Ballet, folk music and poetry meet as one in The Tears of Jenny Greenteeth

Ballet Folk at Cecil Sharp House, London
February 2, 2023

There are a lot of stories in classical ballet. What there are not, are English folk stories. There’s not much in the way of references to English folk music either. And yet the folk world is full of great tales and tunes that are just made for dance. Aiming to bring the two worlds and their artists together is Ballet Folk, whose latest work, The Tears of Jenny Greenteeth, choreographed by founder and artistic director Deborah Norris, is hugely enjoyable with dance, music and poetry meeting as one in beautiful conversation.

Emily Gunn as Jenny Greenbough
and Harry Wilson as her husband, Logan
in The Tears of Jenny Greenteeth
Photo Tony Birch

Although there are similar stories of malicious water spirits who drown unwary children almost everywhere in the world, the name Jenny Greenteeth is closely linked to Lancashire, with particularly sinister versions of her originating in the south of the county and Merseyside.

An adaptation of the traditional tale, written and narrated live by poet Jessie Summerhayes (Fable), The Tears of Jenny Greenteeth has all the ingredients of good ballet fare. There’s fear, loss, sadness and greed, but it’s also a story where love and forgiveness ultimately triumph.

Told over 55 minutes, it tells how a miller’s daughter is swept away in the mill race. As more children disappear, fingers are pointed. In a neat nod to contemporary environmental and social issues, although it’s quite lightly handled, the miller’s husband, a toy-maker, has meanwhile dammed the river and created an industrial complex, leading to wealth for some, but also social division. But then, an unexpected return brings change and, without giving too much away, Ballet Folk do leave us with a happy, triumphant ending.

Completely integral to the ballet are the fabulous Ciderhouse Rebellion duo of Adam Summerhayes on fiddle and Murray Grainger on accordion, and Adam’s daughter Jessie (the trio coming together as Words of a Fiddler’s Daughter), who share the stage and interact throughout with Ballet Folk’s six dancers. It all felt rather like being in the cosy company of a group of strolling players.

There’s no problem figuring out what is happening as the poetry explains the story, the rise, fall and tempo of delivery adding its own, additional, layer of music. Together, Summerhayes’ words and The Ciderhouse Rebellion’s improvisatory-focused music bring forth not only the rhythms of the tale but paint pictures of the landscape it all takes place in, handy when the set is little more than a water wheel laid on its side and a few boxes representing the dam.

Anna Smith as Bryony Greenbough
with poet Jessie Summerhayes as Fable (behind)
in The Tears of Jenny Greenteeth
Photo Tony Birch

It maybe works for the non-regular dance-goer, but I can’t help feeling that there are too many words, or that a few extended breaks between them are needed, however. The occasional breather here and there, allowing the music and dance to speak for itself, would have been welcome. And while its rhythms were clearly audible, on this occasion it did sometimes feel like the text was fighting the music to be heard clearly.

The easy-going choreography, co-credited to Norris and the dancers, is very much rooted in classical ballet, although it’s occasional shifts to more folk-infused moments are all effortlessly done, which probably demonstrates that the two are closer linked than is often thought.

The whole cast slip into their roles with ease. We first meet miller, Jenny Greenbough, her face the “desolation of despair” at the loss of her daughter, her eyes cast down into the mill pool, “fishing for something long left.” But it wasn’t always so.

Rewinding, Emily Gunn shows how she was once a woman very much happy in herself and her life in a free, lyrical and easy solo. Her loving relationship with her husband Logan, danced by Harry Wilson, is shown in a pleasing, flowing duet with plenty of fine partnering. When things turn darker, Gunn gives us a mother bound totally by the loss of her daughter, her sorrow writ large in her blank staring face, although one always senses that an inner strength remains.

As Jenny’s daughter, Bryony, Anna Smith shows a similarly sunny and free-spirited outlook. Her subsequent falling into the mill race is cleverly portrayed as she is carried and tossed by Tanisha Addicott, Elaini Lalousis and Hannah Joseph who effectively play the rushing water. The threesome also do a fine job as wraiths and the townsfolk, the whole nine-strong coming together very effectively to represent the busy market place. In Logan’s factory, the clickety clack of machinery and thudding sounds of industry are seen in movement as well as heard in music and text.

Ballet Folk’s The Tears of Jenny Greenteeth
centre: Murray Grainger (accordion), Adam Summerhayes (fiddle),
Jessie Summerhayes (poet, Fable)
Photo Tony Birch

The green associated with the title character is cleverly worked into the costumes by designer Gillian Norris.

Compared to some ballets, it may not particularly challenging but The Tears of Jenny Greenteeth is a show that will appeal to all ages, to folk and ballet lovers alike. And what better setting for it all (save perhaps for outdoors by a water mill) than the intimate Kennedy Hall at Cecil Sharp House, home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. It gave the everything a very personal feel. It was all most appealing, impossible not to be drawn in and impossible not to like.

The first part of the evening was given over to a 40-minute set by The Ciderhouse Rebellion that, as Grainger noted jokingly, put them in the strange position of being the support act for themselves. The numbers were largely improvised. “We just play and see where it goes,” they explained. “We’ve never played it before, and you’ll never hear it again.”

The Ciderhouse Rebellion
Adam Summerhayes (fiddle) and Murray Grainger (accordion)
Photo Tony Birch

You know when you are in the presence of superb improvisers. It has something to do with the psychic connection between performers who have a telepathy, a sixth sense about what each other is going to do, or, in the case of dancers, where they are going to be. That rapport was immediately evident here as their music shifted in texture between super swift and more mediative, the latter hitting hardest emotionally because of the space it allows the listener. It was quite beautiful and a perfect lead in to the following ballet.

For more on Ballet Folk and news of future performances by Ballet Folk keep an eye on or their Facebook, Twitter or Instagram pages.

David Mead talks to Ballet Folk founder and artistic director Deborah Norris here.

For more on The Ciderhouse Rebellion, visit; and for Jessie Summerhayes,