Ballet meets folk

David Mead talks to Debbie Norris, founder and Artistic Director of Ballet Folk, whose The Tears of Jenny Greenteeth can be seen on February 2 at London’s Cecil Sharp House, home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society.

No-one would dispute that folk music and dancing go together. They have been inextricable bedfellows across the English landscape for centuries. But folk music and ballet? Absolutely, says Debbie Norris, whose company, Ballet Folk, are busy doing just that.

A graduate of Elmhurst Ballet School, Leeds and De Montfort Universities, and now Postgraduate Programme Manager and lecturer at Rambert School for Ballet and Contemporary Dance, Norris explains that her interest in bringing the two forms together comes from her interest in story telling, her background in ballet and the links she found in a lot of folk tunes.

The creative team for The Tears of Jenny Greenteeth
Pictured: Debbie Norris (top),
Murray Grainger (accordion), Adam Summerhayes (fiddle),
Jessie Summerhayes (poet), and dancers
Photo Jez Ward

Conversations with singer-songwriter and folk musician Lucy Ward about how to bring the two storytelling genres together, and a lot of support from the Cambridge Folk Festival, led to the creation of The Sisters of Elva Hill. Premiered in 2019 and based on the traditional Scottish folk story Kate Krackernuts, it includes wicked magic spells, princes and princesses, and even a fairy ball.

“From that, I decided I would like to form the company. It seems like the most basic name, Ballet Folk. Sometimes, I struggle with it and think maybe it should be something different. But, at the moment, that’s what it is. I never wanted to do Sleeping Beauty, Nutcracker and the like. I wanted to do really strong folk tales from the British Isles that people hear as folk songs but maybe don’t see as dance performances.”

The Tears of Jenny Greenteeth, which premiered at the 2022 Cambridge Folk Festival, is just that. An adaptation of the traditional folk tale of Jenny Greenteeth, it brings together the words of storyteller and poet Jessie Summerhayes, improvised music by The Ciderhouse Rebellion duo Adam Summerhayes (fiddle) and Murray Grainger (accordion), and Ballet Folk’s six dancers.

Stories of malevolent water spirits seeking to drown the unwary are common the world over. The Jenny Greenteeth character comes from Lancashire, with particularly sinister versions of the stories originating in Merseyside and the south of the county. Commonly described as having green, mottled skin, long hair and sharp, pointed teeth, and hiding under duckweed or green algae, she would attempt to drown and then devour children or the elderly that got that bit too close.

On BBC Radio’s Folk Show, Jessie Summerhayes explained that, while wanting to retain the imagery of the tale, a mill, mill pond and a kind of green coating, she thought about how to change the narrative.

Anna Daly with Adam Summerhayes (left) and Murray Grainger
in The Tears of Jenny Greenteeth at the Purbeck Valley Folk Festival 2022
Photo Jez Ward

“I wanted to think about the reasons why she might be luring children into this millpond; or maybe think of the idea that she wasn’t luring them, and playing around with different perspectives,” she says. The story grew from there, and the landscape of Stott Park Mill on Lake Windermere and the surrounding Lake District, which the poem evokes images from.

The adaption starts when the daughter of a miller is swept away in the mill race. Her parents are naturally grief struck. But, as more children vanish, the people of Greenwater suspect that they are actually being abducted and drowned by the miller. Meanwhile, the miller’s husband creates an industrial complex, using his skills as a magical toymaker. Many benefit from the riches it generates but society becomes more and more divided, before an unexpected return kickstarts change. It does have more of a happy conclusion rather than the dark ending it normally has,” Norris says smiling.

Hannah Joseph, Elaini Lalousis and Tanisha Addicot
in Ballet Folk’s The Tears of Jenny Greenteeth
at the Purbeck Valley Folk Festival 2022
Photo Jez Ward

While the story has a very traditional feel to it and is from a time long past, Norris says it absolutely has relevance to the present day. It not only sees love and forgiveness overcome fear and greed but also highlights the environmental issues around over-industrialisation. “It’s one of the things about folklore, it plays on fundamental human concerns that do not disappear over time.”

