This story originally appeared in the February/March 2016 issue of Pointe.
Biographical ballets are having a moment, finding success in the real-life stories of famous women. Wayne McGregor's Woolf Works, which premiered at The Royal Ballet last May, and John Neumeier's Duse, which premiered at Hamburg Ballet in December, were both explorations of complex personal histories. Christopher Wheeldon's Strapless for The Royal Ballet, inspired by Madame X, will offer another depiction of a woman who was a muse herself.
The ballet, which premieres on February 12, investigates the life and times of Virginie Amélie Gautreau, the subject of John Singer Sargent's painting Madame X. The painting caused a sensation in 19th-century Paris because her pose and dress were considered inappropriate. The image triggered Gautreau's fall from social grace. “I've loved the painting since first seeing it at The Metropolitan Museum of Art 20 years ago," Wheeldon says. “I was intrigued by the subject's aloof beauty and investigated further." He found, though, that little is known about her life.
Wheeldon is taking some artistic license, due to limited historical knowledge and the need to tell a dramatic story. “The semi-fictional novel Strapless, by Deborah Davis, helped inspire the ballet and fills in blanks where history fails us," Wheeldon says. “It aims to imagine the events surrounding the scandal of Sargent's painting, and the ballet will follow those lines."
Is it coincidence that multiple choreographers have recently found inspiration in the lives of famous women? Wheeldon thinks so. “We're drawn to what interests us," he says. “We're just trying to make resonant work that connects with an audience."
Go behind-the-scenes at The Royal Ballet as they rehearse Strapless!