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Theatre / Fall River Legend

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Fall River Legend (1948), one of Agnes de Mille's best-known ballets, was choreographed for American Ballet Theatre to a score by Morton Gould. One of the psychological ballets which became popular during this period, Fall River Legend dramatizes the life of Lizzie Borden—known here as the Accused—and her notorious murders of her father and stepmother. The ballet begins and ends with Lizzie facing execution after being found guilty of murder, a deviation from history that De Mille explained in Lizzie Borden: A Dance of Death. In a protracted flashback, Lizzie reflects on her childhood, the loss of her mother, and then the misery she faced when her father remarried.


This ballet provides examples of:

  • Ax-Crazy: The Accused, of course.
  • Bookends: The ballet begins and ends at the gallows.
  • Character Tic: The Accused's fluttering hands.
    • The Stepmother's claw-like hand stroking her cheek.
  • Converting for Love: The Accused's church attendance clearly derives from her interest in the Pastor, although she also finds true acceptance there. For a while, anyway.
  • Deceased Parents Are the Best: The Accused's idealized memories of her dead mother, especially when compared to her Wicked Stepmother.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: The Accused's frustrated dance with the axe has some very obvious erotic overtones.
  • Dream Ballet: After the murders, the Accused hallucinates a reunion with the Mother, although the dream ultimately turns sour when the Mother notices the bloodstains on the Accused's dress.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The characters are all known by their relationship to the Accused (Mother, Father, Stepmother) or their job (Pastor).
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  • Flashback: Virtually all of the ballet takes place in the Accused's mind while she reflects on her past.
  • Freudian Excuse: The Accused's problems stem in part from years of deep erotic and emotional frustration.
  • Gaslighting: It's strongly implied that the Stepmother drives the Accused insane by constantly telling her that she's already mad.
  • How We Got Here: The ballet begins shortly before the Accused's execution, then backtracks all the way to her childhood to show where the problems started.
  • Laughing Mad: The Accused has bursts of mimed uncontrollable laughter.
  • Love-Obstructing Parents: The Father and Stepmother don't react well to the Pastor's advent, although the Stepmother is the more actively antagonistic of the two.
  • Memento MacGuffin: The lace shawl, which originally belongs to the Mother. After her death, the Father gives it to the Stepmother. Later, when the Accused falls in love with the Pastor, she takes it for herself.
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  • Missing Mom: The Mother dies when the Accused is still quite young.
  • No Name Given: The Accused.
  • Out-of-Genre Experience: Unusually for a ballet, the Speaker for the Jury has spoken lines.
  • Parent with New Paramour: After the Mother's death, the Father's new relationship moves very quickly, much to the young Accused's despair.
  • Parental Marriage Veto: The Accused is finally driven over the edge when the Stepmother and Father wreck her relationship with the Pastor.
  • Scream Discretion Shot: Before the murders, the Accused mimes a long, agonized shriek; then, cut to the Dream Ballet, in which blood is all over the floor, but no bodies.
  • Timeshifted Actor: There are two dancers playing the Accused, one as a child and one as an adult. The adult watches and dances with her younger self, but they have no direct interaction.
  • Useless Boyfriend: The Accused's parents scare off the Pastor very easily, and he's not all that much emotional help at the gallows, either.
  • Wicked Stepmother: The Stepmother alienates the Accused's Father's affections, then helps undermine the Accused's developing love affair with the Pastor.

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