If your idea of ballet is pink tutus and fairy tales, George and Lennie are here to change your mind. Of Mice and Men, a one-act performance based on Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck’s 1937 novella, debuts this month at the Joffrey Ballet on a double bill with George Balanchine’s Serenade. Staged by British choreographer Cathy Marston, a UK National Dance Award winner known for turning literary works into contemporary movement, the piece is set to a cinematic original score by Oscar-nominated composer Thomas Newman. Minimal sets reminiscent of barn boards and understated costumes (read: overalls) round out the page-to-stage translation.

Many will be familiar with the narrative from reading the book in high school or seeing one of its many stage or film adaptations. George and Lennie, itinerant farmhands and unlikely friends, live hand to mouth while dreaming of a better future in an unkind society. It is not a happy tale and ends on a tragic note. So what makes it fodder for ballet? “It’s such a touching, heartbreaking story, and the characters are so strong and vivid,” Marston says. “I like a story that moves me.”

After the Joffrey presented her Jane Eyre as its 2019–20 season opener, Marston and the company’s artistic director, Ashley Wheater, turned to her Steinbeck concept. “It’s the right time to start looking at different stories,” says Wheater. “We can’t just keep looking at fairy tales. Storytelling, but stories about real people, is how we keep the art form alive.” Adds Marston: “Throughout the pandemic, with that feeling of loneliness and lost futures, it felt particularly right to be advancing with [this story] now.”

Marston’s adaptation process begins well before she arrives in the studio. She studies and dissects the text in consultation with a dramaturg to pinpoint how to tell the story and distills it into a short list of words and phrases she shares with the dancers as a guide. That’s when the physical research of turning those linguistic prompts into movement for each characters begins.

Choreographer Cathy Marston directs a rehearsal.
Choreographer Cathy Marston directs a rehearsal. Photography: Matt de la Pena

The makeup of the cast illustrates another way Of Mice and Men subverts balletic expectations. Unusual for this art form, the leading characters are all male, and those roles highlight not just the dancers’ elite-level athleticism but their acting chops. In workshops, company members Fernando Duarte, Dylan Gutierrez, and Xavier Núñez tackled the complicated dynamics of Great Depression–era farm life with an open, improvisational approach to bringing the characters to life.

Núñez portrays George, whose physical characteristics Steinbeck described as “small and quick.” Núñez remembered the story from school but went into rehearsals with an open mind. “I wanted to see how Cathy was going to interpret it,” he says. “I wanted to let the process be my preparation and let that simmer. Putting it together was like a big puzzle. It wasn’t simple turning words into dance steps. How would we curse in dance? Slowly we would have a movement phrase we could build on.”

“We had a couple of rehearsals where we would talk through the scene,” says Gutierrez, who plays the oafish Lennie. “As a dancer there is something so vulnerable about making up lines for your steps like an actor. The word ‘lumber’ really made sense to me. My steps are heavy, not balletic. I’m slumped over, almost apologetic.”

Duarte took a Method acting approach to embodying the macho, menacing antagonist, Curley. “As a nonbinary person doing this role, I initially found it contradictory: I’m not who this person is, so I can’t put any me in it, ” they say. But they eventually found a way to identify. “I’m a shorter dancer and Curley has short-man syndrome. Even though he is so angry, we all have those voices in our heads [saying] we aren’t good enough. I could relate to that.”

All involved note the uniqueness of having not just male characters but male relationships as the focal point of a ballet. Marston’s perspective gives the story “a softness and humility” that play against the gruff veneer of the men, says Gutierrez. Adds Wheater: “We’ve seen many ballets through a man’s eyes, but now you’re seeing a predominantly male ballet through a woman’s eyes.”

Details Of Mice and Men Apr. 27–May 8. Lyric Opera House. Loop. $35–$176. joffrey.org