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Ballet-going for newbies


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I was reminded the other day that last year I'd been putting together something on what to expect if you're new to ballet, so thought I'd post it in case it's of use, and for comments and feedback. I'll put the various sections in separate posts (in no particular order) to make it easier if people want to add or comment.

 

Noise

If you’ve only ever seen ballet on the screen before, you’ll more than likely be surprised at the amount of noise dancers generate in real life. Not only can pointe shoes make quite a bit of noise tap-tapping against the stage (this seems to be particularly prevalent with Russian companies), but ballerinas aren’t actually quite as weightless as they appear. At times, for instance in Act II of Giselle, when the whole corps de ballet hops flatfooted across the stage in unison, the noise can be pretty loud. And the male dancers, who usually wear soft ballet slippers, don’t always land from jumps as quietly as they might, either. Plus you can often hear the sound of breathing quite clearly, especially if the dancer has just done something demanding. Not to mention voices from offstage (again, something you tend to find with Russian companies, for some reason).

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Not all productions are equal

There is not just one Swan Lake, or one Nutcracker, or one Romeo & Juliet, but many different versions, some full-length and some cut-down. For example, Birmingham Royal Ballet and the Royal Ballet more or less share a Romeo & Juliet, but have different Swan Lakes and Nutcrackers, and English National Ballet’s productions of all three differ from these entirely. If you don’t actually like a production of a particular ballet, it may not be that you don’t like ballet, it may just not be a particularly good production!

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Homework?

Should you do some preparatory work before you go to the ballet, or just turn up and experience it? Only you can really answer this one: with a possible plot, costumes, scenery, music and dance which are all largely unfamiliar, there’s a lot to take in at a first-time visit to the ballet, and you may feel more comfortable if you’ve stacked the odds in your favour. You could, for example, watch a video of the production or download some of the music online, or borrow a CD or DVD from your local library if it stocks them: ballet music is often available either as excerpts or suites, or as the full score. If it’s a narrative ballet, then you might want to read the plot beforehand (but it’s a good idea to make sure that what you read relates to the production you’re going to see, as productions can vary greatly). Even if you leave this until you reach the theatre and buy a programme, it’s far better to read what’s happening before you see the ballet, rather than to be confused during the performance and have to play catch-up in the interval. If you’re going with children, it is probably more helpful to spend some time preparing them for what’s going to happen beforehand, rather than trying to field a load of whispered questions during the performance.

Alternatively, you may just prefer to go along not knowing anything about what you’re going to see and just open yourself up to the experience. It’s entirely up to you.

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Star names?

A lot of newcomers, if given the option, will go for a recognisable “name” if there is one in the cast. Be wary of this: ballet isn’t something where you can have some gigantic league table where you rate dancers in order according to ability, but all dancers have strengths and weaknesses. Some dancers will be great at dancing the Classical Prince or Ballerina roles, others will be really good in dramatic roles, and still others will be good at comedy/plot-less ballets/the really showy stuff/very modern work and so on. It’s rare to find everything in a single package. The upshot is that you shouldn’t necessarily assume that because a dancer is well-known they will automatically be the best in any given role; equally, the fact that you haven’t heard of a dancer doesn’t mean that they will be worse in a role than BigName Dancer. For instance, when I started going to the RB, it was on standbys, so by definition I was seeing dancers who were perhaps less popular/well-known. My first experience of La Fille Mal Gardee was in fact with a ballerina one rank down from Principal. I loved her performance, and it was only as I came to read more about particular dancers, and this one in particular, that I came to realise that she would perhaps have given a better performance in that role than some of the company’s senior dancers.

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Well-known titles?

Likewise, many (most?) people go for the well-known titles like Swan Lake, The Nutcracker and Romeo & Juliet for their first ballets: and quite a few people get put off for years as a result if they don't like it! Does it have to be a story ballet? Does it have to be a full-evening ballet, or might a mixed programme be better? They have shorter works (which may or may not have stories), so if you don't like one of them there'll be something else along later, and they usually offer chances to see more of the company's stars. Why not try something different, which sounds as though it might appeal, rather than thinking that you *must* see Swan Lake because that's what everyone does? A lot of the 19th-century ballets, with the emphasis on mime, may not be the best ones to start with. If you're fortunate enough to have alternatives, why not read the marketing blurb, look at the pictures and so on, and see what takes your fancy? And *don't* give up just because the first one you go to isn't to your taste: ballets vary so widely that you need to look at a few before deciding that it may not be your cup of tea.

 

 

Well, any thoughts, feedback, additions? I'm sure there's much more to be said on the subject.

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Great thread! I wrote a blog post about this a while ago but I'm not sure about the policy of linking to blog posts on BalletCoForum so here's a few sections from the post instead:

 

So where to start? Well first off, let me correct a few common misconceptions: going to see a Ballet is not only for the posh, doesn’t have to be expensive and isn’t all about fluffy pink ballerinas looking pretty!

