From Page to Stage: Notes on the Partnership of Dance and Literature

Article excerpt

Since the inception of western theatrical dance, the literary arts have been used as starting points for dance creation. In the hands of master choreographers, classic modern dance and ballet works have evolved from fairy tales, legends, parables, myths, plays, novels, fables, short stories, and even poems. These verbal/nonverbal partnerships are based on the beliefs and conditions 1) that gesture and movement are imbued with the potential for meaning, 2) that the meaning can be recognized and experienced by the audience, and 3) that particular texts lend themselves to the communicative physicality of dance.

In her 1959 choreographic treatise, The Art of Making Dances, modern-dance choreographer Doris Humphrey wrote, "Character and behavior delineation, which may take an author pages to articulate, might be done in seconds by the dancer who deals directly with the emotional resonance of the text.... Words supply the facts.... The dance must be the area where feeling about these things exists."

FAIRY TALES AND LEGENDS

The magic and fantasy in romantic and classical ballets of the nineteenth century resulted from the legends and tales upon which they were based. Story ballets such as Swan Lake, Coppelia, and The Nutcracker provided technically exciting dancing with beautiful music and an understandable, light-hearted story--characteristics that continue to give "make-believe" ballets their universal appeal. Humphrey makes the historically interesting observation that whereas "serious ideas were used in the opera and drama of the period, dance was saddled with expectations of beauty, awe-inspiring technique and effortlessness. The physicality of dance made it appear nonintellectual, consequently rendering its subject matter outside the purview of real human endeavors." Her point is demonstrated by the fact that the 1890 fairy tale ballet of The Sleeping Beauty, based on a story by Charles Perrault and choreographed by Marius Petipa, was produced at the same time as Henrik Ibsen's sociologically charged play, Ghosts. However, some ballets of the period did have meaning embedded in the narrative structure. Petrouchka, based on a politically relevant Russian folk tale, served as a protest against repression, and Giselle, rooted in a German legend, captured the tragedy of human frailty.

PARABLES

With many Bible stories having been adapted for film and opera, George Balanchine's Prodigal Son is the best-known "danced" version of the genre. The symbolic story from St. Luke of the rebellious, extravagant son who leaves home, meets with hardships, and is ultimately forgiven by his loving father, provided fertile ground for the innovative choreographer. In his 1929 creation, Balanchine began his hallmark reinvention of ballet as he molded the movement vocabulary to fit the psychological development of the characters and the realistic action.

MYTHS

Modern-dance maven Martha Graham embraced Greek mythology in works that probed the passions of the human experience, communicating the psychological essences over narrative details. Writer Jack Anderson notes that her work, Errand into the Maze, does not tell the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, but rather it "depicts a woman shuddering through a labyrinth in which lurks a creature--part man, part monster--who personifies her deepest fears." In Clytemnestra, the queen comes to an understanding of her own motives through painful reflection physicalized in Graham's "contraction and release" dance technique. Critic Arlene Croce noted, "In this epochal Graham theatre, movement expressed what no words could."

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PLAYS

Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones, August Strindberg's Miss Julie, and Peter Shaffer's Equus are examples of the dramatic literature that has found its way into dance. Some plays such as A Streetcar Named Desire, by Tennessee Williams, and Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and Romeo and Juliet have been used in multiple adaptations. …