Archive for the ‘Going to the Ballet’ Category

Marie Taglioni. Coloured Lithograph, circa 1831. From the V&A Theatre Museum © Source: Wikipedia

Marie Taglioni. Coloured Lithograph, circa 1831. From the V&A Theatre Museum © Source: Wikipedia

From the moment Marie Taglioni put on her ballet shoes and stood on pointe the cult of the ballerina took flight. The ballerina, the female expert in the art of ballet who lives and suffers for her art, is forever associated with intrinsic qualities of lightness and grace. But just like Mr. Darcy’s remarks on truly accomplished women (“no one can be really esteemed accomplished who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with… she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half-deserved”), should we not also comprehend a great deal in our idea of a graceful dancer?

A while ago we were asked by one of our Facebook group members to write a comment on what makes a dancer graceful. This post attempts to approach this delicate topic (since not every ballerina is a synonym for gracefulness) from an audience perspective. Technique, which forms the basis, the backbone of a dancer’s art, is an objective measure. But grace, like artistry, is subjective and largely depends on the eye of the beholder. For evidence of that one only needs to take a tour of ballet on YouTube.

Pick a male or female dancer you like, watch a selection of videos featuring that dancer and try to form your own views. Then read the various comments in reaction to his or her performance: for every person who finds your chosen dancer graceful there will always be a dissenting voice. The FT critic Peter Aspden made interesting remarks on this when he wrote a very interesting article about the Mariinsky’s Alina Somova, a controversial dancer who continues to spark inflamed debate on YouTube and on ballet related web boards because of her use of extreme extensions in classical ballet. Some, like Aspden, perceive her as extremely graceful, while others see exactly the opposite.

Ballet is a contemplative art and to use another visual art parallel, there is no way to convince someone who prefers Impressionism to Cubism that Picasso is artistically superior to Monet. There are ways, however, to draw an observer’s attention to details they might have previously overlooked in a painting, to steer his or her eyes towards features which might lead to a reassessment of that work of art. So whilst we cannot define grace, here are some elements which we think would naturally emanate from a graceful dancer:

  • Good Line – as Robert Greskovic notes: “true ballet line has little to do with the dancer’s limbs and everything to do with the harmonious coordination of each part seen as a totality.” A good line emanates from the dancer’s centre to reach out to all compass points of his or her body, think a beacon irradiating from the lighthouse. For an example of a good line see Anthony Dowell executing Des Grieux‘s first act solo [link]

  • Port de Bras (carriage of the arms) – of course a good dancer must display perfect coordination between legs, feet, torso, arms, hands, neck and head, but soft, pliant arms help accentuate the gracefulness of the whole movement, to emphasize its poetry. Here one can draw an interesting comparison between male and female dancers: male port de bras is simpler and sharper to make them look more virile, stronger, their line more visible, while the female arms are more laboured, making them look more delicate (see this post for more Port de Bras comparisons). For an example of graceful arms, see Ulyana Lopatkina in Swan Lake [link]

  • Musicality – the most obvious way to define a musical dancer is to think of the music box ballerina cliché. A highly musical dancer will trick you into forgetting about the orchestra pit and thinking that his or her movement is creating the music, so well they are matched. It goes beyond being technically precise. Of course, it should be noted that choreographers will treat music differently and the dance can either be on top of the melody or purposefully dissociated from the music, as is the case in certain modern choreography (ie. Merce Cunningham). A dancer that is often acknowledged as having been extremely musical was Balanchine‘s muse, Suzanne Farrell.

  • Physical qualities – one cannot underestimate the importance of well proportioned limbs and a beautiful face in ballet. On the other hand there are dancers who have broken the mold, redefining the concept of perfect proportions. These can be some of the most exciting dancers to watch because they transform what might have been perceived as a drawback into strength and create a form of unconventional grace. For examples of dancers who break the mold, see Alina Somova and Edward Watson making the most of their elastic and slender physiques in, respectively, Ratmansky’s The Little Humpbacked Horse [link] and Wayne McGregor’s production of Händel’s Acis & Galatea [link].

And here we feature some of our favorite graceful dancers who combine all the elements above. Feel free to post yours if you have one!

Sarah Lamb as Princess Florine (Bluebird Pas de Deux)

Sarah seems to be floating on a cloud of dance, her movements so light and fluid, every step a music note.

Alina Cojocaru as Cinderella

This is probably one of the most enchanting ballet videos on YouTube, Alina is simply radiant, never exposing to the audience the pitfalls of Ashton’s choreograpy (which demands from the dancer coordination between a soft upper body and fast feet)

Gelsey Kirkland as Giselle

This is a beautiful rendition of the famous Spessivtseva solo (Giselle’s first act variation) in which every single movement is linked into a whole. Notice how softly she gets down from arabesque into penché, her arms lingering with the music.