 

WHAT TO SEE?

Just like any other art form, there will be styles of Ballet you enjoy, and others you don’t but half the fun is in finding out what your personal taste is. Mixed bills are a great way to experience Ballet for the first time – they usually consist of three short (around 30 minutes each) pieces split up by intervals. Although there is usually an over-arching theme to the evening (it might be works by a single choreographer or relating to a certain subject) you will usually end up seeing three very different and distinct pieces. The short time length and multiple intervals let you digest what you have seen and if something wasn’t to your liking you don’t have to sit through 3 hours of it!

 

WHERE TO SIT?

If you are a student or under 25 check whether there are any student offers running. A lot of the larger companies do student rush tickets: “day of” tickets sold to students at greatly reduced prices (between £10-20/$15-30). These are often for the best unsold seats in the house and as such it’s often luck whether you get a good seat or not.

 

Personally I think there is nothing wrong with sitting in the “nose-bleed” seats at the top of a theatre! You may not be close enough to see the dancers facial expressions (though opera glasses/binoculars can help) but you gain a new perspective on the piece. For a lot of non-narrative pieces this can be a boon. I have seen Balanchine’s Stars & Stripes from the 4th Ring (top) and Orchestra (bottom) seats and probably preferred the 4th ring because it let me see the intricate formations the dancers were making (I’m ever the mathematician I guess).

 

WHAT TO WEAR?

The dress code for going to a Ballet definitely depends on where you are going, and where you will be sat. In general I would recommend “smart-casual” – with the lower in the theatre you go, the smarter you should be. Don’t feel this demands you wear black-tie whenever you are below the top tier, but if you’re sat in the Orchestra at a Met/Royal Opera House gala or suchlike you wouldn’t be out of place. (I sat in front of a man at a recent performance who was decked out in a three piece purple suit, including purple top hat!).

 

'WHAT IS THE 'BALLETIQUETTE'?

The main rules of etiquette at the Ballet are the same as any other theatre. Be on time (or you might have to wait until the first interval to be seated), turn off your mobile (silent mode can still interfere with sound equipment), don’t take photos, save lengthy discussions with your neighbour for the interval, don’t eat in the auditorium, be quiet as soon as the orchestra starts playing (don’t keep talking until the curtain raises) and don’t leave as soon as the dancing finishes.

If there is a live orchestra you should applaud when the conductor appears. When else should you applaud? That’s a tricky question and I got differing opinions when I asked people their thoughts. You should definitely clap any time a dancer bows but you can also clap at the end of a particularly impressive sequence of steps, or when a principal appears for the first time. If in doubt, you can always just follow what everyone else is doing!

You’ll probably also hear shouts of “Bravo”, “Brava”, or “Bravi” during the applause. These are Italian words to show appreciation for a dancer’s performance. Technically Bravo is for male performers, Brava is for female performers and Bravi is for more than one performer. However, you’ll probably hear Bravo more than anything else, regardless of the dancers gender. I’ve got to admit that I’m still not brave enough to “Bravo” (no pun intended!), it’s completely optional.

JUST GO FOR IT!

At the end of the day it doesn’t really matter what you see, what you wear or where you sit. Just go, enjoy the dancing and bask in the experience. It’s great!

Oh, and if you’re still intimidated by the idea of going to see a full Ballet – watch some DVD’s first. There are some excellent recordings of the world’s best dancers dancing the great Ballets: Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg dancing Giselle with the Royal Ballet, Gillian Murphy and Angel Corella dancing Swan Lake with ABT, Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta dancing Manon with the Royal Ballet, and so many more. Watching the ballet beforehand can make it a little less intimidating to go see live.

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When someone who has never seen ballet asks me - it goes something like this:

 

I've never gone to the ballet because I don't understand it.

 

You don't have to understand it - do you like music and dancing?

 

Yes

 

That's what it is - music and dancing.

 

But - I might not understand what the story is about.

 

If it's a story it is usually explained in the program notes. But there isn't always a story at all.

 

Then what?

 

Just enjoy the dancing and the music - and if you want to - make up a story in your head.

 

I might not understand the music.

 

You're not playing the music so you don't have to understand it - just listen. Have you ever heard Nutcracker music?

 

Yes

 

Well, it's like that.

 

There might be a lot of stuffy people who will know all about it.

 

There are even more people who think everyone else knows about it. The truth is - you don't need to know - you just watch and enjoy.

 

Suppose I do something silly and clap at the wrong time?

 

Just clap - if you want to - when everyone else does. Or don't clap at all.

 

How do I know if I'll like it?

 

You don't - but you don't know if you will like a movie either - or a party at a friend's house - or a meal in a restaurant - or marriage. You just try it and see.

 

Do people behave in a particular way in a theater?

