Instant Expert: Why are there so many Hans Christian Andersen ballets?

Hans Christian Andersen’s stories have been the basis of many ballets—George Balanchine’s The Steadfast Tin Soldier, Bronislava Nijinska’s The Ice Maiden, Arthur Pita’s The Little Match Girl, Justin Peck’s The Most Incredible Thing, John Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid—and of course the most famous ballet movie of all time, The Red Shoes. What is it about Andersen’s work that has inspired these creators? At least in part, it’s the way his fairy tales play with ideas often found in ballets: a man encounters a supernatural creature and they cannot overcome their differences.

This theme plays out, in a way, in his life as well: Andersen never married, but fell in love with both men and women throughout his life, none of whom seemed to return his affection. Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling, who discovers he’s a swan; and The Little Mermaid, who transforms herself for love, also seem deeply autobiographical. These stories make rich fodder for an art form which is particularly suited to evoking emotional states and supernatural worlds.

Did you know that Andersen was also a fan of the ballet? He briefly attended the Royal Ballet School in Copenhagen and was friends with August Bournonville, the famous choreographer and artistic director. Bournonville even made a ballet out of his The Steadfast Tin Soldier in 1871. Though the ballet was only performed 14 times in Andersen’s life, he wrote in his diary that after its premiere, he “went up to the stage and thanked Bournonville. He, in turn, embraced me and asked if I could see a touch of my spirit in the ballet.” Today we see a touch of his spirit in all the ballets made of or about his work.

Header image: Pascal Molat in Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid // © Erik Tomasson

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