Ballet is one of the most exquisite forms of high art in existence. And yet it is also one of the most exclusive. There is certainly an aura of inaccessibility, both from those inside the ballet world, and those of us looking in from the outside.
Watching it for the first time can be a bit... overwhelming. While you know that it’s impressive, for sure, you aren’t quite sure why. But don’t worry. Here are 5 top tips on getting the best out of watching a ballet performance.
Step 1 - Set the Scene
When choosing which show to attend, don’t rely entirely on famous names.
For example, you might think that buying tickets to Tchaikovsky’s ‘Swan Lake’ would be a safe bet, only to find that when you get there that the swans are male dancers.
Now, does this mean the show is bad? Of course not. Indeed, Matthew Bourne’s male-version of Swan Lake was the longest-running ballet show on London’s West End and New York’s Broadway, collected over 30 international awards in the process, and was even depicted in the famous final scene of Billy Elliot.
But for a newcomer to ballet, it’s best to try and see a classical ballet performance, if only so that you can greater appreciate these types of modern variations later down the line. Be sure to check on a theatre’s website if their ballet show will be classical.
A classical ballet incorporates all the most recognisable aspects of ballet. The Ballerinas will be wearing those famous tutus. These were first introduced into ballet from the late 1800s so that an audience could easily see (and therefore admire) the footwork and leg-work of the dancers.
They will also often be dancing on their tip-toes, a technique known as “en pointe”. 200 years ago, ballerinas needed the help of wires to stay on their toes for any significant period of time, and the technique was rarely used. However, in 1832, Maria Taglioni performed the ballet “La Sylphide” entirely en point, changing the face of ballet forever. As she danced, barely touching the stage, audiences were amazed at how she seemed to float in the air, blurring the lines between reality and dreams.
Indeed, the plot of a lot of classical ballets are inspired by the Romantic Era notion of escaping from reality and into the world of dreams, including some of the most popular and most-performed ballets in existence, such as La Syphilde, Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, Giselle and many more!
Step 2 - Check the Storyline
For a performance that contains zero dialogue, you can’t be expected to pick up the plot just by following the dance. And anyone who tells you they can, is most likely lying, or has probably read the show’s Libretto.
The Libretto (which in Italian means booklet) contains the synopsis of a show, as well as some important staging directions. The official libretto of a ballet can be up to 40 pages long and is used by choreographers when creating the dance sequences.
However, at the theatre there will be a shortened version of the Libretto in the program, which will break down the show by its acts, sometimes even by scene, and tells you which characters are involved. For well-known ballets, the libretto will also be easily available online.
Knowing the plot will make a world of difference in following the show. It’s just like if you were learning a new language and were listening to a conversation between two native speakers. If you know the context of the conversation, it makes it infinitely easier to understand what is being said.
Likewise, if you read the libretto of, for example, “Giselle”, you will know that it is set in the Middle Ages, in Germany and that a Duke is in love with a shy peasant girl called Giselle. Good luck figuring all that out just from the dance.
Step 3 - Know the Language
After reading the libretto, it’s important to know what to look out for during a performance, to help you remember the parts of the ballet the libretto describes.
Luckily, there are some commonalities in ballet that can help us follow the plot better.
For example, if you see the ballerinas dressed in white, it is likely you have entered a dream sequence. As previously mentioned, ballets blur the lines between dreams and reality, and “ballet blanc” as it is known represents the transition between the two. The wearing of white symbolises dreams but also the supernatural, with the dancers often representing ghosts, fairies and such.
And although they don’t speak, it is possible to understand what the ballet heroes are talking about during a performance, thanks to the use of ballet d’action, or pantomime. This is a kind of sign language that can be understood intuitively and that conveys meaning in moments when no one is dancing.
For example, if a character raises two fingers up, this signifies a divine oath. Alternatively, a tightly clenched fist reveals an intention to kill. If a character moves their arms smoothly over their head, this can be interpreted as an appeal to another character to dance. If they look at another character with their hand on their heart, this is an expression of love, whilst pointing to a ring finger represents the desire to get married.