For the music, The Ciderhouse Rebellion created a skeletal structure, allowing them to improvise within sections of the story as they respond to themes laid out by the poem. That it is spontaneous makes the whole work slightly different or refreshed every time, Norris believes. At Cecil Sharp House, the two musicians will take centre stage for the first half of the evening by playing a set which, as Norris observes, may attract music lovers who might otherwise think twice about going along to dance.

Hannah Joseph in The Tears of Jenny Greenteeth at the Cambridge Folk Festival
Photo Jez Ward

A piano and guitar player herself, Norris is always particularly keen to involve the musicians within the actual movement. “They are not stood at the side. They play characters and have roles within the work. The fiddler, accordionist and Jessie, are in the space with the movement happening around them. That seems like a really holistic way of doing things and lets the audience really see how the dance and the music work together.”

She also like what she calls a sort of ‘freestyle approach’. “I love that I can have the audience everywhere. We adapt it. We try and make it as easy and accessible as possible.”

Apart from their performance at Cecil Sharp House, February also sees Ballet Folk premiere The Swan of Salen, a multimedia work that weaves a narrative based on Swan Lake and the eponymous traditional story from Loch Sunart on the west coast of Scotland.

Marina Fraser on the shore of Loch Sunart in Swan of Salen,
set to tour during 2023
Photo Jez Ward

The narrative about a local chieftain who fell in love with a beautiful but low born maiden sounds ripe for ballet. His mother, opposing the match, caused her to be transformed into a swan, which the chief killed during a hunt. Overcome with grief as he watched the swan resume human form as she died, he fell on his own sword. The lovers are said to still lie together beneath the ruined walls of Dun Ghallain, a hill fort on the shore of the loch.

Similarly bridging the gap between classical and traditional, Glasgow-based clarsach group The Willow Trio have produced a compelling score that marries the familiar Tchaikovsky with traditional Gaelic melodies. Set to tour across Scotland, film of the dancers, including on location at Loch Sunart, will be projected behind the musicians as they perform live.

“I really never wanted to do a Swan Lake, but the Swan of Salen as a folk tale is amazing,” says Norris.

Anna Smith in Ballet Folk’s Song of Salen
Photo Jez Ward

Norris likes to integrate elements of folk dances or folk steps into her choreography. “We actually put a rapper dance in the first work we made but, instead of using steel swords, we used garlands and flowers. We followed its exact pattern, then added some petit allegro. In the Swan of Salen, I’ve used Scottish dance patterns and reels. It’s not the focus of the work but it’s very useful to use it because much of the vocabulary crosses over very naturally. Take a very simple pas de basque. It’s used in folk dance and ballet.

“But I’m also really interested in the female protagonist and giving her a really positive, strong role. So, there’s always a really strong woman at the centre of the story. I’m interested in that as an idea and a concept.”

Anna Smith and Harry Wilson
rehearse The Tears of Jenny Greenteeth
at Riverhouse Barn, Walton-on-Thames
Photo Jez Ward

Norris hopes that The Tears of Jenny Greenteeth will be seen around the country this year. Besides appearances at festivals, she reveals that one of her main aims is to stage it at Stott Park Mill. “I’ve just started a conversation with English Heritage, who own it. The mill is still working, the mill pond is there and it would just make so much sense.”

Folk is full of stories, and ballet loves stories. Norris hopes that, by bringing ballet and folk traditions together, she might remove some of the cultural and personal barriers that may stand in the way of people enjoying performances of ballet and folk music alike.

“There are so many interesting stories, so perfect for being adapted for the stage. And the music is just wonderful to dance to.” While Ballet Folk is being noticed on the folk circuit, attracting the ballet audience remains a big question, she admits. “My company is bringing ballet to the folk. Not folk, the music, but folk, the people generally. So many people have told me at the end of a performance that they would never have gone to see a ballet but that was amazing.”

The Tears of Jenny Greenteeth with Ballet Folk,The Ciderhouse Rebellion and Jessie Summerhayes are at Cecil Sharp House, London on February 2, 2023. For tickets and more details, visit