This article approaches narrative ballet as a theatrical art created through the intersection of dance, music, and literature. Following the nineteenth century's tendency to separate ‘the Arts,’ scholars, journalists, and often the dancers themselves portray ballet as an art of choreography and virtuoso bodies, while relegating the music, story, and visual designs to supportive if not negligible roles. My article counteracts this trend by approaching ballet as a multimedial art, in which meaning is made at the points where the specific arts intersect. Audience members perceive the ballet as a composite work, in which all three elements are equally present and important. Using this model, musicologists and literary critics can and should engage contemporary narrative ballets as complex and relevant art of our time.
John Neumeier's The Seagull (2002) demands this type of analysis, because it is clear that as the author of the choreography, costumes, lighting, and set design, Neumeier considers all media involved—visual, aural, and literary—as equally generative elements of a ballet. His role is more of a multimedia artist than a choreographer. He is also responsible for the adaptation from Chekhov's eponymous play and for application of musical selections borrowed from Tchaikovsky, Scriabin, Shostakovich, and Evelyn Glennie. Indeed, his choice to present a Chekhov play known for its subtle weaving of verbal dialogue to convey character, mood, and themes seems to force the audience member and critic to reconsider her traditional understanding of what ballet can and cannot do.
As an example of a multimodal approach to ballet, this article presents five literary and musical devices expanded to describe the varied interplay of the visual, aural, and literary components in The Seagull. Bakhtin's idea of heteroglossia appears on the ballet stage in the assignment of distinct dance styles to each of the four protagonists, a technique that develops each character by imbuing them with the historical and social connotations of their movement style. Neumeier manipulates the irrefutable connection between music and dance through audiovisual irony in two scenes, where the dance conveys one message, but the music belies it, revealing the underlying ironic truth of the characters' situations. All three modalities are employed to shift time into and out of a reflective space, where the sincerest characters are shown to explore their emotional and artistic dilemmas. Like Chekhov, Neumeier employs echo characters—secondary figures who mirror the conflicts of the main protagonists, allow the author(s) to further develop the play's themes. In this ballet, Masha “echoes” Nina's unrequited love, her movements, music, color palette, and her choices by negation. Through overt application of seagull imagery, Neumeier draws dance and music history—namely, Swan Lake and the pathos of the dying swan—into his ballet, The Seagull.