Narrative Dance Theatre - by Leigh Barrett

By Leigh Barrett

For many decades, narrative dance was largely replaced with abstract dance, most notably by Balanchine. Since the beginning of this decade, however, story ballet is making a welcome comeback - audiences love stories, after all. For centuries, narrative ballets have been a major drawcard for ticket-buying audiences, hence the longevity of The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, and many dance versions of Shakespeare’s tales.  The ability to transport an audience to another world, give them the opportunity to invest emotionally in characters, needs a good storyline.

In her article, “When ballet loses the plot with narratives”, Judith Mackrell writes, “Dance can be a breathtaking medium for narrative, delivering emotion and character with greater physical impact than words. But it’s also limited in the amount of plot it can carry.”  To dance stories means to tell stories to an audience.  One of the struggles recent narrative dance has faced is an awareness that not everyone can tell a good story, and as brilliant as many choreographers are at transferring the emotional content to the dance, there are times when the plot does get a little lost in the telling, leaving audiences with bouts of boredom or confusion. Mackrell writes, “Audiences regularly sit through a poverty of dance-narrative expression that they will never tolerate in a movie, a novel, an opera, a play or even a musical.”

The productions in this catalogue are designed to engage the audience as well as the dancer. In some, the lyrics assist in the telling of the story, but it is up to the dancer to interpret the story the librettist and the lyricist has created.   The music has been chosen to represent the musician’s catalogue of work, and as distinct as these singer-songwriters are, the opportunity exists to introduce their music to a new audience, and dance fans can be presented with new and unique productions. 

These libretti reflect a fuller theatrical experience not often seen on stage in a dance format.  Musical theater is not new, but the concept can now be transferred to the dance performance.  These are onstage stories that are not fairytales, but rather a reflection of humanity.  The characters are not one dimensional, but rather complex, emotional, often flawed, and always striving. 

From pirate tales with unconventional family structures, to examining how conflict can impact the psyche, these productions are carefully researched and written to take the audience along on an engaging journey with characters in whom they can invest emotionally.