Carrie Lebel: Contemporary Ballet in Novel Form

Starting medium: contemporary ballet

Source: excerpt from Wayne McGregor’s Chroma (danced by Laura Morera and Eric Underwood of the Royal Ballet in London) 0:03 to 1:44

The music itself is a remediation of a 2003 rock song by the White Stripes.

Original music:

Ending medium: novel



She was…something else. Wild? Decisive, definitely. She said strange things. And with a conviction you’d never seen before. It could be uncomfortable. He had a decidedly tamer attitude, if you called it that. Together…it was, bluntly, constant fighting—and then passionate love. Strange. A push-and-pull only to find them all over each other the next moment. They inhabited their own world. You were eavesdropping, but you knew they liked it. They implored you to watch. There was an odd dynamic of each mastering the other. She’d almost whither away—if just for a moment—and then return with a seductive vengeance you couldn’t quite describe. She’d be up, then down, flinging her emotions all around. He had to follow—we all did. He managed better than the rest of us.



**To start, I should note I’ve seen this ballet twice before, but do not remember the specifics of the choreographer’s notes on the piece; I approached it with as little “knowledge” of its meaning as possible, so the movement itself was treated as an isolated primary source.

Dance’s performative nature divides the audience from the narrative’s characters by its very nature; this work presumes an audience spectating, demonstrated by the dancers’ moments of eye contact with the house (i.e. 1:12) and the fact that they face us, clearly aware of our watching them. This acknowledgement of the viewer seems to suggest “plot” would be best parlayed through the audience’s point-of-view (i.e. how they react to the couple). That said, the use of “I” in this scene felt inappropriate; the focus is on the interaction between the individuals onstage, and the narrator’s internal response is distinctly secondary. We sit passively while they thrash about. For this reason, I chose first-person narration but focused primarily on the description of the couple; the narrator doesn’t speak to them, but is compelled to describe the experience.

Dance is a medium for narrative/artistic expression, as well as athleticism. The original work of dance is plot-less, so to find meaning, I focused primarily on the method of the movement’s delivery—in literary terms: tone and mood. While reading a novel, the reader absorbs the writing on the page, but they derive most meaning from the definitions of the words: denotations and connotations. In dance, the “words” are movement to music/sound. Therefore, one might draw more of a connection between dance and poetry, as it’s not so uncommon to view the shape or sound of a poem as integral to its meaning. Yet another task, then, was translating this aesthetic and auditory dynamism to written word. To capture the ballet’s quick, informal, and almost aggressive transition movements, I relied heavily on the em dash, which lends a sense of forward momentum to the reader. I also sought to keep sentences or broken fragments short to reflect the disjunct nature of the choreography, as well as the decidedly strange, disorganized music. Conjunction words like “and” or highly structured, regularly punctuated sentences seemed inappropriate given the choreography’s disconnectedness.

I sensed a romance of passion, tension, and even turmoil from clues like the unconventional music, intense eye contact, and the fist/forearm pull upstage at approx. 1:04. Instead of engaging hand in hand or (man’s) hands to (woman’s) waist, this choreography uses a significant amount of off-balance partnering. These inversions, like hand-to-shoulder at 1:00 or supporting the woman by the underarms around 1:19, suggest a chaos, risk-taking, and extremity you would not see in a more restrained, courtly pas de deux. Aside from musical cues, the unusual nature of the partnering itself suggested this relationship was out-of-the-norm and off-balance, which contributed to the narrative elements I used to describe their relationship.

The first few lines of my prose are particularly broken to reflect the woman’s aggressive angles and tense yet virtuosic movement through space. The man’s arrival is controlled, confident, and more civilian-esque, yet even as he manipulates her body in lifts and the like, she maintains the appearance of guiding the motion or “leading” (to borrow a term from social dance). He holds onto her as she hits a tilted extension with her left leg at 1:31, yet the viewer is left with the sense he is solely to support her balance rather than engaging in interaction. For this reason, I described their relationship in prose as one in which she yields far more emotional energy and power, and her personality in isolation takes precedence.

In novel form (at least given my limited fiction writing capability!), the scene gains plot, but dance’s emotive potential does remain a little more nuanced and layered, in part because it involves two evocative media forms: movement and music. Additionally, form and meaning are incredibly intertwined in ballet–deciphering a possible “statement” or meaningful “gesture” from a mere movement was difficult (especially so since this contemporary piece really does not have a plot, though I’d argue it certainly holds meaning). Novels tend to be more specific and clearly descriptive, which, I hope, is reflected in my translation, yet some of the subtleties of the human body and music might be lost in an attempt to reduce it to words.