers available, but a lack of funds available to pay them! What ballet company has the funds to commission John Williams, say, to write ballet music?

What ballet company had the funds to commission Joni Mitchell to write ballet music? The project, by definition, would be a labor of love, even for those composers writing at union scale.

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A comment on the Tolkien suggestion:

I think that there are too many non-human characters for it to work as a ballet. I think a sci-fi or fantasy book could be adapted, but you need to have human (or superhuman) characters in order to really work as a longlasting ballet and not just as a gimmick.

A movie that could be adapted to a ballet is Blade Runner (I've never read the Philip K. Dick story it's based on). The story is straightforward and familiar to many. There are a relatively small number of main characters and their physicality is part of their characterization. The question of who is human, who isn't, can we tell the difference and what does that difference matter are all questions which are eminently suitable for a ballet. It wouldn't hurt if the lead were as yummy as Harrison Ford...

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Of course choreographers may be tired of them, but the fairytales really haven't been exhausted and they usually provide plots that aren't hard to adapt for a ballet. The bluebird, for example, appears in Sleeping Beauty, but why doesn't he get a ballet to himself(although many people seem unaware that he even has a fairytale to himself)? And of course myths and legends from around the world are a rich resource. Really, I think choreographers can hardly complain about a lack of stories for ballet.

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Antigone is a fascinating idea -- it has simplicity of story (though some problems in conveying her motivation without words?) It also has a cast of archetypal characters.

It doesn't have a love story, however. (Haemon's passion for Antigone turns out to be one-sided.) Also, Antigone dies alone in her tomb. (Aida has Radames in hers.)

There are so many great stories. To succeed we need (a) a simple plot line; (b) an intense conflict situation involving not too many principals; © romantic love, whiich preferably turns out to be hopeless; (d) a composer who can write danceable music in a variety of moods; (e) a wealthy donor. That IS a lot, come to think of it.

Any other ideas?

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What about Wuthering Heights? Or Jane Eyre? Not enough action?

Well, Wuthering Heights was made into a ballet several years ago by POB etoile Kader Belarbi. In French, it's Hurlevent. He commissioned a score from Philippe Hersant, and created a big lead role for Nicolas LeRiche. It's apparently a success, and was danced just this past month at the POB. There's been some discussion of it here and there on this forum too. But no other company seems to have taken it up, which has been a problem with a lot of the more recent full-length story ballets - only their own companies do them. Apart from the older works by Neumeier, Ek (POB will be doing his Maison de Bernarda, based on the Lorca play, this spring with Belarbi and Legris alternating as Bernarda!), Prelocaj et al., modern narrative works haven't carried very well yet.

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One vote more for Lord of the Rings. If there is one ballet that will get my boyfriend to ever go to the theater for ballet that must be Lord of the Rings. It will be great fun for kids too to dance hobbits!

Also loved the Blade Runner and Wuthering Heights ideas. Wuthering heights has been choreographed at the Paris Opera in contemporary style (as was Medea) but I'd love to see it as a classical ballet with maybe only Cathy and Heathcliff occasionally dancing in a freer, wilder style to show the contrast of their characters with those in their environment.

Other ideas:

The nightmare before christmas (comes with ready made, tuneful, if thin, score)

My fair lady (substitute dancing style for pronunciation - everyone loves a good makeover :-))

One flew over cucko's nest (Mats Ek has already used an asylum for his Giselle but why not a ballet loosely based on this story?)

Antigoni has too many fine points for a ballet. Maybe something simpler and more movement oriented like Icarus? btw bart, I think Diana and Acteon was just a divertissment from Esmeralda not a full length ballet. The pdd has precious little to do with the myth - Acteon was turned into a male dear and consequently devoured by hounds for having seen Artemis/Diana naked - not much happy frolicking around there.

I sincerely hope to see less new fairy tale ballets choreographed. They may fill the coffers in the short term but in the long term they are possibly turning people off ballet by confirming the widely held impression of ballet as something irredeemably childish, fluffy and pink. There was a time where ballet was considered adult entertainment and ballets could present such stark and unflinching visions as Nijinska's Noces or such complex relationships as those in the ballets of Tudor. We rarely see ballets like that anymore. Have all original artists escaped to the lands of plotless or contemporary dance? I'm tired of seeing ballet being condescended to, sometimes even by its own people.

[Edited to add: Not that fairy tales cannot be dark or psychologically complex - but this aspect is rarely apparent in new choreographies of fairy tales - most are rather Disneyfied]

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I have thought about this SO many times.


Yes, film composers would be the easiest translatable format. Film composers create scores using different tempos/tempi(?), to create very different moods, in distinct time allowance. But PLEASE choose a composer who understands melodic line. Williams comes first to mind, but I've also enjoyed scores by Rota (too bad deceased), Morricone, Corigliano, Horner, even John Barry! I was so disappointed with Goldenthal's Othello score. I thought his score to "Interview with the Vampire" was eerie/sad in the adagios, and grating/Psycho strings in the allegros, but even principal dancers have told me Othello is "all counts" since the score is nearly impossible to dance. (Kudos to Lubovich I guess for using it; but I do like the sets/costumes/staging).


The easiest one that always springs to mind, and I don't understand why it has not been done everywhere (though I thing RB (eg.MacMillan) and other companies have tackled variations of it) is...TRISTAN & ISOLDE. It meets nearly all of bart's requirements: Simple triangle love story, with easily understood conflict(s), with maximum of 4-6 main characters. AND it has all that music, which doesn't necessarily have to be sung--we've all seen those albums of "Opera without Words/Singing". If Stanton Welch could do a halfway credible Mme.Butterfly, and MacMillan could use all those opera excerpts to create Manon, why not this opera?

I also saw a memorable, interesting use of staging (can't recall all the choreography) of Hunchback of Notre Dame at Boston Ballet. It wasn't as 'grand guignole' as Dracula, or flashy as Cleopatra (too long and boring that in the middle), and was rather sombre/sad ending of course.

Will probably think of more later, gotta run now.

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I think that we've established the original premise for this thread, that, yes, there ARE storylines out there that could make a classical ballet. Whether they come from Ancient Greece, Oxford University, Yoknapatawpha County, or the planet Vulcan, (Anybody know how to get in touch with Majel Roddenberry to see what Gene had creative options on?), yes, there are stories out there.

But what of structure? Would a 21st-century classic have to abide by the ballet model of taking say, Don Quixote, which is 812 pages long in the translation I have, and paring it down to one side of a sheet of paper covering only a very minor subplot, with a lot of white space, then padding that back out with divertissements? The pas de six (with entrée, adage, six variations and coda) from Antigone - that's a scary concept!

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