Posted on 07 October 2020 By Rose Mulready

Ballet is a wordless art form, but it speaks volumes. A single pas de deux can encompass pages of writing, and many of our favourite ballets are based on books. Let's lose ourselves in some literature-inspired classics.


Shakespeare’s most celebrated love story, coupled with Serge Prokofiev’s luscious, tumultuous score: it’s no wonder that choreographers from all over the world have flocked to the star cross’d lovers. The most famous Romeo and Juliet ballets are by John Cranko and Kenneth MacMillan, and the principal roles in these works are as much prized by dancers as those in classics such as Swan Lake and Giselle.

Simone Goldsmith and Nigel Burley. Photography Jeff Busby


How do you make a ballet from a book that relies on literary allusions and elaborate wordplay? It must have been tempting to go broad-brushstroke, but when Christopher Wheeldon was creating his 2011 ballet, he remained remarkably faithful to Lewis Carroll’s intricate novel. His delightful Alice comes complete with a caucus race, flamingo croquet, a Mad Hatter’s tea party and a ‘Who Stole the Tarts?’ court case.

Jarryd Madden. Photography Jeff Busby


Cervantes’ tale of a deluded knight imitating the feats of his favourite literary heroes is often called the first novel – i.e. the first fictional story to be told in prose. In the ballet by Marius Petipa, the 19th-century choreographer who created Swan Lake, the focus is more on the mischievous lovers Basilio and Kitri; but Don Quixote’s love for his imaginary ideal, Dulcinea, gives rise to one of the most exquisite dream sequences in classical ballet.

Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello. Photography Jeff Busby


Abbé Prévost's banned 1731 novel Manon Lescaut was made into a ballet by Kenneth MacMillan in 1974. At the time, MacMillan was shocking the ballet world with gritty, violent, frankly sexual works. From the torrid love of des Grieux and Manon, MacMillan created a modern classic.

Amber Scott. Photography Lynette Wills


The Adventures of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, May Gibbs’ adorable 1918 children’s classic, makes an equally loveable ballet in the hands of choreographer Petal Miller-Ashmole, who fills the stage with dancing blossoms, shimmering fish, a giant kookaburra, a femme fatale of a snake and the terrifying Bad Banksia Men.

Lisa Bolte. Photography Branco Gaica


Peter Shaffer’s 1973 play about a boy whose quasi-sexual worship of horses leads to a dreadful crime seems an unlikely candidate for dance. But Domy Reiter-Soffer’s 1980 ballet makes the contrast between the boy’s painful inhibition and the exultant freedom of the horses powerfully physical.

Steven Heathcote and Peter Lucadou-Wells. Photography Branco Gaica


Books, letters and misreadings are central to Eugene Onegin, a verse novel by the 19th-century Russian writer Alexander Pushkin – and to Onegin, John Cranko’s masterful 1965 ballet. The letter scene, in which the besotted Tatiana writes a passionate declaration of love to the worldly Onegin is transformed into a dream sequence where Onegin walks through Tatiana’s bedroom mirror and sweeps her into a sensual pas de deux.

Adam Bull and Amber Scott. Photography Lynette Wills