Finally, although different ballets have different structures, a traditional classical plot will follow the same basic pattern. The ballet will begin with a pantomime sketch to set up the story. A complex dance composition follows, which takes up most of the play, and to end, there will be a fairly quick pantomime denouement (or epilogue). At some point between all that, you may well see a divertissement, which, as the name suggests, is a diversion from the story in order to display the talent of some of the dancers. A grand pas is similar, except that it mainly features the lead dancers, otherwise known as the Primas.
Step 4 – Follow the Stars
Most of what we have spoken about so far relates to the plot which, whilst important, is arguably not the main reason people go to see the ballet. The main attraction is, of course, to see the dancers. And when you go to see a performance, you should look out for the best of the best. You should keep your eyes on the Primas.
There is a defined structure to a ballet company. The majority of dancers will be part of the Corps de Ballet (French for body of the ballet). Essentially, they are part of the ensemble, and dance in perfect harmony with one another, providing a backdrop to the more prominent dancers, such as the soloists or demi-soloists. The soloists are considered good enough to perform one or two solo dances during the performance. A good example is Mercutio in the ballet version of Romeo and Juliet. Mercutio is a significant character, but not as significant as the titular roles, which would be played by the primas.
Prima Ballerinas and Prima Dancers are the best ballet dancers in a company. Nowadays, to reflect gender neutrality, they are often called the Principal dancers. They will be the dancers you will see most of in the show, performing the most solos and most duets.
Interestingly, there are some ballerinas known as ‘prima ballerina assoluta’, an title bestowed upon certain ballerinas who are considered even better than their leading peers. There have only ever been a very small number of these ballerinas in history, and although the title is unofficial and in some ways honorary, it is still highly revered. Magaret Fonteyn’s awarding of the title in 1979 was sanctioned by no less than Queen Elizabeth II.
However, not all the best ballerinas in history have been awarded the title. Anna Pavlova, who many consider the greatest prima ballerina of all time, was never awarded the title. (Although she was awarded the honour of having a dessert named after her! Some consolation...) After becoming the first ballerina to tour the world, Pavlova contracted Pneumonia but was offered a life-saving operation that would have meant she could never dance again. She replied “if I can’t dance, I’d rather be dead”, which she promptly did.
Whilst Pavlova’s is an extreme example, it’s this famed dedication to ballet that is shared among all primas. This is more than their job. This is their craft. For some, it is literally their life.
It’s why you need to keep your eyes on them.
Step 5 - Remember the Etiquette
When in such a fancy setting, you might wonder what the code of conduct is when watching a performance. Do you need to turn up in black tie? Are you forbidden from clapping?
Well, firstly, dress codes are far less strict in ballets nowadays. Even the Royal Opera House, home to The Royal Ballet of the UK does not impose a dress code.
Secondly, ballet houses actively encourage audiences to applaud when they feel moved to do so by a spectacular sequence. The National Ballet of Canada suggests in some places “even shouts of "bravo" for the man or "brava" for the woman are not out of line.”
It is likely that ballet proficionados around you will applaud the primas when they execute particularly complex dance moves. For example, the fouetté—a virtuouse rotation done in the en pointe position, with the non-standing leg away from the body. Some ballets, such as Swan Lake or Don Quixote ask for 32... yes thirty two fouetté turns consecutively. After seeing a dancer execute this, I promise you it will be difficult not to applaud.
However, a bad piece of etiquette would be to clap whilst the dancer is dancing, especially clapping in time to the music. This makes it difficult for the dancers to hear the orchestra, making it more likely that they will make a mistake or be thrown off rhythm. But don’t worry, there will be plenty of moments during the performance when it is appropriate to applaud. Note here for example how the dancer strikes a pose, which lets the audience know that she is finished with her fouettes, and that it is ok to applaud.
These tips have all been created to help provide some context to ballet, and to help newcomers not be overwhelmed by the new experience. Now that you are confident in the plot, the structure and the environment around you, you don’t have to overthink or worry about these things. The most important tip we can give to you is to simply sit back, and drink in the experience. It’s one you won't soon forget.