Viktoria Tereshkina as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty

While the dancers above represent the “ethereal and petite ballerina” we have a contrasting example in Tereshkina, a tall dancer who looks poised, elegant yet delicate in one of the most graceful choreographies in classical ballet.

Natalia Makarova as Odette (Swan Lake)

Around 3:39 you can see Odette’s variation. Makarova was the quintessential ballerina, a perfect match between technique and artistry: every step is used as a means for conveying emotion. A really graceful and touching performance.

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The Mariinsky visit to London a few weeks ago and in particular the fact that they brought mime-less Soviet adaptations of ballet classics with them, generated much discussion among Covent Garden audiences about the importance of mime in ballet. When Konstantin Sergeyev revisited works such as Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and Le Corsaire in the 50’s, balletic mime was largely scrapped in Russia as it was considered that new audiences did not need to be exposed to something as old fashioned and reminiscent from Tsarist times. The West would follow suit later on when it considered that dancing should be a complete means of storytelling with no additional form of narration.  Mime became moot.

But well performed balletic mime can be as artistic and as beautiful to watch as the dance itself. It carries forth the story, putting it into context. For instance audiences watching the Mariinsky’s Sleeping Beauty will be given no clues that the Lilac Fairy reverts Carabosse’s curse to princess Aurora by reassuring the whole court that if she pricks her finger she will fall into deep sleep but not die. Of course there is an argument that many of us will be  familiar with this fairy tale and that we do not need such level of detail in performance. On the other hand, omitting the Lilac Fairy mime means depriving audiences of one of ballet’s most moving sequences as this passage assists in developing her character, conveying a full sense of the Lilac Fairys warmth, kindness and wisdom as well as the contrast between good and evil, her calming gestures opposing Carabosse’s jerky, angry movements. All this is achieved by working the upper body, with face, arms and hand gestures that are completely integrated to Tchaikovsky’s beautiful score. Balletic mime is a stylish work of art.

Deirdre Chapman as Carabosse Photo: Johan Person/Royal Ballet © Source: Dansomanie

Deirdre Chapman as Carabosse Photo: Johan Person/Royal Ballet © Source: Dansomanie

Although we hardly ever see mime in modern pieces, classic works that have been preserved or reconstructed by ballet companies such as ABT, the Royal Ballet and the Royal Danish Ballet (the latter boasting a pure mime tradition that goes back to the Bournonville schooling) tend to contain substantial mime sequences. As we just wrote a post on going to the ballet for the first time we thought the mime basics would also help prepare you for the performance ahead. Chances are you will come across lengthy declamatory, narrative or conversational mime passages if you are going to see a 19th century ballet classic and if you know the basics you won’t be left scratching your head:

Most commonly seen mime gestures:

  • Dance

Hands circle one another above the head, the arms moving from first to third position.

Ex: in The Sleeping Beauty, just before Aurora’s solo, when King Florestan asks his daughter “will you dance for us?”

  • Forget/Think

Character touches the forehead with the index finger.

Ex1: in The Sleeping Beauty, when the evil fairy Carabosse asks the King and the Queen “did you forget to invite me?”

Ex2: in Giselle, before Hilarion calls Albrechts bluff he asks a bewildered Giselledo you really think he loves you?”

  • Die

Crosses arms in front of body in a low position.

Ex: when Giselle‘s mom (Berthe) says to the villagers “the Wilis will make wandering men dance till they die.”

  • Beautiful

Character makes a circle around the face with the palm of the hand.

Ex: in The Sleeping Beauty, before showing Prince Florimund (or Desiré) a vision of Aurora, the Lilac Fairy asks him “do you want to see something beautiful?”

  • Promise

Point two fingers, held together (like a peace sign) upwards in the audience’s direction.

Ex: in Swan Lake, when Prince Siegfried promises to Odette that he will marry her and thus break the swan curse.

