CN D Magazine

#2 Jan 23

When the Big (And Small)
Screen Inspires Dance

Claudine Colozzi

Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby, Rambert © Johan Persson

In 2023, the Ballet de l’Opéra national du Rhin is set to dance two large-scale works inspired by movies: Wings of Desire, revived in the Théâtre du Châtelet in March and April, and a creation, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? While not an entirely new phenomenon, adaptations of films – and even TV series like Peaky Blinders – into dance are having a moment, and highlight how sources of narrative inspiration have shifted in the dance world.

USA, 1929. Unemployed and poor, Gloria and Robert decide to enter one of the dance marathons organized all over the country, in the hope of winning the prize – and ready to dance until they drop. The plot of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, the 1969 Sydney Pollack film, has now inspired a new stage version choreographed by Bruno Bouché, the director of the Ballet de l’Opéra national du Rhin, in eastern France. Ahead of the premiere this summer, Bouché is working with theater artists Clément Hervieu-Léger and Daniel San Pedro, from the Compagnie des Petits Champs, to unite dancers and actors “in one narrative movement.” 

It's not the first time Bouché has been inspired by the big screen. At the end of March, Paris audiences will have a chance to see his Wings of Desire in the Théâtre du Châtelet, an evening-length work based on the 1987 Wim Wenders fantasy film. “When it came to thinking about a new production for the company, with fresh dramaturgy and storytelling as a driving theme, I remembered the movie,” Bouché says. “Dance has a small repertory compared to opera. We keep going back to a dozen classics, and that’s it. The goal was to look for stories that hadn’t been adapted yet.”

Theater got there early: productions inspired by film scripts have become a common phenomenon over the past decade. Symbolically, the Comédie-Française, France’s most prestigious theater company, opted to open its repertory to film scripts, commissioning a number of directors who had experience with the process: Ivo van Hove adapted Luchino Visconti’s The Damned in 2016, for instance, followed by Christiane Jatahy with Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game the next year.

Dance versions of movies are less common, but they’re not an entirely new phenomenon. Mario Pistoni’s La Strada, which premiered in Milan in 1967, was a cruel and lyrical tale inspired by Fellinian neorealism and was a landmark work in the history of Italian ballet. (It was revived in 2015 by the Ballet de l’Opéra national du Rhin.) In 2008, Marcel Carné’s Children of Paradise was also given the ballet treatment by José Martinez, then a company principal, at the Paris Opera Ballet. The British choreographer Matthew Bourne has also created works inspired by films including Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes

The trend has now reached beyond cinema to the realm of TV series – long considered a lesser form of entertainment, whose prestige now sometimes exceeds that of films. In the UK, Rambert made a splash in 2022 with a dance-theater piece inspired by the hit show Peaky Blinders. Benoit Swan Pouffer, the French artistic director of the company, teamed up with Peaky Blinders creator and scriptwriter Steven Knight to write a brand-new, prequel-style story about the criminal gang at the heart of the series.

“We delve into the psychology of the characters,” Pouffer says. “My mission was to tell the story of how and why the characters became ‘Peaky Blinders.’” The choreographer suggests that it wasn’t necessary to have followed all six seasons of the show to appreciate Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby. Still, the show’s fame drew new audiences to dance. “The show made fans of the TV show curious,” Pouffer says with a smile. “It created an opportunity for people who had never seen a dance show to realize what bodies can express without resorting to verbal language.” Adaptations can be risky endeavors, especially when the source material has carved an enduring place in collective memory. Wim Wenders’s team quickly said yes to Bouché when he contacted them about Wings of Desire, and had no conditions besides an interdiction to use images from the film itself in the show – which wasn’t a big deal for the choreographer. However, as the project progressed, Bouché began to feel the pressure. “I went in knowing that some people had a strong visual memory of the film, but I forced myself not to watch it too much,” he says.

Wings of Desire, Bruno Bouché – Ballet de l'Opéra national du Rhin © Agathe Poupeney

While the first act of his version clearly references the film, the second act breaks free from its model by making the final image – which reads “To be continued” – its own. Inspired by the notion of physical embodiment, Bouché used it to digress from Wenders’s work. “In the end, it is an evocation,” he says. “I was convinced that dance could recreate what Wim Wenders wanted to capture in the film: the simple beauty of life.”

José Martinez, the new director of the Paris Opera Ballet, went down a different route, “watching Marcel Carné’s movie over and over again” while he choreographed Children of Paradise, says the film director François Roussillon. The latter had suggested a dance adaptation of the film to Brigitte Lefèvre, the director of the company at the time, and worked with Martinez on the production. The artistic team cautiously opted to keep a number of scenes made famous by the screen: “the pantomime sequences performed by the mime Baptiste Deburau, for example, were transcribed from the film,” Roussillon says. A few cuts were made to the script, but they were only noticeable to devotees of Marcel Carné.

At the end of the day, such adaptations can lead to hybrid works, part respectful tribute and part distinctive work. For artists, the hope generally is that audiences will receive the result without projecting disproportionate expectations onto it. In the case of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, which will have its premiere in Châteauvallon in July, no choreographer had used the 1935 novel by American author Horace McCoy as inspiration until now, “which is odd because dance is at the heart of the plot,” Bouché says. In this production, he aims to “probe the notion of theatrical dance”: each dancer will be asked to dig into “their own physical stamina” to match the plot.

Like many artists working with an existing plot, the artistic team behind They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is looking to show how relevant to today’s world the original work is. The 38 dancers and actors on stage will tell a story unrelated to the 1929 crisis, and instead explore the “current condition of artists, their relation to the world and their place in society,” Bouché says. That means departing significantly from Sydney Pollack’s film – a balancing act Bouché and his colleagues are ready for.

Wings of Desire
choreography Bruno Bouché
Ballet de l'Opéra national du Rhin
from 29.03 to 1.04. 2023
Théâtre du Châtelet

They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
Adaptation, direction and choreography
Bruno Bouché, Clément Hervieu-Léger, Daniel San Pedro
Creation july 2023