Not long ago, I mentioned that I was rediscovering the delights of opera. That is still true and I am also beginning to take another look at ballet.
In some respects, I tend to think of opera and ballet in much the same way – both are art forms that have considerable overlap with classical music (and, to some extent with each other – certainly, I believe it was common in early French operas to have extended balletic interludes) and, in today’s public perception (at least within British culture) tend to be seen as rather high-brow or elitist, although for much of their history both were actually quite popular forms of entertainment for the masses. They are both art forms to which I’ve had limited live exposure but have enjoyed what I’ve seen.
Unlike opera, where my interest until recently has been almost non-existent except for watching live performances, I have quite enjoyed listening to, and sometimes playing, ballet music (mostly in the form of concert suites rather than complete ballets) over the years, with some of Tchaikovsky’s (The Nutcracker, Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty) and Khachaturian’s (Gayane, Spartacus and Maskerade) being among my favourites. It is mostly the visual form, i.e. watching the dances themselves, that I am currently rediscovering.
My first encounter with ballet came through a workshop that I attended while I was at school (I think it was primary school but it may have been the early years of secondary – we’re certainly talking well over 20 years ago). This was led, as I recall, by two ballet dancers (one male, one female) from some professional ballet company or other. They gave us demonstrations of various techniques and got us to try a few basic exercises. One of these involved each of us, in turn, running across the floor and then making a graceful leap, emulating a bird or an aeroplane. My own attempt was one of the less graceful ones in the class and, as I recall, prompted a comment about jumbo jets from one of the instructors! (Perhaps this incident is partly to blame for the love of egregious wordplay that has probably been one of my strongest defining characteristics since my youth?!)
I have only, as I recall, ever been to the ballet twice. Both occasions were on my school trip to Russia in the autumn of 1991 (which also provided my first opera experiences). The first one was in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) and was an evening of excerpts from various ballets performed, I think, by members of the Kirov Ballet (although it was not at the Kirov Theatre). The second was in Moscow, at the Kremlin, and performed by the Bolshoi Ballet. This one was a complete ballet and I’m not entirely sure what it was but I think it was Don Quixote, a ballet with music by Ludwig Minkus (a fairly obscure composer – or at least one I’d never heard of – described, perhaps rather unkindly, in a book I was recently reading as an “official hack” who supplied “scores by the yard” for the Mariinsky (aka Kirov) Ballet). I don’t have very clear memories of either event but I seem to recall that I quite enjoyed them, especially the Moscow one.
Given my previously-noted mental association of opera and ballet, and the also previously-noted fact that I have been re-exploring opera of late, it is probably not that surprising that my explorations should have strayed into the territory of ballet as well. Via watching a few YouTube videos and then getting a handful of DVDs (which may well become the basis of a larger collection as the years progress) I have discovered that, while a lot of ballet music does work fine on its own (and, indeed, quite a lot of it was originally written with no thought to it being used for dancing), the visual dimension does add quite a lot to things. It’s fascinating to watch, both for the grace, elegance and sheer athletic prowess of the moving bodies in their own right (both on their own and in combination with each other) and for how the dance and the music interact with and complement each other.
In order to deepen my understanding, and hence also my enjoyment, of ballet I’ve not only been watching and listening to it but doing a certain amount of reading about it. I was able to remember a handful of terms (such as pirouette and pas de deux) from the ballet workshop I attended all those years ago, but I now at least have some idea when I’m watching a pas de chat or a fouetté (or 32 of them in a row, as in a famous bit from the “black act” of Swan Lake) and I know my arabesque from my elbow!