On dance and literature


Literature is an art form that has been connected to dance in multiple ways, in a bilateral relationship: there are texts about dances and dances about texts.  Examples of dance pieces that are based in texts can be found in classical and romantic ballets that were created from a libretto, which at the same time was inspired by a story. There are also dance works that were inspired by literature pieces such as plays or novels. Considering ballets from the Twentieth Century, Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet (1965) and L'histoire de Manon (1974) are examples of danced adaptations of these two types of literature. Moving away from ballet, in the context of modern dance there are also cases of literature-inspired dance works. In fact, scholar Susan Jones starts her book Literature, Modernism, and Dance (2013) stating that `the reciprocal relationship between literature and dance represents one of the most striking but understudied features of modernism’ (2013: 1).  This statement can be exemplified with dance pieces such as Martha Graham’s Night Journey (1947) inspired by the Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex, or Jose Limon’s The Moor’s Pavane (1949) inspired by William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Othello (1603) among many others (Meglin and Matluck Brook 2016: 6).  Although in contemporary choreography there is a tendency to move away from traditional narratives, literature has remained present in choreographic processes and started to gain protagonism in performances, through speech,voice overs, projections, and other mediums. 

 Lyrical texts, are more present in contemporary dance than in previous eras of concert dance. This resonates with the tendency to create abstract pieces, which according to choreographer Crystal Pite, is a way to rebel against the classics (2015). Nacho Duato’s Por Vos Muero (1996) is an example of a dance piece inspired by poetry, that although it does not present a narrative in the traditional sense of the word, it does illustrate emotions and human interactions that clearly portray the meaning of the poem that inspired it: Soneto V (1532 approximately) by Garcilaso de la Vega. Besides poetry, contemporary dance is in multiple cases inspired by script or dialogue. Crystal Pite  has worked with dialogue in pieces like Betroffenheit (2015), The Statement (2016), and Revisor(2019).  These three works present some recurrences, for example: they include the text in the performance mainly through voice overs, and the movement material flows in an interdependent relationship with the meaning and rhythm of the text. 

To conclude this introduction, I would like to acknowledge that the dance works mentioned above are only a few of the many examples that can be found of choreographic work inspired by literature. More examples of contemporary choreography that involves text in performance will be included in the Practice in Context section of this exposition. At the same time, the research in which I will engage myself within this project will only cover some potential ways of devising movement from text, considering the extension of this topic of study. But hopefully, this project will allow me to understand the relationship between text and choreographic processes better and provide a deeper understanding on how to create dance from literature.

Valentina Vidal 


Bachelor (hons) in  Dance Studies, University of Malta 

Student number: 1803546

DCS3010: Individual Dance Project 

Dr. Lucia Piquero 

Word count: 3841

Date: 16/02/2021

About the project:

Words in Motion is a practice as research project that involves dance choreography and literature. The relationship between these two art forms is broad and can be analysed from multiple perspectives. For the purposes of this research the focus will be placed in the use of text in the creative process of choreography and in performance, adopting certain elements of a piece of literature as the starting point inspiration for the creation of movement. 

 The research will consist in three choreographic experimentations. Each experimentation will involve the creation of a solo piece utilising a different component of the selected text: Caged Bird (1983) by Maya Angelou. This is a piece of poetry that will be unpacked from the perspective of semiotics, as it will be explained in the theoretical framework of this exposition. The aim of the project is to analyse and compare the experience of creating the three pieces, as well as the choreographic results obtained in the three different experimentations.