‘Novel’ Ballets: 6 Stunning Ballets Inspired by Classic Books

'Novel' Ballets: 5 Stunning Ballets Inspired by Classic Books

Joffrey Ballet’s production of “Anna Karenina,” a world premiere collaboration between Joffrey Ballet and The Australian Ballet, will be gracing the Auditorium Theatre’s stage Feb. 13-24. Once you see Joffrey’s take on Tolstoy’s classic tale of political ambition and forbidden passion, you’ll come to understand that if a picture is worth a thousand words, surely a ballet commands a whole novel. When a choreographer pulls together a novel in balletic form, they often jettison subplots and extraneous characters until the story is writ whole in a flurry of poetic movement and emotion, distilled to its essence and overarching intention. “Anna Karenina” is not alone as a great novel that has made the transition from page to stage; here are five others that have been done with grace, style, and even wit, capturing the feel of time and place through dance, all for a rapt audience.

Classic Books That Inspired Ballets: "Anna Karenina" at Joffrey Ballet in Chicago
“Anna Karenina” at Joffrey Ballet: Victoria Jaiani and Alberto Velazquez (Photo by Cheryl Mann.)

Jane Eyre

Classic Books That Inspired Ballets: "Jane Eyre" by Charlotte Bronte

The American Ballet Theatre, in a co-production with Joffrey Ballet, will present choreographer Cathy Marston’s adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s masterpiece during the 2019 Spring Season. This haunting tale is also a social critique of Victorian mores and spirituality. Jane, a penniless orphan, finds her calling as a governess to the Rochester children at Thornfield Hall, but what secrets lie within its walls? And will she and Rochester ever discover their mutual love and admiration? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.

Wuthering Heights

Classic Books That Inspired Ballets: "Wuthering Heights" by Emily Bronte

Produced most recently at Charlotte Ballet, Emily Brontë’s tale of obsessive love and revenge translates beautifully to the stage. Can you imagine a more passionate pas de deux than one danced by star-crossed Catherine and her beloved Heathcliff? Choreographer Sasha Janes transports you to 18th Century England to tell the sad story of a love that can never be but always is, set among the moors and fields of heather. It doesn’t end well … but the story is achingly exquisite.


Classic Books That Inspired Ballets: "Frankenstein" by Mary Shelley

Choreographer Liam Scarlett’s reimagining of Mary Shelley’s Gothic stunner was such a hit for San Francisco Ballet — playing to sold-out crowds and “roaring ovations” in 2017 — that they brought it back for an encore. Of course, the creature has never before seemed quite so perfectly formed or alluring. Each piece of the puzzle, from Dr. Victor Frankenstein’s athletic dance of creation in his laboratory to the Creature’s journey of self-discovery and destruction, fits together to underscore the beauty and tragedy of life.

The Handmaid’s Tale

Classic Books That Inspired Ballets: "The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood

Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s dystopic future has proven catnip for creatives, going from best-selling book to film to the small screen in its recent Emmy Award-winning incarnation. Now, it is a ballet choreographed by Lila York, fittingly world-premiered at Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet. Written in 1985, the once-controversial story of Gilead now seems eerily prescient, and the handmaids’ red robes a testimony to both their womanliness and their otherness.

The Great Gatsby

Classic Books That Inspired Ballets: "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Another set of star-crossed lovers, the married Daisy Buchanan and mysterious millionaire playboy Jay Gatsby, dance the light fantastic in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s seminal Jazz Age tale. In production this season at both Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and the U.K.’s Northern Ballet (albeit with different choreographers), everyone’s favorite AP English Literature assignment is a devastating examination of class, love, infidelity, and jealousy. The plot easily lends itself to dance, in romantic balletic movement as well as frenetic echoes of the Roaring ‘20s.

Make It Better is proud to be The Joffrey Balley’s 2018-2019 Season Content Partner. 


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Julie Chernoff, Make It Better’s dining editor since its inception in 2007, graduated from Yale University with a degree in English — which she speaks fluently — and added a professional chef’s degree from the California Culinary Academy. She has worked for Boz ScaggsRick Bayless, and Wolfgang Puck (not all at the same time); and sits on the boards of Les Dames d’Escoffier International and Northlight Theatre





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