Ballet Appreciation for Dummy
April 5, 2012 3:15 AM   Subscribe

I'm going to see my first ballet on Saturday. What should I expect, how can I appreciate it, and what should I look out for?

It's this if it matters. I go to the theatre quite a bit, and classical music concerts occasionally, but don't know anything about dance.
posted by TheophileEscargot to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I suppose reading beforehand what the story is about, and preferably what each scene is vaguely about would help you appreciate the meaning behind the dances. If there is any famous dancer featured, maybe you could search him/her on youtube and see their other performances. Being able to recognize someone on stage can make it more enjoyable and easier to concentrate. As for the dance itself, ballet is quite simply overtly magnificent and I never needed explanations or advice to enjoy them. If you like music, then I'm sure you'll naturally enjoy how they express music and emotions through their bodies. Have fun!
posted by snufkin5 at 4:34 AM on April 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I agree with snufkin5 that reading a synopsis of the story can help in following who's who and where the story is going. One of the things that always takes me by surprise is the noise the toe shoes make on the stage, so be prepared for that. This looks like an interesting production, fusing Tchaikovsky with rock music.

The Coliseum is the most beautiful theatre in London, so enjoy the surroundings. It's not necessary to dress up, unless it's a gala performance. The usual theatre rules of phones off, no crackly sweet wrappers and no talking apply here as anywhere else. You might find that if you're late to arrive or to return from the interval you won't be allowed in if you're sitting somewhere that'll be disruptive and distracting to the dancers (such as front stalls).
posted by essexjan at 5:17 AM on April 5, 2012

I occasionally attend the ballet and find that the rules for attending classical music performances and opera (phone off, no talking, etc.) work well for me. I enjoy dressing up a little, so I'd wear something a bit nicer than usual but something I wouldn't be uncomfortable sitting in for the duration.

When I attend the ballet in the US, there's normally an act-by-act summation in the playbook, normally with some mention of major dances and musical pieces. I assume you'll be getting there with some time to spare so you'll have a chance to read the playbook after you arrive. I've never needed much in the way of education beyond that, although admittedly the ballet drug of choice in my home town was the traditional Nutcracker Suite at Christmas, which doesn't require explanation at all.
posted by immlass at 6:06 AM on April 5, 2012

Best answer: After my first ballet, I left feeling like it was extremely refined gymnastics, with some dance and a plot thrown in to smooth things along. I'm lucky that my wife was a ballerina, since I'm pretty much from the sticks and probably don't follow much of what people traditionally look at. The big difference between ballets, for me, has been the synchronization of the ballerinas, the number of them, and how easy or difficult it was to follow the plot. I get a chuckle out of that because I know I dislike Balanchine's work with a passion (too simple), and much prefer Tchaikovsky (large numbers with perfect synchronization). But, it depends on the ballet too. I've forgotten which it was, but the best goth scene I've seen (film, theatre, etc.) was in a ballet.

The shoe noise is very noticeable, but I actually miss it when we sit too far out. Reading up on the plot is a must, since it can be hard to follow unless they've bothered to color code factions, which I saw once from one of the traveling Russian companies, and was easily my favorite (Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella, I think). More than anything though, I wouldn't bother with trying to geek out on what is what (pas de deux, etc.). Just go enjoy it. I'm not kidding about my gymnastics comment. It's pretty universal in that respect. You can pick up the rest later.
posted by jwells at 6:49 AM on April 5, 2012

Agreed that knowing the story beforehand really helps enhance the experience. For me, that includes looking at pictures of the production and learning the outfits of the principal characters so that you can pick them out and follow them as they move through the piece. I also like having one or two of the non-principals to cheer for. For example, see if there is a particularly promising corps member who will be doing a soloist role at he performance you are going to, then watch for them and their moment.

As someone who likes ballet but don't know that much about technique, I am occasionally surprised by the audience reaction to some particular element of the performance. Often the rest of the audience will give you an indication of when to really pay attention. Only at ballet have I ever heard so many people actually and sincerely yell "Bravo!"
posted by gemmy at 6:51 AM on April 5, 2012

Best answer: Reading ahead of time a history of the piece is a great idea. Many times there will be a program at the performance with detail about the piece, it's history and choreographer, as well as bios of the pricinpal dancers.

Obviously rude noises are a no go but it is not unheard of to applaud spectacular lifts in a piece that involves partnering or to applaud a very difficult series of turns or other moves by an individual. Much like a play, if it is funny, laugh.

