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When Literature Turns Into Movement: 10 Ballets Inspired By Books

Literature has been around for many centuries, even so, the first book adaptations were made when the camera was invented and movies played in cinemas, such as the 1920’s film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, an adaptation from Louis Stevenson’s book. However, literature wasn’t only present in Hollywood. Many ballet companies created pieces inspired by books even when movies weren’t thought of. This shows how letters and pages can be turned into movement and music, telling the same story as the book, but touching us even more with dance.

Check out some amazingly performed ballets inspired by great literature pieces!

 

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Based upon Lewis Carroll’s acclaimed children’s book, this ballet about the adventures of Alice in Wonderland is a three-act piece and it has been present in The Royal Ballet’s repertoire since 2011. It has special staging effects and complex stage clothes.

Curiosity: the ballet is full of satiric moments. The Tart Adage is actually a comedic version of the Rose Adage, from Sleeping Beauty.

The Sleeping Beauty

This princess was famous even before the Disney movie! Made in 1890, the ballet was inspired by the book with the same name, written by the Grimm brothers. The Sleeping Beauty has a prologue and three-acts, since then, the ballet has been added to the repertoires of ballet companies around the world. Although its title is based off on the princesses’ name, the story centers around the good x evil between the Lilac Fairy and Carabosse (the evil fairy that many may know as Maleficent).

Curiosity: The Sleeping Beauty is Tchaikovsky’s longest ballet, lasting almost four hours (counting intermissions), the soundtrack on the other hand lasts three hours.

Romeo and Juliet

One of the most famous plays by William Shakespeare was bound to turn into a ballet piece. With its romantic and tragic storyline, ballet seemed a perfect fit to it. The original production had a happy ending, contrary to Shakespeare’s tragic one, in which the lovers died at the end, but it received backlash from the public, and it was changed. Until today the piece has many versions, with adjustments either in the soundtrack or the characters.

Cinderella

Composed by Sergei Prokofiev and with Nikolai Volkov’s scenario, this piece is one of the most popular and the most melodious compositions of Prokofiev. Even so that Cinderella is performed since 1945 in many countries. The story is the same as the memorable fairy tale written by Charles Perrault.

Curiosity: Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella have the same soundtrack, by Prokofiev, with a few slight adaptations.

A midsummer night’s dream

Another Shakespearean play on the list! This time the comedy was turned into a two-act piece by George Balanchine, and it is one of the greatest productions to have mostly children in the corps de ballet. Act I and II follows up the story as it is in the play, but the finale dispenses the original “play-within-a-play” end.

One Thousand and One Nights

Also referred as Arabian Nights, this 1979 Russian ballet narrates the relationship of two characters within the story: Shahriyar and Scheherazade. Shahriyar, the king, was cheated by his wife and ultimately kills her for unfaithfulness. Believing that all women were alike, he marries a new one every night, only to kill her off at dawn, without any explanation. Soon, the king marries Scheherazade, who volunteers to marry the gruesome monarch, and makes a deal with him: to only kill her when she finishes her story. But each night the clever woman spins another intriguing Arabic folk tale. She manages to survive for 1001 nights, prolonging the lives of women in the kingdom as well.

The two-act ballet was entirely made by Arzebaijan’s artists such as Friket Amirov, Magsud Ibrahimbeyov, Rustam Ibragimbekov and Togrul Narimanbekov, and it’s based upon one of the folk tales that Scheherazade tells the king.

Don Quixote

This three-act ballet turned a few episodes from Miguel de Cervantes’ remarkable Don Quijote de la Mancha into music and movement. The original Russian ballet, envisioned by Marius Petipa, was commissioned for the Tsar’s Imperial Ballet. After its approval, Petipa restaged it for a big production of five acts for St. Petersburg Imperial Ballet. After the Russian Revolution, the ballet was taken outside of the country and became famous in the rest of the world, but with the three-act original version. Today, each company has its own version of Don Quixote, ranging from three acts to four and even five acts.     

Curiosity: Kitri’s variation from Act III is worldwide famous and is used by many students in competitions.

La Esmeralda

If you have read, or at least watched the Disney movie based on the book The Hunchback of Notre Dame, by Victor Hugo, you will remember the Romani woman named Esmeralda, who the judge/bishop Frollo wants to kill and Quasimodo wants to save. Following Frollo’s order, who is completely obsessed with Esmeralda, Quasimodo kidnaps the woman. In the midst of the kidnapping, Phoebus, one of the King’s Archers, rescues her and tries to torture Quasimodo, but Esmeralda stops him from doing so. The rest of this three-act and five scenes piece follows the love story between Esmeralda and Phoebus, while Frollo tries to stop them, and Quasimodo tries to help the couple.

Curiosity: The complete ballet is only performed in Russia, Eastern Europe and New Jersey, although many students use La Esmeralda’s variations in competitions.

Othello

The final Shakespearean adaptation on the list is based upon the author’s tragedy play. The ballet was first commissioned by the American Ballet Theatre and the San Francisco Ballet. The story centers around Othello, a Moorish general, and Iago, the general’s ensign, and how jealousy, passion and ethnicity follow through the tragic plot.

Tom Sawyer

This American classic and staple in literary discussion couldn’t be left out of the stage. Also knows as Tom Sawyer: A Ballet in Three Acts, the piece was made entirely by USA citizens, meaning it’s 100% American and the original score was recorded at Skywalker Sound (yes, created by George Lucas and Star Wars!).

The first act follows Tom in school, presenting the characters Becky Thatcher and Huck Finn, his friends. The second shows the protagonist witnessing a murder and the third follows his testimony at the trial. The ballet is inspired by Mark Twain’s most famous book, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

It’s amazing how literature can come to life in the stage through these incredible ballets. Hope you enjoyed getting to know these pieces and add them to your list to watch and have a good time.

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The article above was edited by Amanda Moraes

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Bárbara Castro

Casper Libero '23

Hi! I'm a journalist who loves reading, writing and everything from pop culture!
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