Is ballet still en pointe today?

The Russian State Ballet’s Giselle, currently on at the New Theatre on George Street, is not to be missed. The second half is not to be missed, that is. Giselle is the Russian State Ballet’s telling of Sleeping Beauty. The fairytale subject-matter lends itself well to this production, in which dancers glide across the stage, espousing an ephemeral, almost other-worldly quality. Unfortunately, the first half is rather more twee than the second, pastel costumes and a rather kitsch set blending with over-exaggerated gestures from the dancers. The dancers also do not seem to be quite in step with the music. When the curtain rises on the second half, it is as if we’ve wondered into the wrong theatre, back into a different ballet. The set is a misty, white fairytale land, a fitting backdrop to the wonderful dancing and sophisticated gestures of the ballerinas twirling across the stage, completing their movements with such ease their feet seem not even to touch the floor. The power of the second half is such that some audience members are reduced to tears.

I tend to prefer a play to ballet, opting to watch dialogue rather than dance, but sitting in the New Theatre watching this beautiful ballet and absorbing the atmosphere of the music blending with what is going on on-stage makes me wonder why I do not frequent the ballet more often. This leads me to question why ballet does not enjoy a greater popular status, and why most people find it lofty, inaccessible, even tedious. What is ballet’s place in mainstream entertainment? Does it even have a place, or is destined to be relegated to the dusty box labelled ‘high-brow art’?

Ballet fills in that strange overlap between dance and theatre. For some people, it is neither one nor the other, which is where the problem lies. It seems inaccessible, a form of high art reserved for those brought up on a diet of opera, classical music and the literary greats.

Everybody’s favourite winter warmer, Strictly Come Dancing, has popularised ballroom dancing, bringing this previously inaccessible past-time to the reach and enjoyment of the masses, beaming the quickstep and the Viennese waltz into living-rooms across the country every Saturday evening. Most of the professional dancers have trained first as professional ballerinas, the smooth elegance of their moves across the dance floor down to this traditional introduction into the world of contemporary dance. And yet the public remains, on the whole, uninterested in this antecedent, in ballet.

There is music, but there are no words. There is nothing to grasp onto, to analyse. When watching a play or a film, one can better sympathise with or revile the actions of the characters, climb inside the protagonists’ heads to read their thoughts as the play rolls on. Plays have a reason for being. Ballet just is. The lack of any dialogue means all interpretation must come purely from the dance itself and while the ballets of course tell a story, just as a play does, it is often far harder to discern the unfolding of the action, the relationships between the characters, the thoughts inside their heads and the words they might be saying if only they were not reduced to a state of dumbness.

Recent programmes on the BBC, Agony and Ecstasy: A Year with English National Ballet, provided the general public with a fascinating insight into this often closed world. The company of young professionals is shown during the gruelling, exhausting rehearsal process involved in putting on a production of Romeo and Juliet, and a version of Swan Lake at the Albert Hall. Perhaps the demand for a glimpse into this world is a sign that people are gaining an interest in this art form. Then again, the programme is shown on BB4, the channel known for its niche, educational documentaries, its slices of the high-brow art world.  

Ballet is often a childhood staple, annual Christmas trips to the Nutcracker a recurring memory for many. But after the umpteenth trip to see Swan Lake as an excited ten year-old, once the shoes from the Saturday ballet class have been put away for the last time and the journey into adolescence and adulthood begun, ballet seems to fade from most people’s cultural horizons.

It seems ballet is a world destined to remain rather inaccessible to the general public, pushed aside from the world of mainstream entertainment and contemporary theatre.

Rebecca Loxton

PHOTO/Russian State Ballet of Siberia