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Is this ballet for you?

Go If: You like intensely physical dancing molded from contemporary choreography. Tetley’s work is as a balanced mixture of classical ballet and modern dance. You like greek mythology and/or ballets drawn from literary sources, in this case, a Jean Cocteau play.

Skip If: You are allergic to colourful 70’s style bodysuits or you are a Petipa purist who doesn’t fancy ballet crossed over with Martha Graham.

©BC20091102221

Rupert Pennefather and Marianela Nuñez in Tetley’s Sphinx. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

Dream Cast

Sphinx: Gillian Murphy (ABT), Marianela Nuñez (RB) or any strong-but-alluring technician (NYCB’s Ashley Bouder would be great in this role)

Oedipus: Ethan Stiefel (ABT), Rupert Pennefather (RB) or any Greek hero-looking dancer

Anubis: Edward Watson (RB) or any edgy/virtuoso dancer (NYCB’s Daniel Ulbricht would be a perfect complement for a Bouder Sphinx)

Background

TETLEY_Glen

Glen Tetley. Photo: ROH © Martha Swope

To understand Glen Tetley‘s unique style, one needs to go back to his roots. Few choreographers have been able to so harmoniously mix influences from so many different schools of dance. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Tetley started training as a dancer at the late age of 16 after seeing Nora Kaye and Hugh Laing in American Ballet Theatre‘s production of Romeo & Juliet. A move to New York and a random visit to a friend lead him to become the understudy in a Broadway production ran by none other than Jerome Robbins, who immediately recognised Glen’s talent and potential.

While performing on Broadway, Tetley continued to train intensively in dance. He studied modern dance with Martha Graham and Hanya Holm, classical ballet at the School of American Ballet (SAB) and with Anthony Tudor. He became very interested in the stylistical impact Asian movement could make on modern dance. Given the frictions between modern and classical dance at the time, he shut himself in his studies and carried on with a paralell degree in Chemistry (NYU), which allowed him to explore opportunities in theatre and literature at the University. With this foundation he built not only his own dance vocabulary, but enough ideas to develop as a choreographer.

Tetley’s style is a blend of notions from all these various dance schools. His choreography has the fluidity and lyricism of classical ballet but also the impact, athleticism and breadth of movement that comes from modern dance, which is very open and fills the stage. Classical dancers often say that dancing Tetley’s works have helped them become better dancers.

Context & Storyline

Tetley’s inspiration for Sphinx came from his passion for literature. The ballet is his personal take on Act II of The Infernal Machine, a play by Jean Cocteau. It was originally created for ABT on ballerina Martine van Hamel to the music of Martinů‘s Double Concerto for two String Orchestras.

The Myth of Oedipus:

In Ancient Greece the myth of Oedipus was passed down from one generation to the next. First references to it date back to 7th century BC with Homer and Hesiod and, a few centuries later, via Aeschylus and Sophocles who wrote their own accounts of Oedipus’s tragedy from a combination of several different sources.

Oedipus was the son of Laius, king of Thebes, and Jocasta. He was abandoned at birth owing to a prophecy by the Oracle of Delphi who foretold Laius and Jocasta that he would kill his father and marry his own mother. To avoid this fate, his father binds his ankles together with a pin and instructs a shepherd to take the boy away and kill him. The shepherd, full of pity, leaves the baby in the hands of another shepherd from Corinth who takes him to king Polybus and queen Merope. They  adopt him and name him Oedipus (swollen feet).

One of the key incidents in the story is Oedipus’s encounter with the Sphinx. The adult Oedipus hears a rumour that he is not the biological son of Polybus and Merope. Suspicious, he asks the Delphic Oracle who his parents really are. Instead of answering this question the Oracle tells him that he is destined to kill his own father and wed his mother. Desperate to avoid this fate and still believing Polybus and Merope to be his true parents, Oedipus sets on a journey to faraway Thebes. On his way he encounters a Sphinx which serves as a gatekeeper. In order to pass and to avoid being eaten by the creature all travelers must correctly answer a riddle. The sphinx serves Oedipus the following riddle:

What goes on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three legs in the evening?

