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How to Watch & Appreciate Ballet

Whether you’re a dancer, know a dancer, or just want to learn to appreciate ballet, it can be daunting and intimidating to go into a ballet not knowing what to expect. But have no fear! Here are some simple tips that anyone (dancer or not) can keep in mind when going to the ballet. They’ll have you discussing a performance like a newspaper critic in no time!

Do Research

If you buy or are given tickets to a performance, do some research beforehand. Find out what company is performing, the story of the ballet, its choreographer, and who wrote the music. Most ballet companies’ web sites will have complete and detailed information on their upcoming programs; if not, you can still peruse the internet for the vital information.

Be aware that classical ballets like Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty have strong storylines often based on fairytales, but some contemporary ballets like Serenade and Agon are story-less and merely follow the narrative of the music. If you read about the ballet you’re seeing before you go into the theater, you’ll know if there is a storyline, and what the dancing is supposed to mean. And if there’s no storyline, you’ll know what to expect and to look more for theme and feeling instead of a detailed plot narrative.

Consider the Elements

Every ballet has several key elements that define it as such. Though they vary in exact definition based on the scholar writing about them, you can keep these clear and easy terms in mind for what makes up the parts of a ballet:

Spectacle

This element needs no fancy vocabulary to be described. The element of spectacle is merely all that is visual and inanimate in a piece. This includes the lighting, sets, and costumes — anything that visually accentuates a piece. You can discuss the spectacle as being anything from magnificent and opulent (such as in Sleeping Beauty, with its palaces, balustrades, and glittering tutus) to clean and sparse (like Balanchine’s Agon, which uses no sets and only solid-colored costuming).

Music

This is one of the most intimidating elements of seeing a ballet, but when distilled is actually very easy to analyze. The music is merely the score, whether played on a CD with a large-scale stereo or performed live by an orchestra sitting in the pit below the stage.

See who wrote the music for the ballet you’ll be seeing. Go on the internet and find out the basic details of the composer’s life and how he or she felt about writing the music. For example, an interesting fact is that Tchaikovsky was in a terrible spell of depression when he wrote the Sugar Plum pas de deux in the Nutcracker; how does that change your opinion of the music? Background details can build an entirely new perspective on a ballet, as often times what goes on behind the scenes is just as dramatic (if not more) than what’s being played out on stage!

Try to buy a CD of the ballet you’re going to, and listen to it to familiarize yourself with the music. Then, when you see it live, you’ll be able to think about how it compares with your knowledge of it. Did the orchestra play it faster or shorter than you’re used to hearing it? Were some sections cut out? How did the dancers respond — were they dancing on the beat? All of these elements contribute to forming an intelligent and honest opinion of a ballet, as music plays an enormous part.

Hot Tip: In Good Company

If you’re going to see a ballet, it’s much more fun to go with a friend or family member. Being able to discuss what you think is great, whether the other person is an accomplished ballet critic or someone who has never been to the theater before! Having trouble finding a friend? Many ballet companies have events for audience members to find other balletomanes, such as discount performances with special pre-ballet parties and discussions. 

Theme

The theme of a ballet can be highly subjective and based entirely on what you feel during the performance. Was it tragic? Did you feel upset at the end? Or was it nostalgic and celebratory? How did it make you feel? Even though ballets like Swan Lake and Giselle have set storylines and are considered tragedies, the staging of a certain production can prompt different experiences.

Consider a ballet like a book; was it well done? Did the story move you? If there was no story, did it still evoke emotion through other means? These questions are all great starting points for discussion following a ballet performance.

Dance

Perhaps the most obvious of elements in a ballet performance — the element of dance — is simply the choreography and how the dancers performed. If you’re on your way to your first ballet, settle down with some DVDs first and watch how ballets are danced. Also, go online and read a little about classical movement vocabulary and what some of the more common steps are called.

Remember that even though all ballet dancers look amazing on stage, you may like some better than others depending on your tastes. Are you someone who lauds a virtuoso ballerina because you enjoy watching big jumps and sharp turns? Or do you admire the adagio ballerina for her graceful expression and languorous movements? Watch videos of different dancers to figure out what kind of dancers you like, then see how they compare in real life.

Open Mind

Though seeing a ballet can be a big, daunting experience if you’ve never been before, remember to sit back and enjoy it! No one can tell you any one way to enjoy a ballet. Pick out the parts you love and the parts you’re not so fond of, then talk to others and see how your opinion compares. There’s no such thing as right or wrong; an opinion is an opinion, and merely having one brings you into the circle of balletomanes!

Whether you're a dancer looking to involve others or a parent trying to cope with a life in ballet, this guide to appreciating the art explains the ins and outs!
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