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Ballet and myth: A fascination that goes back centuries

How ancient mythological stories continue to inspire choreographers and dancers.

By Elizabeth Davis (Editorial Assistant)

1 September 2014 at 11.40am | Comment on this article

Friedrich Nietzsche wasn't the first to see a connection between art and myth, writing about great art as a balancing act between the elegant beauty of Apollo and the raw energy of Dionysus. Whether or not you agree with him, Nietzsche’s choice to talk about the arts in terms of Greek gods is a reflection of how ballet, opera and theatre continually look back to classical mythology. For ballet, it's a fascination that has been there from the start.

The earliest ballets were entertainments that took place in the grand European courts of the 17th century and drew their stories from antiquity. Famously, King Louis XIV of France took part in Ballet de la nuit in 1653 and played the part of the sun god Apollo. It was as a result of this appearance that the ruler gained his nickname ‘the Sun King’.

So when George Balanchine turned to classical mythology for his 1928 ballet, Apollo, the art form already had a long-standing relationship with the inhabitants of Mount Olympus. This one-act ballet depicts the eponymous young god being instructed in the arts by three Muses – Calliope, Polyhymnia and Terpsichore – and it is the work that Balanchine regarded as his artistic coming of age.

Like Apollo, Balanchine’s Orpheus (first performed in 1948), uses a score by Stravinsky. The ballet was part of New York City Ballet’s inaugural performance and is a highly stylized retelling of Orpheus’s fabled attempt to rescue his wife Eurydice from Hades.

But Balanchine wasn’t the only choreographer to be mining this rich vein of inspiration. His near-contemporary Martha Graham turned to the evocative stories of Greek mythology for some of her most powerful works. Night Journey (1947), for example, is Graham’s haunting version of the Oedipus story, as told from the point of view of the hero’s mother (and later wife) Jocasta in the moments before her suicide.

Around the same time, on the other side of the Atlantic, Frederick Ashton was inspired by the stories of antiquity, and in 1951 the curtain rose on the premiere of his ballet Daphnis and Chloë to music by Ravel. Margot Fonteyn and Michael Somes starred in this bucolic story of two young lovers, whose tribulations are overseen by the god Pan.

The stories of antiquity continue to inspire choreographers. In 2009 Wayne McGregor worked with The Royal Opera to stage a double bill of two myth-inspired works – Handel’s Acis and Galatea and Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas – in a productions that saw Royal Opera House singers and ballet dancers share the stage in a rare collaboration.

This autumn the Royal Opera House hosts almost a month of performances inspired by myths in Deloitte Ignite 14. The festival focuses on two specific tales – the myths of Prometheus and Leda and the Swan, and includes performances by BalletBoyz, a new commission from Aakash Odedra and Chris Ofili to be performed as part of Sampling the Myth, and a range of free events.

During the festival, you can also hear Royal Ballet First Artist Ludovic Ondiviela introduce his new work Cassandra, inspired by the tragedy of the Trojan prophet doomed never to be believed.

Clearly, these ancient stories are as potent today as they were in the last century, the 1600s and for the ancient Greek audiences thousands of years ago.

Find out more about Deloitte Ignite 14 and claim your free Digital Programme.

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