Oedipus is the first traveler to answer correctly. He responds:

Man: as infant he crawls on all fours, as an adult he walks on two legs and in old age he relies on a walking stick.

The Sphinx, defeated, throws herself from a cliff onto her death.

Cocteau’s play:

Oedipus and the Sphinx by Gustave Moreau, 1864. Source: Wikipedia

Jean Cocteau’s The Infernal Machine is a rework of Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex (Oedipus the King) where the Sphinx is not a beast but an immortal woman who has grown weary and longs to fall in love with a human, in this case Oedipus. Cocteau kept its ancient setting but gave the dialogue a modern treatment and added a third character, Anubis, the Egyptian god of the dead, who is allied with the Sphinx to kill those who don’t answer the riddle. Given the play’s focus on fate vs. free will and other contemporary themes, Cocteau’s Oedipus could be any young man searching for his own identity, while Thebes could be any major city, with its problems and vices.

The Ballet:

Tetley’s ballet recreates The Meeting of Oedipus and the Sphinx (from Act II of the play). For the Sphinx he introduced elegant angular arms and dynamic footwork given that the mythological creature is originally a winged lion with a human head.  To represent the ominous Anubis and his warnings to the Sphinx he choreographed vigourous solos with fast turns and jumps, while Oedipus dances adagio sections and a very demanding pas de deux with the Sphinx, full of complex lifts.  The immortal woman-Sphinx falls in love and yields to Oedipus, revealing to him the answer to the riddle. Confronted by Anubis, Oedipus raises several fingers and waves his hands in “reply” to the riddle. The Sphinx loses her power and Oedipus leaves unharmed without so much as a thank you for the answer. The ballet ends with the Sphinx  returning to her winged platform to die under the ever watchful eyes of Anubis.

Music

Initially Tetley had commissioned an original score from Paul Chihara with whom he had discussed the story, but he ultimately disliked the material proposed. Turning to his music collection, he uncovered Bohuslav Martinů’s Double Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Piano and Timpani and decided to use it in his ballet. Czech composer Martinů (1890-1959) was a big exponent of Neoclassicism His compositions often reference Czech folk music but with a prominent role for the piano, which point to his admiration for the works of Debussy and Stravinsky.

Sphinx is part of the Royal Ballet’s Autumn triple bill, which runs from 4 Nov – 18 Nov. For booking and further details, visit The Royal Opera House Website.

Mini-Biography

Choreography: Glen Tetley. Libretto based on Jean Cocteau’s The Infernal Machine (La Machine Infernale)
Music: Bohuslav Martinů
Designs: Rouben Ter-Arutunian
Costumes: Willa Kim
Original Cast: Martine van Hamel, Clark Tippet, Kirk Peterson
Premiere: Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, D.C., 9 December 1977

Sources and Further Information

  1. Wikipedia Entries for Glen Tetley [link] and Bohuslav Martinů [link]
  2. Glen Tetley: Obituary by Jann Parry. The Guardian, January 2007.[link]
  3. Wikipedia Entry for Jean Cocteau [link]
  4. Bohuzlav Martinů Institute Website [link]
  5. Jean Cocteau (Critical Lives Series) by James S. Williams. Reaktion Books, January 2008. ISBN-10: 186189354X [link]
  6. The Royal Ballet’s 2009/2010 Season Preview, Press Release [link]
  7. Oedipus Rex by Sophocles. Dover Publications Inc.; Unabridged edition, October 1991. ISBN-10: 0486268772[link]
  8. Renaissance Man: Glen Tetley at 78. Interview by Karen Webb. Dance West Magazine, June 2004. Via Critical Dance [link]
  9. Review: Now That’s a Riddle: A Dancing Sphinx by Anna Kisselgoff. The New York Times, October 2001 [link]
  10. Discover Sphinx. ROH Discover Ballet Webpage [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”.

Contingencies

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.

Intervals

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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