When my brother Ed and I, aged two and four, were taken to see the Royal Ballet’s Tales of Beatrix Potter, Ed sat unmoved through Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, Jemima Puddleduck and Johnny Townmouse. But the moment Beatrix Potter’s frog-in-a-frock-coat high-hopped onto the stage, Ed stood up in his seat and announced to the Covent Garden stalls: ‘Look! It’s Jeremy Fisher.’ So it was. The story, clear in his memory from bedtime reading, had been joyfully realised by Anthony Dowell and Frederick Ashton.
The best book-ballets are triumphs of concision. Kenneth MacMillan was a master. In adapting Romeo and Juliet (Shakespeare) or Manon (Abbé Prévost) he selects no more than ten telling moments on which the plot turns. Each is vital and distinct, but the choreography leads you seamlessly between each one.
Liam Scarlett’s Frankenstein, first danced in 2016 and returning to Covent Garden next spring, was an unfortunate ‘loose, baggy monster,’ too literal and too chapter-for-chapter a reading of Mary Shelley. David Bintley’s Aladdin suffers a similar surfeit. One thousand and one nights? It certainly felt like it.
Plot isn’t everything. Mood matters, too. Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works captured the spirit and sway of Virginia Woolf’s writing in short ballets inspired by Mrs Dalloway, Orlando and The Waves. Some ballets surpass their sources. ETA Hoffman’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King is stolid stuff. The Nutcracker, with Tchaikovsky’s score and Peter Wright’s choreography, is sweet and irresistible as a sugarplum.
See below for five ballets based on books and plays to see this year…
Lear, Southbank Centre
Valda Setterfield, born in Margate, a New Yorker by adoption, dances Shakespeare’s King Lear to choreography by John Scott. Setterfield, now 83, is joined by three male dancers as Goneril, Regan and Cordelia in this gender-defying production. This production is being performed for one night only, so don’t miss out. May 20
Jane Eyre, Sadler’s Wells and The Lowry
‘Poor, obscure, plain and little,’ is how Charlotte Bronte’s heroine Jane Eyre describes herself. You cannot say the same for Abigail Prudames, Dreda Blow and Hannah Bateman who give governess Jane new grace in choreographer Cathy Marston’s adaptation. This Northern Ballet production is on at Sadler’s Wells before heading to Salford for a short run at The Lowry. Sadler’s Wells May 15-19, The Lowry June 6-9
The Sleeping Beauty, Coliseum
Kenneth MacMillan’s sumptuous production, to music by Tchaikovsky, draws on Charles Perrault’s fairy-tale Sleeping Beauty. Alina Cojocaru and Joseph Calery dance Princess Aurora and Prince Desirée on opening night. A highlight of this year’s MacMillan celebrations. June 6-16
The Three Musketeers, touring
Swords! Slashed doublets! Soubresauts! A winning re-telling of Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers by choreographer David Nixon. All for one, and all en pointe. Milady de Winter is a gift of a part to a ballerina: sultry and scheming. This production, another by Northern Ballet, will stop in Nottingham, Newcastle, Sheffield and Canterbury. Various venues, October 4 – November 3
Winter Dreams, Royal Opera House
Inspired by Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters, Kenneth Macmillan’s Winter Dreams is bleakly, beautifully Russian. Part of a mixed-bill with Frederick Ashton’s gleeful, ice-skating Les Patineurs and Jerome Robbins’ light-hearted The Concert. Tickets go on general sale on October 31. December 18 – January 4