Wordless Expressions of Tragedy: A Look at the Ballet

Tragedies are traditionally thought of as the literary genre of a Greek or English play featuring a heroic male protagonist who, through one way or another, has fallen from grace, which always ultimately results in his death. The past glory of the protagonist and his epic fall makes a tragedy, well, tragic. He once was a glorious character and through his not-well-thought-out actions has ended up dead, usually through fault of his own.

In a less dramatized sense, “tragic” describes a sad and unfortunate situation—especially when it pertains to matters of the heart. Arguably the most famous tragic love story is Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet—a romance of star-crossed lovers who could never be together because of warring families. “What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east and Juliet is the sun!” Shakespeare wordsmiths a play that depicts Romeo, a teenager helplessly in love with a dear Juliet. With quick lines in iambic pentameter, Shakespeare has created this timeless tragic love story. Using different literary techniques, his words carve vivid images in our minds, which have been reimagined over and over again so that even those who have not read the play know of the story. It is Shakespeare’s powerful words that inspire such a wide variety of interpretations.

But what if the literary prose is not as famous as Romeo and Juliet? What if the tragedy was summed up with several paragraphs or a poem instead of a grand play? How could a tragedy be presented in any way other than through melodious prose?


To me, the ballet is a striking and poignant medium that presents tragedy in a more visual sense as opposed to a script. I find it more engaging, as I can see movement and colour, and hear sound. Seeing and experiencing a tragedy has always been more powerful to me than reading it on paper—even more so when there is no dialogue. The wordless production strikes a cord that resonates deeper in me than spoken or written words ever could, because I can see and feel what the dancers are expressing. Beyond the choreography, the music as well as props and colour adds to the full experience of the tragedy. Actions do speak louder than words.

Ballets use props as symbols. Not unlike symbols in a play, props signify importance, though in a ballet the symbol is more impactful as a physical reminder of its significance. In the Shakespearean play Macbeth, the dagger symbolizes the bloody path Macbeth sets for himself. It comes up throughout the play where it literally leads Macbeth to kill Duncan, beginning his tyranny and ensuring his crown. “Is this a dagger I see in front of me, with its handle pointed towards my hand?”  Through his words, Shakespeare spells out for the audience the doom Macbeth will ultimately face.

Yet in the same way, choreographer John Cranko designed Onegin utilizing a central prop—the mirror. The tragic love story begins and ends with a mirror. The reflection of the first man’s face in the mirror you see shall mark one’s true love, and Tatiana is presented with Onegin. Tatiana falls in love with the idea and falls in love with Onegin. Again in the second scene, a mirror reflects what Tatiana wishes for Onegin to be—a loving husband. Unfortunately for her, he turns out to be quite the opposite. Instead he is a flirt and a disgrace. The audience expects the mirror to shatter; to break all illusions of a man who really isn’t ideal for Tatiana. Yet Cranko is not quite so literal. Instead, Cranko uses the mirror in the final act as the final reflection Tatiana sees of Onegin entering her room to beg her to take him back before she rejects him. The use of the mirror strikes a central cord with the audience: How often do we see a reflection that was never truly there?

Greta Hodgkinson and Guillaume Côté in Onegin. Photo by Aleksandar Antonijevic.

Colour adds to visual experience and has multiple meanings in different contexts. In literature, the rich tones of red and purple are often associated with royalty. In a ballet, colours are chosen purposefully. Specifically, I love how the colours of the costumes in Onegin paint a tragic picture of the two main characters. Most notably, Eugene Onegin is the only character clothed in black throughout the entire production. His black attire initially represents his boredom with the countryside social, then the mourning of the death of a friend through a needless duel, and finally despair over the loss of his one love through his own selfish arrogance. The audience visually sees him as a literally dark cloud over the entire ballet—a figure of misery.

In Tatiana, we see her stages of maturity through colour. A flowy white dress in the beginning paints her innocence. Yet as the pain of Onegin’s rejection settles and as she matures, her clothing changes as well. As a married woman she wears a bejewelled red gown, symbolizing her marriage to a prince as well as the status to which she has risen in the years Onegin was absent. Tatiana’s final dress is a heavy dark auburn gown in which she rejects Onegin. While visually explicit, it is subtle in its messaging, and Cranko leaves it to the audience to piece it all together in their interpretation of the ballet.

Ultimately ballet expresses emotions and story through movement. Choreography is central in storytelling while in plays, dialogue and prose directs audiences on the story being told. In Romeo and Juliet, the final scenes of the two protagonists are in dialogue. Even in death, the characters speak of the tragedy of each other’s end: “Thy drugs are quick. With a kiss I die,” and “There rust, and let me die.” The deaths of Romeo and Juliet come swiftly. Yet the choreography of Onegin and Tatiana’s final pas de deux invokes a much deeper sense of tragedy as we see hope in the dance, yet ultimate despair in Tatiana’s final act of ripping up Onegin’s letter and Onegin’s despair tossing him to the floor, helpless and dejected, knowing that he will never experience love.

Ballet uniquely combines multiple senses and ignites a different part of the imagination in the mind. Instead of words painting the picture of tragedy, we see the story in front of us, and through colour, lighting, sound, and movement, our mind draws our own conclusion as to the dialogue. We instead become authors inspired by the beauty of the ballet to create the story in our minds and experience a tragic tale in a unique way.