And also:

  • Why – both arms open outwards towards the other character
  • King/Queen – taps forehead with hand three times
  • Princess – taps forehead with hand two times
  • I/Me – point to own chest
  • You – point to the other person
  • Love – crosses hands over heart
  • Listen/Listening – cups hand over ear leaning towards the sound or taps the face close to the ears
  • Anger/Angry – bend elbows with fists pointed towards the sky, shaking them
  • Stop – Palm out
  • Engaged or Married – Point to the ring finger

A brief mime dictionary can be downloaded from the Pennsylvania Ballet website from this link

See balletic mime in action:

  • Giselle: Berthe narrates the legend of the Wilis

Move forward to 2:30 to see the full mime sequence where Berthe (Genesia Rosato) tries to warn Giselle (Alina Cojocaru) about the dangers of  too much dancing. She will tell all villagers of the presence of Wilis in the forest who come out late at night to prey on wandering men. Note the miming of: cemetery/burial grounds (the crosses), wilis (the wings, the hand on her chin) dance and die.

  • The Sleeping Beauty: Carabosse and the Lilac Fairy

In the prologue of the Royal Ballet’s current production of  The Sleeping Beauty you can see the complete sequence where Carabosse crashes Aurora’s christening and curses her, miming the gestures: forgot, listen, say, grow up, beautiful, die. The Lilac Fairy interrupts (“now you listen to what I have to say“) miming that if Aurora pricks her finger she will sleep until awakened by a kiss from a faraway land Prince.

  • Swan Lake: Odette and Siegfried
  • Move to 1:40 to see the full mime sequence in this video of Kevin McKenzie’s Swan Lake production for ABT. The promise sign is mimed twice, first by Odette (Gillian Murphy) when she is telling her story to Prince Siegfried (Ángel Corella) and then by the Prince. Odette also uses mime to explain she is the Queen of the swans.

    • La Sylphide: Madge, Effie & her friends

    Royal Ballet’s Johan Kobborg characterised as Madge tells James’s fiance Effie and her friends their fortunes in this Bolshoi staging of La Sylphide (Move forward to 0:35). Notice how Madge predicts that Effie shall marry Gurn instead of James.

    See Mime Rehearsals:

    Sources and Further information:

    1. The NYCB website contains useful learning materials for the same Nutcracker mime sequence shown above [link]
    2. Pennsylvania Ballet [link]
    3. Ballet 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving the Ballet by Robert Greskovic. [link]
    4. Ballet Mime for Little Ones via Neo Blog [link]

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    The Royal Ballet Autumn Season is getting closer and if you are addicted like us then you are probably busy filling your bags with tickets to start it full-throttle. Look away if you belong in this category. This post is for those of you that feel intrigued about going to the ballet, having watched some videos or discussed with friends and heard about their experiences. You feel curious but don’t know what to expect from a ballet performance, how best to prepare (body and mind) or what to do when you get to the theatre. Help is at hand and although we will be focusing on “an evening with the Royal Ballet, our home company, you can easily apply these guidelines to any other ballet company/theatre.

    Royal Opera House. Photo: Russ London © Source: Wikipedia

    Royal Opera House. Photo: Russ London © Source: Wikipedia

    Before the Performance

    Of course the first thing you need is a ticket! The Royal Opera House box office sells tickets to all performances on a season basis (autumn/winter/spring/summer) and those can be purchased in person, by phone or web, the latter being the easiest, most secure and pain free option (unless you are booking on the first day of ticket sales!). If you go in person, the box office assistants will show you a seating chart whereas online you can select your seats from a virtual one. Note that the box office will, by default, always offer you those tickets located in the centre and with 100% unrestricted view, regardless that these may be in row Z. However, there are many “restricted view” seats with better views than those which are central-yet-far (particularly in the  amphitheatre area).

    Since it is your first time at the ballet, casting will probably not be very important but if you are adamant about seeing the starrier performers, you can ask the box office which casts are more popular.

    Do Your Homework

    The next step is: “do your research” that’s right research. We cannot recommend it enough, as it will greatly enhance your experience. There is nothing more frustrating than leaving a performance without having understood anything, especially in the case of story-based ballets. Synopses tend to be available in the ballet company’s website, but since they may elude some people, best practice in this information rich era is to go with Google or Wikipedia. You might also like to try our own website – over the next few months we will be boosting the ballet fact cards we have in our Bag of Ballets to feature those to be staged by the Royal Ballet this season. With more time, and if you are a music fan, you can also listen to the ballet score (try Spotify, Imeem, Last.fm, Pandora, etc.). This is particularly important in plotless ballets which are more focused on the music, for instance as in most ballets by Balanchine. Finally, you can try YouTube for a preview of what you will be seeing.

    Arriving at the Performance

    It is advisable to arrive at the theatre at least half an hour before the performance (one hour if your tickets are held at the box office). Due to heavy London traffic and lack of parking spots near Covent Garden, going by car is a no-no.  If you are a Londoner you probably know the Tube is not reliable and that you should check live updates via Transport for London. On arrival you may want to browse the Royal Opera House Shop, accessible via the Covent Garden market entrance. Here, as well as inside the theatre, you will find ballet programmes (£5) containing the full synopsis, gorgeous pictures, historical notes for the choreographer/composer and full dancer biographies.