It is easy to be dazzled by the grand moves that bring down the house. More subtle is the unreal body control dancers have. To stop a quad turn gently into fourth position or to lightly land on one foot after a soaring leap takes an amazing amount of strength, skill and grace. Be entertained by the flashy moves of a uptempo section of the piece and be aware of the skill a slower adagio section takes.

Dance requires an individual to be athletic, graceful, musical, theatrical and in tune with the others on stage all at once. Just keeping that in mind should give you an appreciatation for what you see, even if ballet doesn't turn out to be your thing. I hope it does though, it is a spectacular form of art.
posted by domino at 6:53 AM on April 5, 2012

Best answer: Finally, an AskMefi that I actually have some degree of expertise in!
A little bit of Googling reveals that Eifman Ballet is a contemporary ballet company, focusing on the creation of new work (as opposed to a company based in Classical Repertory like, for example, the Royal Ballet or ABT). Here is a preview.
This particular production is definitely more contemporary, meaning no pointe shoes (as far as I can tell, though many contemp. pieces do use pointe work), a broader range of movement vocabulary, and a more diverse exploration of movement and technique. This production also appears to include some contemporary orchestral rock music alongside the Tchaikovsky score (not to my taste, but could be interesting). If you are unfamiliar with classical ballet and ballet as a technique, these differences might not mean a lot to you, but just know that the production you are seeing exists very much in the contemporary realm, and needs to be viewed through a different lens than you would employ with, say, The Nutcracker, Giselle, or even Balanchine.
As for what you should be watching for, I agree that having a glance over the program/playbill will most likely give you enough of a narrative synopsis that you shouldn't be too confused. Keep in mind that most ballets that are adaptations of existing narrative works are almost always pruned and simplified in an extreme fashion, and the remaining narrative often bares only the vaguest thematic resemblance to the source material. I imagine this is especially true when dealing with a complex and many charactered story like Eugene Onegin. "Plot" in narrative ballet is (almost) always very, very simple, and (to be perfectly honest) is far from the most important part of the production. People don't go to the ballet to get a good story (thank god), they go for the dancing. If narrative is your thing, you may find ballet to be not your cup of tea. Fair warning.
In a contemporary ballet such as the one you will be seeing, one of the main things to watch for is the choreography. Some things to ask yourself as you watch: How are the movements put together (sequence, formal organization, dynamic, variety, etc)? What sort of movements are employed? Does the choreography rely heavily on classical vocabulary or is it mostly invented? Is the movement organic or highly stylized? How well does the choreographer manage to elicit the appropriate emotional tone through the movement itself (as opposed to through the "acting" or performance of the dancers)? There are no "correct" answers to these questions, of course, but the more you pay attention to what you're seeing and your corresponding reaction, the more you will begin to get a grasp on what your own aesthetic is (ie classical or contemporary? Technical or emotional? Virtuosic or impressionistic? etc.)
As for the dancers themselves, take note of things like their range (how far can they move, physically and emotionally), extension (flexibility), ballon (ability to appear to suspend jumps in mid air), line (ability to achieve positions in which each element of the body is working harmoniously to create a visual shape that is clear, uninterrupted, and pure), musicality (how much is the dancer able to "play" within the musical framework, or are they constrained to dancing "on the beat"? Is the dancer's relationship to the music unexpected? Exciting? Boring?), and (most importantly, imo) CONTROL (how is the dancer able to slow down, suspend, speed up, etc. their movements at will?). These are pretty rudimentary considerations, but as you watch more and more dance you will develop a more nuanced way of looking at dancers.

In summation (because I just wrote a novel), ballet is incredible and I hope you will keep watching it, even if you don't love this production. The particular production you are seeing doesn't look as if it would be to my tastes (I tend to skew towards the more purely contemporary or purely classical, and am not a fan of hybrid narrative ballets...with rock music), but even if the production itself is a bit cheese-tastic, you can be sure that the dancers will be PHENOMENAL. Enjoy them, and keep expanding your dance horizons! Even if you happen to LOVE it, don't let this one ballet shape your opinion of all ballet...or all dance.
posted by Dorinda at 11:15 AM on April 5, 2012 [4 favorites]

Dorinda gave a wonderful outline of what/how to watch. I would add that you should bring a small pair of binoculars to use--but use sparingly. It is fun to get a closer look at the dancers and their expressions, movements, etc. --but don't get too caught up in observing the pieces and parts that you forget the whole. The patterns of the choreography are important. But I also like to look at the costumes, scenery and watch the members of the orchestra...
posted by agatha_magatha at 4:23 PM on April 5, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks folks, great answers from all, especially Dorinda! I'll definitely read up on the plot beforehand.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 10:55 PM on April 5, 2012

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