The Willow Maiden - A Longtime Tolkien Enthusiast's Fantasy Ballet Production

Longtime Tolkien enthusiast Ellen Denham set out three years ago to write a ballet libretto of a tale woven from the roots of mythology.  This month, the result of her dream will premiere in Indianapolis, Indiana as the fantasy ballet, THE WILLOW MAIDEN.  The production is sure to delight audiences of all tastes, but Tolkien enthusiasts in particular will find a resonance within the tale that feeds our passion for what Tolkien called, "secondary worlds". 

Elbren:  It was actually from your love of the tale of Beren and Luthien that The Willow Maiden was born. Can you tell us a little about that?

Ellen Denham: The story of Beren and Luthien seemed to me like a natural story to be told through dance, since Beren falls in love with Luthien when he sees her dancing. Though Luthien actually sings before Morgoth and before Mandos in The Silmarillion, I thought that this could be conveyed well through dance also. Though we are now telling a different story, we have retained the element of a beautiful enchantress (the dryad maiden Salisa) who weaves spells through her dancing.

Elbren: The Willow Maiden has evolved into a mythology woven from the spirits, gods, and goddesses of various cultures. What archetypes are in The Willow Maiden? What do these archetypes mean to you?

Ellen Denham: The first characters the audience sees are the three Fates, inspired from Greek and Norse mythology. They are forever spinning, weaving, and cutting the threads of life and dispassionately prophesy the death of the hero, Aldric. I based the character of Vornmar the eagle on the wise eagle from Norse mythology which perches at the top of Yggdrasil, the World Tree. Vornmar usually just watches events unfold from her lofty perch rather than intervening, but in this story she comes down to assist Aldric, serving as an advisor of sorts which is not unlike the function of animal guides in Native American mythology. Salisa is definitely a strong heroine like Luthien, but I see Aldric in some ways more like Frodo than Beren. He is more of an everyman caught up in extraordinary circumstances.

Though I have borrowed elements from various mythological traditions, The Willow Maiden really takes place in its own world. Dryads in Greek mythology are exclusively female, but I have made my Dryads of both genders and given them their own history. They first took on human-like form to be closer to the humans who loved the trees, and then retreated into their hidden forests when humans began to destroy the trees to make pastures and villages. Though this history is not depicted in the ballet, it has been helpful to the choreographers, designers, and dancers to provide a rationale for the Dryad's mistrust of humans.

Elbren: You have several different animal characters that will be dancing quite prominently in the ballet; how will this be presented? It can't be a simple thing to dance the part of a bird or bat!

Ellen Denham: Our animal characters include an eagle, a group of evil vampire bats, and some ravens. Though this is a challenge for the choreographers, there is some precedent for using dance to represent winged creatures, such as the swans of Swan Lake. One of my favorite scenes that really helps create the illusion of flying is when the Dryads look up as if they are following the path of a bird in flight. Just as they all look and point towards downstage right, the eagle Vornmar leaps onto stage from that direction as if she is landing. It is a simple but spectacular effect!

Elbren: When most people think of ballet, they think of something like Swan Lake with women in white tutus abstractly representing swans. But I get the sense that The Willow Maiden won't look much like that. Can you describe the style of dancing that will be used?

Ellen Denham: It is definitely less stylized and more organic in the movement preferences. For instance, our winged creatures really have wings on their costumes, and this dictates much of their movement. Artistic Director Stephan Laurent (Alkarion on TORC) calls the overall style 'neo-classical with a modern twist', meaning that most of the women are on pointe and a lot of the movement vocabulary is ballet based, but there is a lot of off-balance dancing, modern technique, and floor work. There are many fight scenes in The Willow Maiden, and it really gets pretty gritty and physical. Maybe not quite as much fighting as the movie of The Two Towers, but much more than you would usually see in a ballet!

Salisa and Aldric from the fantasy ballet, The Willow MaidenSalisa and Aldric from the fantasy ballet, The Willow Maiden

Elbren: Tell us about the costuming for The Willow Maiden

Ellen Denham: The Dryad costumes are meant to look as organic as possible, in green, leafy colors with leaf motifs and even leaves for eyebrows. The evil bats are all in black, with black bat wings attached to their arms. The most complicated costumes probably belong to the eagle Vornmar and Bodach, a stone gargoyle who comes to life. Vornmar has a beautiful headdress representing eagle feathers and a beak, as well as wings that hang from her arms, much like Native American eagle dancers. Bodach's costume is painted to look like stone and he has a frightening mask. The costumes are still in progress, so there are not many pictures to show yet except for these of Salisa and Aldric (these are the ones I emailed to you). Butler Ballet's staff costumer, Susan Owens, is hard at work bringing her lovely designs to life.

Elbren: You actually have an original score for this ballet as well.

Ellen Denham: I wish I could adequately describe the music composed by Frank Felice, a member of the Butler University music faculty. The short answer is, it is huge, epic, and fabulous! You can download excerpts on the web page at, but even those don't really do it justice as they are mostly midi files and the score will be performed by a large orchestra. Frank describes his score as "neo-romantic," meaning that much of his inspiration comes from late nineteenth century orchestral music, but it also has a lot of contemporary touches, for instance, a large and busy percussion section. There are wonderful, lush melodies for the audience to walk away humming and also some parts that are downright scary. For the lush melodies, listen to the second excerpt on the web page entitled "love duet", or to get a taste of the scary music (though it gets scarier), listen to "The battle at the gate", in which Aldric battles a fearsome animated stone gargoyle.

Elbren: The story does not depict something out of Tolkien's works. What is in it for Tolkien fans?

Ellen Denham: Middle Earth it is not, but The Willow Maiden definitely has an epic, mythological feel that should resonate with enthusiasts of the Professor's work. Like the story of Beren and Luthien, it is essentially a love story between two people of very different races and backgrounds, and how that love survives despite all odds. Certainly the Tolkien influence is there, but there is a lot that was inspired from very different sources. There is even one scene that in retrospect reminds me of something out of one of the Indiana Jones movies, though I hadn't thought of that until seeing how it was choreographed. This is really a one of a kind event, as it is unusual enough for a ballet company to put on a brand new, full-length story ballet, let alone one with a fantasy theme. I think this is something Tolkien fans who are able to attend will not want to miss! I would be remiss if I did not thank my fellow TORCers Elbren, for reading and commenting on the libretto in all of its various incarnations, and Alys and Wilko185 for assistance with names.

The world premiere of The Willow Maiden will take place April 25-27, 2003 at Clowes Memorial Hall of Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Willow Maiden is a new full-length fantasy ballet which draws its inspiration from many traditions of mythology and fantasy literature. The ballet depicts the forbidden love of Aldric, the hero, and Salisa, the willow dryad, and their struggle against Balor, the evil wizard whose actions have doomed the world of the Tree-folk.


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