A ballet about Beren and Luthien
Tolkien-inspired dance work unveiled at C.S. Lewis and Friends Colloquium
The third C.S. Lewis and Friends Colloquium took place November 16-18 at the Upland,
Indiana campus of Taylor University. Scholars and enthusiasts of the work of Lewis and
his fellow writers gathered from as far away as Japan.
Several papers being presented related to Tolkien, including the first place student essay
“The Lord of the Rings and the Christian Way”, presented by Nathan E. Sytsma of Calvin College.
One highlight of the weekend was a post-banquet presentation on a new full-length ballet
entitled The Silmaril. In April of 2003, this ballet will be presented at Butler University by the Butler Ballet under the direction of Stephan Laurent. Ellen Denham, a long-time
Tolkien enthusiast and librettist of the ballet, was the guest speaker. The score for the ballet will be newly composed by Michael Schelle, the composer in residence at Butler, who has extensive experience composing for film.
The presentation was received with excitement, and many Colloquium attendees said that they hoped to return to Indiana for the premiere. To find out more about the Colloquium, visit the websiteTo find out more about the Butler Ballet, visit their websitehere. Following is an excerpt from Ellen Denham’s presentation.
“The story of Beren and Lúthien seems to me to be a natural subject for a ballet, because after all, there is a lot of dancing in it! Beren first falls in love with Lúthien when he sees her dancing upon the grass in a woodland glade. When Lúthien comes before the throne of Morgoth, the original source of evil himself, she offers to dance for him, and in doing so weaves a spell of sleep that allows the capture of a Silmaril and her escape with Beren.
I first conceived of the idea of Beren and Lúthien’s story as a ballet while listening to Prokofiev’s music in the car during a commute. In my mind, I could picture Lúthien’s dance before Morgoth. I mentioned the idea to my husband, Stephan Laurent, who is, coincidentally, the Chair of the Department of Dance at Butler University and Artistic Director of the Butler Ballet. He had not read The Silmarillion or The Lord of the Rings at the time, but when I described the story, it appealed to him and he suggested that I try to write a libretto, or ballet plot, based on Tolkien’s tale.
In addition to containing references to dance and having a central female character who expresses herself through dance, the Beren and Lúthien story shares other elements with classic ballets. In many Romantic and Classical ballets, a man meeting otherworldly or enchanted female creatures is a common theme, as is that of lovers meeting again after death. La Sylphide premiered in 1832 in Paris with choreography by Philippo Taglioni and music by Jean Schneitzhoeffer. In their book Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets, George Balanchine and Francis Mason say about this ballet “…the sylph became ballet’s symbol for romantic love–the girl who is so beautiful, so light, so pure, that she is unattainable: touch her, and she vanishes.” This aptly describes Beren’s first impression of Lúthien.
The theme of beautiful but unattainable women is continued in the ballet Giselle, which premiered in 1841, also in Paris, with choreography by Jules Perrot and Jean Corall’ and music by Adolphe Adam. In Giselle, the Wilis, the spirits of young women who had died before their wedding days, rose from their graves at night and danced in the moonlight. These spirits, however were vengeful, and compelled the men who had betrayed them to dance until they died. The exception was Giselle, who forgave her fiancé’s duplicity, realizing that he truly loved her, and danced in his stead, saving him from death before day came and she had to return to her grave. Beren and Lúthien’s story also expresses a love that transcends death.
Later ballets such as La Bayadère and Swan Lake, both first presented in 1877, continue some of these themes. In La Bayadère, with choreography by Marius Petipa and music by Ludwig Minkus, the hero seeks for his beloved in a dream sequence after her death in the “Kingdom of the Shades”, much like Lúthien seeks for Beren in the Halls of Mandos.
Swan Lake, with music by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, was premiered with choreography by Julius Reisinger in Moscow, but this production was not a success and it was presented in a revised version in 1895 in St. Petersburg with choreography by Lev Ivanov and Marius Petipa. Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake falls in love with the enchanted Swan Queen Odette in circumstances similar to the way Beren falls in love with Lúthien. Balanchine and Mason say about this heroine, “She is a princess of the night; she is all magic, a creature of the imagination.” Like Lúthien, Odette flees from the hero at first, but then falls in love with him.
In these ballets, the otherworldly female characters, whether they be sylphs, Wilis, enchanted swans, or shades, come in groups rather than alone, so the audience can enjoy the pleasure of the corps de ballet: a stage filled with unison or contrapuntal movement to dazzle the eye. Naturally, this is one thing that needed adaptation to present The Silmaril as a full-length ballet. I have handled this by adding a group of elf-maidens who appear with Lúthien as their leader and giving Lúthien a companion, M’riel. Other corps de ballet scenes include a court dance before Thingol and Melian; spirits of departed mortals dancing in the Halls of the Lord of the Underworld, Mandos; and a group of vampire bats who dance before Morgoth’s throne. In The Silmarillion, Lúthien and Beren are able to sneak into Morgoth’s throne room because she uses her magic arts to disguise him as a werewolf and herself as a vampire bat. Because of this I thought that it was fitting that in the ballet, when Lúthien and Beren arrive, Morgoth is being entertained by a group of his vampire bats who are led by their queen, Thuringwethil. This presents an opportunity for Lúthien to attempt to blend in with the other bats until her identity is discovered.
Perhaps to Tolkien purists, this changing of the Master’s work would seem indefensible. I know that many people have strong opinions about the changes to Tolkien’s work that will appear in the upcoming movies beginning with The Fellowship of the Ring this December, but I’m not going to get into that debate here! However, I realized as soon as I started writing that there was, to begin with, no way I could adapt the story for a stage presentation without omitting a lot of material. Much of this deals with the complicated story of the Silmarils and the historical context within which the story of Beren and Lúthien takes place. I chose instead to focus on the love story, the quest for the Silmaril, Beren’s death and Lúthien ‘s choice. A dance production is not a book, nor should it attempt to be. What we will present with The Silmaril is an interpretation of Tolkien’s work adapted to meet the special requirements of a ballet. I hope that many of those who see the ballet but have not read The Silmarillion will be inspired to read the book to better understand the rich context of the tale. However, for those who just choose to attend the ballet, I think it still presents an engaging story which is complete in itself.”Posted in Old Special Reports on November 20, 2001 by Tehanu