The Australian Ballet

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Literature in Motion

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Principal Artist Ako Kondo and Ty King-Wall, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland© (Wheeldon) 2017
Photo Ally Deacon

Our favourite stories as ballets.

Dance is famously a wordless artform. Yet so many of the world's most popular ballets take inspiration from literature. From William Shakespeare to Margaret Attwood, Behind Ballet learns the origin story of some of our favourite ballets and how inspiration can come from the most unexpected sources.

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Principal Artist Benedicte Bemet and George Murray Nightingale, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland© (Wheeldon) 2019
Photo Lynette Wills

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll

When Christopher Wheeldon told designer Bob Crowley he wanted to make a ballet of Lewis Carroll’s fairytale of words and wordplay, he thought the choreographer had gone mad. Fortunately, Wheeldon continued with the project, bringing Crowley on board to design the sets and costumes. What eventuated is the wildly colourful madcap adventure of epic proportions that melds fantasy and reality, breathing new life in the 19th-century book.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland©
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Aya Watanabe and Cameron Holmes, Don Quixote (Nureyev) 2023
Photo Rainee Lantry

Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes

Miguel de Cervantes book is second only to the Bible when it comes to publication numbers and is a pioneer in fiction writing, often cited as the 'first fiction novel'. Written in 1547, the story of the eccentric knight was first adapted into a ballet in 1740. Since then, Don Quixote has been adapted by many choreographers including Russian dancer and choreographer Rudolf Nureyev in collaboration with The Australian Ballet. We most recently performed this version of Don Quixote during our 2023 season.

YSL

Yves Saint Laurent sketch of Notre-Dame de Paris (Petit) costumes, 1967

The Hunchback of Notre Dame – Victor Hugo

In 1967, French choreographer Roland Petit created Notre-Dame de Paris on the Paris Opera Ballet. Petit danced the lead role of Quasimodo, and the costumes were designed by fashion giant by Yves Saint Laurent.

Jules Perrot created an earlier adaptation of Hugo’s novel in 1844 with La Esmeralda, a ballet in three acts and five scenes to music by Cesare Pugni. La Esmeralda starred prima ballerina Carlotta Grisi as the heroine Esmeralda, Jules Perrot as Gringoire, Arthur Saint-Leon as Phoebus, Adelaide Frassi as Fleur de Lys and Antoine Louis Coulon as Quasimodo.

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Yuumi Yamada, The Nutcracker (Wright) 2019
Photo Daniel Boud

The Nutcracker - E.T.A Hoffman/Alexandre Dumas

One of the most recognized ballets in the world, The Nutcracker began as the 1816 short story Nussknacker und Mausekönig (The Nutcracker and the Mouse King) by E.T.A. Hoffman. In 1844 Hoffman’s fairytale was retold by Alexandre Dumas as Histoire d'un casse-noisette (Story of a Nutcracker) and would become the basis for the ballet.

Extra Fun Facts

Alexandre Dumas’ swashbuckling adventure The Three Musketeers was choreographed into ballet by former Northern Ballet Artistic Director David Nixon in 2006.

Alexandre Dumas’ son Alexandre Dumas fils would write the novel La Dame aux Camélias (The Lady of the Camellias) which would become the inspiration for Frederick Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand.

The Nutcracker
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Rina Nemoto and Jarryd Madden, Romeo and Juliet (Cranko) 2022
Photo Daniel Boud

William Shakespeare

There’s barely a Shakespearian work that hasn’t received a ballet adaptation! The Bard has had 19 full-length plays recreated into ballets as well as collections of poetry, prose and sonnets. Among these are dozens of interpretations of each story by differing choreographers. The Australian Ballet’s Shakespearean repertoire includes Garth Welch’s Othello, Frederick Ashton’s The Dream, Graeme Murphy, John Cranko and Garth Welch’s versions of Romeo and Juliet, John Cranko’s The Taming of the Shrew, and Robert Helpmann’s Hamlet.

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Nathan Brook and Amy Harris, Anna Karenina (Possokhov) 2022
Photo Daniel Boud

Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy’s doomed love story set against 19th-century Russian high society is perfectly suited to ballet with lavish costumes and soaring music. The Australian Ballet most recently performed Yuri Possokhov’s Anna Karenina in 2022, in collaboration with Joffrey Ballet.

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Sheree da Costa and David Burch, Carmen (Petit) 1981
Photo Branco Gaica

Carmen – Prosper Mérimée

Prosper Mérimée’s tragic novella of lust and betrayal from 1845 was adapted for ballet in 1949 and entered The Australian Ballet’s repertoire in 1973. In 2024 we revisit the seductive tale with Swedish choreographer Johan Inger’s contemporary retelling of Carmen.

Carmen
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The Handmaid’s Tale (York), Royal Winnipeg Ballet, 2023
Photo Daniel Crump

The Handmaid's Tale – Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood’s dystopian story from 1985 was created into a ballet by Lila York for Royal Winnipeg Ballet in 2013. Set in the fictional country of Gilead, (formerly the United States of America) after an apocalyptic climate crisis, the women are relegated to one of three functional classes and have been stripped of all human rights.

“The story is, shall we say, dark but has a hopeful if ambiguous ending, emerging from a hellish totalitarian world into a world of restored light. I found my own ‘route to the light’ in the ballet, so that no one should leave the theatre (sic) in despair.” — Lila York, Chore­o­g­ra­ph­er, The Handmaid’s Tale
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Tobias Batley, 1984 (Watkins) 2015
Photo Emma Kauldhar

1984 - George Orwell

In another dystopian masterpiece, choreographer Jonathan Watkins turns George Orwell’s cautionary tale into a thrilling spectacle that is as unsettling as the original text. Created on the Northern Ballet in 2015, Watkins’ narrative ballet doesn’t shy away from the darker themes, reflecting on the concept of Big Brother and societal surveillance.

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Callum Linnane, Oscar© (Wheeldon)
Photo Simon Eeles

Oscar©

Christopher Wheeldon takes on the mammoth task of adapting one of the world's most quoted and beloved satirists’ Oscar Wilde’s stories for the ballet stage in Oscar©. Wheeldon has a knack for turning literature into movement having previously created ballet versions of William Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Oscar©

Notable Mentions

Great Expectations – Charles Dickens

Adapted from Dickens’ 1861 novel, this dance version by Northern Ballet Theatre was directed and choreographed by Stefano Giannetti, using the music of Edward Elgar.

Giselle/De l'Allemagne Henrich Heine

Librettists Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Théophile Gautier were inspired by Henrich Heine’s prose depicting the ghostly Wilis in De l'Allemagne and Victor Hugo’s poem Fantômes from Les Orientales.

Dracula Bram Stoker

Michael Pink created the vampiric ballet in 1996 on the Northern Ballet to commemorate the centenary anniversary of the book’s publication.

Frankenstein Mary Shelley

Liam Scarlett took on Mary Shelly’s gothic novel of Dr Frankenstein and his monstrous creation in 2016 for The Royal Ballet.

The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald’s ode to the roaring 20s became David Nixon’s inspiration for the 2013 ballet created on the Northern Ballet.

Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre Emily and Charlotte Brontë

Both Emily and Charlotte Brontë have been given a ballet makeover with productions of their texts Wuthering Heights (Emily) and Jane Eyre (Charlotte) transformed to the ballet stage.

The Three Sisters – Anton Chekov

Technically a play, Anton Chekov’s The Three Sisters received the ballet treatment in 1983 when The Dancer’s Company took choreographer Robert Ray’s adaptation on tour.