    There is no dress code at the Royal Opera House, but we are partial to dressing smart, after all this is a night out in town (Ladies, see our “fashion at the ballet” post here. Gents, you can never go wrong with a suit or dressy trousers and a jacket). The rule of thumb is: the more expensive your ticket, the dressier you should look, although there is no need to dust off the old Tux/Evening Gown! The Royal Opera House has a Cloak Room at no extra charge, so you can leave your coat there (if you are coming directly from school/office as we usually are, big bulky bags can also be held there).

    After you present your ticket at the entrance your bags will be checked. If you arrived early, you can now have a drink at the Floral Hall (upstairs, in front the Cloak Room) or the Amphitheatre Bar. Announcements are made when it’s time to take your seats. Before you go, pick a free cast sheet from the ushers at the Floral Hall or Amphitheatre end corners where ice cream is sold, to check the latest cast information (since dancers can get ill/injured), as well as performance structure/intervals, duration and credits. Many people don’t usually bother picking one up, but if you decide not to buy a programme (as you feel very confident after all that research!) then glancing over the cast sheet and finding out the performer’s names is the least you can do –  just like in a social event, it’s nice to put “a name to a dancer’s face”.


    If you arrive late, the ushers will lead you to a room where the live performance is relayed onto a screen. You will be admitted in the auditorium after a suitable pause (usually after the 1st act in a full-length ballet or after the 1st ballet in a mixed bill). If you are early but forgot your ticket, go to the box office and give them your name and credit/debit card, they will be able to get a reprint for you.

    Main Auditorium at the Royal Opera House. Photo: Yakinodi © Source: Flickr

    Main Auditorium at the Royal Opera House. Photo: Yakinodi © Source: Flickr

    During the Performance

    The moment you’ve been waiting for! The conductor enters and bows to the audience, a surge of applause, the music starts and the red velvet curtains open to reveal….

    … well, this is where your personal experience really starts. The eminent FT critic, Mr. Clement Crisp says that you will know if you like a ballet after 2 minutes of seeing it. Here are just a few of so many things one can look out for during the performance:

    • In story based ballets one can focus on how the various characters are interpreted and how the dancers convey their persona through movement. In abstract, plotless pieces, one can focus on how the dancer interprets the music and how this makes you feel.

    • The ballet mime: in classical ballets notice how certain actions are represented by mime, which gestures tend to be repeated throughout the performance and how the dancers respond to these gestures. (we will feature more on this topic soon)
    • The technical aspects: jumps, spins, lifts, etc. How do these fit within that particular ballet’s context and how they are performed: height, soft landing, precision, quickness, floating (or ballon), grace & elegance of the movements, etc. If there is a large ensemble of dancers (corps de ballet) notice how they move together and whether they dance “as one” in perfect unison.

    • The choreography. Which shapes are drawn through dance, how the various dancers come together and what is the overall “look” and “feel”.

    • If you are attending a mixed bill, there might be a common theme linking them all (in many occasions the pieces are by the same choreographer, etc). Try to analyse the connections between the different pieces in the programme.

    Sometimes dancers will stop after a solo packed with jaw dropping technical feats and the audience will burst into applause. In ballet, unlike classical music concerts or opera, you don’t have to wait for the performance to end to show your appreciation and it is  normal to cheer and clap after a particularly well executed variation. However, you should take note of the key applause moments in ballet: at the beginning, when the conductor takes his stand and when the performance restarts after an interval; and at the end, when the company take their bows and during the curtain calls, when the principals and soloists come to thank the public individually.


    During the intervals (typically 20-25 mins each) you can leave the auditorium and treat yourself to drinks and nibbles at the Floral Hall (Paul Hamlyn Hall Bar), the Amphi Bar or one of the other smaller restaurants and bars in the theatre. Food can be pre-ordered to be eaten during intervals. Many people choose to gather around the outside the Orchestra Stalls entrance area (the Pit Lobby) to chat and read the programmes.

    ROHs Floral Hall (Paul Hamlyn Hall). Source: ROH ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

    ROH's Floral Hall (Paul Hamlyn Hall). Source: ROH ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

    After the performance

    When the ballet ends and after the company takes their bows (reverence), there might be a series of curtain calls, where the principal dancers come to receive further applause, the length of which will depend on how the public gauged that performance, more calls indicating a particularly excellent one. You will see that at this point some people start to rush to the exits, usually those who need to rush back to a train station. Whether you should rush or not is a topic for another post, but it is fun to stay for the calls. Once they are over, you leave the auditorium, pick your coat up and leave.