 

Just do what you learned in kindergarten: sit when everyone does, don't talk when the teacher is talking, go to the restroom when everyone else does, don't eat in the classroom, stay in your own space, and be polite. Did you do well in kindergarten?

 

Yes

 

Ok! - you know everything you need to know.

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Is there any information on the ritual that is the curtain call? The first time I saw a ballet I was surprised by just how long it went on for, the curtain going up and down and partially open, dancers emerging, all in a definite order, the presenting of flowers, the conductor coming on, the director, applause for the orchestra, etc...

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Star names?

A lot of newcomers, if given the option, will go for a recognisable “name” if there is one in the cast. Be wary of this: ballet isn’t something where you can have some gigantic league table where you rate dancers in order according to ability, but all dancers have strengths and weaknesses. Some dancers will be great at dancing the Classical Prince or Ballerina roles, others will be really good in dramatic roles, and still others will be good at comedy/plot-less ballets/the really showy stuff/very modern work and so on. It’s rare to find everything in a single package. The upshot is that you shouldn’t necessarily assume that because a dancer is well-known they will automatically be the best in any given role; equally, the fact that you haven’t heard of a dancer doesn’t mean that they will be worse in a role than BigName Dancer.

 

Interesting. Is there a general consensus on which dancers in a company are a better choice for, say, Swan Lake as opposed to more modern or dramatic roles? When I booked for Romeo and Juliet a few months ago, it seemed like a no brainer to opt for Alina Cojocaru as she's such a big star. There were just so many casts to choose from and not knowing anything about the majority of them did put me off, as a clueless newcomer to ballet watching.

 

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Anjuli, my dh actually gave me a funny look as I was laughing so hard reading your post :D Think he wonders what on earth I am doing on the laptop.

 

Always love knowing I've made someone smile and laugh. Makes me smile in return.

 

But, seriously, I think when we try to reassure someone that they will survive their first ballet immersion with a too lengthy answer - though it is done out of abundance of trying to be helpful - we are, I think, actually reinforcing their perception that it is complicated. And, complication is what they fear.

 

It's just dancing and music. The dancers (strengths/weaknesses), the story or not, the technicalities, the protocols, the history, the traditions - etc - they will eventually figure out if they can just be convinced to go that first time - and they won't do that if their fears are borne out by a long complex answer - however well intended.

 

But, that's just my complicated opinion. :)

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When I booked for Romeo and Juliet a few months ago, it seemed like a no brainer to opt for Alina Cojocaru as she's such a big star.

 

No consensus at all :). Ask 10 people here and I'm sure you'll get 10 different replies. But it's interesting that you went for a Juliet, rather than for a Romeo (despite the fact that Romeo at the RB is actually the more demanding role, physically speaking). No, that bit was prompted by numerous bits of ballet-going over the years: hearing someone rubbishing a performance by the RB's best ballerina in whatever role it was because "it would have been much better if Darcey Bussell had been dancing it, of course" (and it wasn't one of DB's great roles!), noting people picking performances by Carlos Acosta on the assumption that he'd be the best in a role, irrespective of whether he actually was or not, or, if they hadn't seen him, assuming that the alternative cast dancer was automatically worse, that sort of thing ...

 

Thanks, David and Anjuli, for your contributions. David, I'm sure we can all locate your blog by Googling on sections of it, anyway - some very useful stuff there that I hadn't thought to include last night.

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Personally, who I see in title roles is often an accident, given that I have to book for dates that fit in with:

 

My husband's shifts

My dd's dancing

My ability to get seats suitable for my disability

 

So often, it's pot luck who will be dancing! That said, we were particularly lucky to get seats for Nunez and Acosta dancing in La Fille - but as that was the only night we could do, it was a real bonus to get Marianela, who, for me, is the definitive Lise.

 

With ENB I often have to book before casting is announced, but I'm happy to see any ENB dancers. :-)

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I'm always amused by how quickly the orchestra players disappear. They really don't hang around. I think that they're down the pub before the curtain call is over!

 

That depends on the players' contracts. For example, the ROH Orchestra are contracted to remain in the pit until the first orchestral curtain call (i.e. when the conductor and cast come forward to acknowledge them). The Ballet Ballet Sinfonia on the other hand (& IIRC) are contracted to remain until the second call.

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Careful choosing of the 'first' ballet to take a child to is a bit of a must - the first one I saw was Petrushka when I was about 5 and it gave me nightmares!

 

Mine was Swan Lake in 1974 or 75. I'm pretty sure it was at the Royal Festival Hall, so it could have been London Festival Ballet. My only recollection of it is the foyer, and a very dark stage with a lot of swans. I remember loving the music though.

 

Dd's first one was the Gerald Scarfe designed ENB Nutcracker when she was 3. We had front row dress circle seats but she sat on my lap and didn't move a muscle for the whole ballet. The only time she fidgeted was in the interval (which was "boring"). I know a lot of people disliked that production but she absolutely loved it! :-)

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