Performing Epic or Telling Tales is a monograph companion to the edited volume Epic Performances from the Middle Ages into the Twenty-First Century (OUP, 2018). The monograph offers authors Fiona Macintosh and Justine McConnell an opportunity to investigate and seek to account for the increased popularity of story-telling and narrative in live theatre since the turn of the twenty-first century. It is not a book about dance, but the earlier edited volume contained contributions by dance scholars, and this monograph includes a chapter on ‘Telling Tales with the Body’.

Macintosh and McConnell start from the premise that twentieth-century theatre saw an anti-narrative turn (seen, for example, in the work of Samuel Beckett), and they seek to chart and hypothesise reasons for the subsequent (re-)turn to narrative that they perceive in theatrical works, including dances, since the millennium. In their Preface, they propose that this twenty-first century ‘narrative’/storytelling (re-)turn is often a turn to Graeco-Roman epic. However, their definition of ‘epic’ in the context of performance extends beyond ancient Greece and Rome, embracing other cultures and story-telling traditions, and oral modes of creating, improvising and performing, as they reflect on the ways in which epic can cast an alternative gaze upon contemporary society.

The difficulty is that the turn from (and subsequent re-turn to) narrative that they describe in other forms of live theatre is not reflected in the reality of twentieth century ballet (and ballet, as the Preface indicates, is the main exemplar in this chapter).  Writing in 2014, the Observer’s dance critic Luke Jennings suggested that the Royal Ballet’s most recent choreographers lacked the skill set needed to tell stories in dance.[i] Yet earlier on, the twentieth century had seen a great flowering of narrative ballets, which included works by Fokine, de Valois, Ashton, Helpmann, Howard, Cranko, Tudor, Petit, MacMillan and Bintley, to name just a few choreographers that were well known to UK audiences.  Macintosh and McConnell virtually admit this, citing several of these, but maintain that story telling in ballet was considered ‘low-brow’, with the result that narrative was relegated to other dance genres. Certainly, ballet has not always had a high status among the arts, but it is hard to see why the authors attribute this to the narrative form or content of some works. Ashton believed ‘simply that a ballet must be a good work of art’ and ‘deal with that which is spiritual and eternal rather than that which is material and temporary’,[ii] but he choreographed ballets with stories in them throughout his career, and indeed between 1928 and 1970 he created twelve ballets that drew on Greek myth.[iii] This is not to deny the significance of works such as Massine’s symphonic ballets or the influence of Balanchine’s neoclassical repertoire, but abstraction was just one strand in twentieth century ballet.

True, there seem to have been fewer ballets drawing on Graeco-Roman themes towards the end of the twentieth century, and this may reflect changing social and educational priorities: classics was in retreat in the school system (in England, at any rate), and a choreographer cannot be inspired by an ancient epic or myth that she or he knows nothing about.  It is not surprising, then, that the revived interest in Graeco-Roman literature in recent years is reflected in the Arts, and that ballet should share in this cultural shift.

The chapter concludes with an account of three twenty-first century dances that draw on Homer and Ovid, by Cathy Marston (‘Choreographing the Katabasis’, 2015), Marie-Louise Crawley (Myrrha, 2017), and (jointly) Wayne McGregor and Kim Brandstrup (Machina, 2012). Writing from their stand point as experts on classical reception, Macintosh and McConnell describe and situate these works as modern imaginings of ancient sources that ‘dislocate and relocate’ them for modern audiences.  It is an interesting collocation of dance works that have not been widely seen (even the McGregor/Brandstrup ballet had only four performances at the Royal Opera House), and a welcome invitation to consider them together from a new point of view.

Maggie Watson

29th June 2020



[ii] The Ballet Annual 1959, 38-39

[iii] Morris, G. (2006). “Persephone”: Ashton’s “Rite of Spring”. Dance Research: The Journal of the Society for Dance Research, 24(1), 21-36.


Macintosh, Fiona and McConnell, Justine (2020)  Performing Epic or Telling Tales  Oxford, Oxford University Press Academic

You can purchase this book from Oxford University Press online here

Check out the edited volume Epic Performances from the Middle Ages into the Twenty-First Century here