    It is very hard to hail a taxi at the nearby stop in Russell Street, since you will have to compete with many other West End theatre goers just out from their plays and musicals. It is advisable to either pre-book a cab or walk to Holborn to find one. Otherwise, it is best to take the bus or the tube.

    We hope that these notes assist in making your evening a very enjoyable experience. We would love to hear from any first timers how your experience was, if you will be going back and why. Best advice is to plunge into it. On your way out, you’ll know exactly what did it for you.

    Further Information

    1. Royal Opera House Attendance Guidelines [link]
    2. Birmingham Royal Ballet‘s Guide to Attending a Ballet Performance for the First Time [link]

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    And now for something completely different. This post is for those in need of a styling hand to help assemble looks to wear at the ballet, opera or even a fancy theatre outing. We like ballet, we like fashion, we used to like dressing up our dolls and most of all we like to have fun, so here we have an opportunity to combine all of these!

    Yes, the days of dressing up to the opera house are long gone. With the exception of a positively glitzy premiere of the ballet Jewels in 2007 (floor length gowns galore), today’s audiences do not tend to go couture overboard when getting ready for an evening at the theatre, not even expensive ticket holders. Anything too big and bold might look out of place, especially if you are seated “up in the gods”. Remember that famous Sex and the City episode where Petrovsky (ballet god Misha Baryshnikov) treated Carrie Bradshaw to an Oscar de la Renta dress for an evening at the Met? Nice but fiction. Nowadays, with opera houses afraid of being branded snobbish & with jeans having made it to the mainstream, the reality is way more relaxed. So relaxed in fact, that last Saturday I spotted someone in Bermudas & Birkenstocks. And a guy in a kilt! It was an evening of sartorial diversity.

    Many people don’t go to such extremes of course and even if jeans and trainers are completely acceptable it doesn’t mean you should, especially if you are a girl. There is much fun to be had dressing up for an afternoon or evening at the ballet, it’s all part of the experience of being transported into a different universe and with the dancers looking so graceful and glamorous it’s only natural to want to give them some competition this side of the stage!

    Here we showcase some of our favourite basic looks (picked & chosen from the UK high street, but any of these can be reproduced with more high end or save-tastic brands):

    Girly and classic. The cardi & opaque tights are great add ons for winter, the flouncy skirt is feminine and the flats are ideal for those in the standing areas (besides, Blair Waldorf would approve!):

    Bolero from Monsoon, Top and skirt from FCUK, Alice band, tights and bag from Accessorize and shoes from Marais USA

    Bolero from Monsoon, Top and skirt from FCUK, Alice band, tights and bag from Accessorize and shoes from Marais USA

    A paired down version of Carrie’s Oscar de la Renta effect, matched with discreet accessories. For this look, you can opt for any boldly coloured dress (though purple is huge for the autumn):

    Dress from Boden, Bolero and Heels from Monsoon, Clutch, Studs and Necklace from Accessorize.

    Dress from Boden, Bolero and Heels from Monsoon, Clutch, Studs and Necklace from Accessorize.

    London is cold and sometimes you just want something cozy & warm, here’s a way to wear woolies with an “evening feel”. Also, this skirt will suit most body types:

    Cardigan from Boden, Skirt from FCUK, Clutch, Earrings, Necklace and Tights from Accessorize and shoes from Marais USA

    Cardigan from Boden, Skirt from FCUK, Clutch, Earrings, Necklace and Tights from Accessorize and shoes from Marais USA

    But for a summer evening, what better than a strappy LBD & peepy heels? For the autumn transition, wear it with black opaques:

    Dress from FCUK, Shoes from Monsoon, Statement Jacket from Topshop, Earrings and clutch from Accessorize

    Dress from FCUK, Shoes from Monsoon, Statement Jacket from Topshop, Earrings and clutch from Accessorize

    If you have the legs you can try the mini, a nice modern look for a Wayne McGregor premiere:

    Top from Monsoon, Tulip skirt and tights from Topshop, Clutch and studs from Accessorize and shoes from Marais USA

    Top from Monsoon, Tulip skirt and tights from Topshop, Clutch and studs from Accessorize and shoes from Marais USA

    Or this perfect basic look that can be worn from winter to summer, from gentle Swan Lake to rocking Chroma:


    Dress, tights and shoes from Topshop. Clutch and earrings from Accessorize

    Note: All images taken from the brands’ websites. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

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