Blurring Genres, Mixing Mediums: Metanarrative of Ballet

FAIRYIs it romance, as in “Romeo and Juliet,” comedy, as in “La FIlle Mal Gardee,” or tragedy, as in “Swan Lake?”

Sometimes, story blurs the genres. “Romeo and Juliet” and “Swan Lake” have both romance and tragedy, while “La FIlle Mal Gardee has romance  and comedy as well as chickens!   Whether the tale is romantic tragedy or romantic comedy, myth, or literature, itself, the plot drives the story ballets.  These ballets also have root sources.

Fairy Tale,

Let’s begin with the fairy tales.  With fairy tales, we go back to the oral tradition of passing down stories through the generations.  The Brothers Grimm took those traditions, and wrote them down, editing out the more gruesome aspects to create stories with a moral and social base. Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella are evergreen ballets, but others are new or rarely done.  The Golden Cockerel, a folktale, was originally a poem by Alexander Pushkin (1834), which he based on two Tales of the Alhambra by Washington Irving (1832), and later the story was made into an opera by RInsky-Korsokov (1909), and then into a ballet (1913).

Hans Christian Anderson‘s famous story, The Red Shoes, is an iconic fairy tale ballet that has become a root source in itself, generating two other ballet films (The Turning Point and Center Stage). Tales, such as these have come down to us in books, from Grimm, and then movies by Disney, and The Archers. (1)  What started as ballet on stage is now ballet, on another medium – film.  These tales have leaped from a book to stage, and then to film in a transformative story line, adapted for dance.  Ballets are shaped by the vision of the choreographer and original author, but on film, they are adapted (and authored, in editing)  once again for cinematic effect.



There are ballets, also based on myth. Two by Stravinsky, Apollo and Orpheus, come directly to us from Greek mythology.  Additional ballets from Greek drama include, Elektra, based on Sophocles/Euripedes with music by RIchard Strauss, as well as Antigone, by Sophocles again, and composed by Mark Pekarski.  American Ballet Theater this season is performing another Greek-inspired ballet – Sylvia.

Other adaptations for the modern stage are also based on the original. An example of this would be the play,  Mourning Becomes Electra by Eugene O’Neill, in which modern day characters take on the roles of those of the ancient Greek’s trilogy of the Oresteia by Aeschylus.  The metanarrative follows performances in many forms from thousands of years past to the present day.



We all love a good Shakespearean story, and Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, A Winter’s Tale, and The Moor’s Pavane do not disappoint in ballet works. Many of Shakespeare’s stories themselves have a root source or two; therefore, his arsenal of plays have morphed from ancient Greek and Middle Ages tales to the present day with their modern dress, anachronistic, political, or avant garde productions.



Taking a novel from book to screen or stage presents a challenge for all stories. The Lady of the Camellias, Carmen, Manon have been popular not only in ballet, but in many mediums. The Eifman Ballet in St. Petersburg premiered Tolstoy’s classic Russian novel, Anna Karenina in 2005 as well. (Note that in the movie, The Turning Point, that Anne Bancroft, as aging ballerina, Emma, danced “Anna Karenina” as a fictional ballet in the movie. Therefore, we have novel to fictionalized ballet to real ballet, and then of course the many film versions.)

On film, story is told visually with dialogue.  On stage in drama, dialogue is more vital.  Ballet, however, uses dance to continue the story line both visually and athletically, as well from its root source.  In ballet, the pantomime involved (an acting technique, taken from The Commedia Dell’ Arte, an early form of theater) enhances the literary story in ways that film or stage cannot. (2)  Form and technique in body movement move the story along.

Which medium would tell the story best in its truest form though?


The Narrative and Metanarrative

Mixing mediums and blurring the genres carry a story from its root source to the present day with various incarnations along the way. Some incarnations are recognizable; while others need a closer inspection to spot the story root. To recognize the story, Hamlet in the animated film, The Lion King, needs someone familiar with Shakespearean themes.  While there is no ballet in either, song and dance by SImba and friends move the cartoon story along with only a portion of the original indecision or angst.

Versions of stories that are diminutives of, or surround the original root story:

Example: Hamlet

  • History of the Danes (1200) – (based on fact)
  • The Ur Hamlet (1519) – (play by Thomas Kyd)
  • Shakespeare’s Hamlet – the masterwork
  • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead – the meta-play
  • The Lion King – animated film with different setting for children
  • Opera: by Amexandre Dumas with music by Ambroise Thomas
  • Overature: Tchaikovsky
  • Ballet: Choreographed by Sir Robert Helpmann * of The Red Shoes fame.

Therefore, we adapt from the History of the Danes (fact) to the masterwork of Shakespeare to different modern mediums, leading us to a ballet. The metanarrative line is complete, at least for now.

“Whereas narrative represents the story as it is manipulated by the discourse, metanarrative speaks about the narrative and exists as a function of the discourse” (Univ. of Michigan).  What function does a derivative tale play in the over-arching story of the original?

(Post-modernist criticism tells us that the metanarrative is a grand theory to explain all, including sub theories or narratives.  Jean-Francois Lyotard was the leading philosophical proponent.)

Literature, however, demands a wider definition. According to the University of Michigan, “In most cases, these formally subordinated narratives recount events belonging to a specific previous or later story time (flashbacks or follow-ups) .” I would add that the mixing of mediums (ballet, stage, film or opera) offers a halo that surrounds the story skeleton by which the story can change or adapt to the requirements of other mediums, audiences, and generations.

But let’s return to the more famous ballets that we all know and love today. With that metanarrative line of story from its root to its culmination in ballet, we see the process of art. Sleeping Beauty, once a tale of oral tradition, was transformed into writing by those Brothers Grimm who created a cottage industry of thousands of books for new generations. The medium evolved, and Sleeping Beauty, that fairy tale of yore, again transformed into the lavish American Ballet Theater production onstage at the Met, choreographed by Ratmansky.

On the other hand, Balanchine’s staging of ballets tend toward ballet minimalism. Costume might be simply leotards, and sets may be sparser. Perhaps Balanchine, so noted for his many non-story ballets, in fact, creates the purest form of story with its very sparseness. Without elaborate costume, the story or function of ballet shines through.  Dancers and audience then complete the missing story mentally, when function presides over narrative. The skeleton of story and function survive together, and flourish.

How will classic stories stay in the canon of creative works, yet change for future mediums and generations?  Can the elements of story, not only survive the transition of time, costumes, custom, and mores, but even transcend them?

Whether it is meta-fiction, meta-play, or meta-ballet, I guess that we will just have to wait a few hundred more years to find out.


(1) Helpmann danced in the ballet films, The Red Shoes (1948), which he also choreographed, and Tales of Hofmann (1950).

(2) Commedia Dell’Arte. (Sept. 16, 2015) See my blog article, Commedia Dell’Arte, An Unusual Form of Dance.



Britannica. (2016).  Sir Robert Helpmann. Online Britannica. hhht://

WIkipedia. The Golden Cockerel. (2016). Online encyclopedia.

American Ballet Theater. The Golden Cockerel  (2016) web site.

University of Michigan. (nd) Telling Wonders. “Narrative and Metanarrative” Chapter 1 (p. 21)


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