DaveTriesBallet’s Guide To Seeing A Ballet (Updated!)

I recently hosted a “Ballet… Not What You Think!” screening of free ballet at my University to try and dispel a few ballet myths. Coincidentally, this was on the same day as the Royal Opera House hosted a live debate entitled Are opera and ballet elitist?. This prompted me to look back at my post about seeing a ballet for the first time and update a few things…

I first watched a ‘proper’ Ballet nearly three years ago. I’m not ashamed to admit I was kind of scared. Don’t get me wrong, I was also really excited, but there was also something slightly intimidating about the whole experience. Is this elitism? I don’t think so, and none of the attendees at my ballet screening thought so either. I think instead it is more about the unknown – and hopefully this post can help other people in the same situation I was.

I now feel a lot more comfortable going to see a performance; I still get (very) excited but am no longer intimidated by the idea of heading to the Royal Opera House or The Met. Hopefully after seeing your first ballet you’ll realise there’s nothing to be scared of!

So where to start? Well first off, I need to correct common misconceptions: going to see a Ballet is not only for the posh, doesn’t have to be expensive and isn’t all about fluffy pink ballerinas looking pretty! Now those are out of the way, let’s get a little more practical.

What to see?

It can be really daunting to know what on earth to pick to see when you don’t know much about ballet. Do you choose a classic or a modern piece? A full length ballet or a mixed bill of shorter works? I asked my readers on Twitter and Facebook to help and here are their answers:

My readers' suggestions (click to enlarge)

As you can see there are many differing opinions because, guess what? Different people like different things! Just like any other art form, there will be styles of Ballet you enjoy, and others you don’t but half the fun is in finding out what your personal taste is. At my ballet screening I showed two quite contrasting works: MacMillan’s Concerto and McGregor’s Infra. It was fascinating to see how people reacted to both works in different manners.

Mixed bills are a great way to experience Ballet for the first time – they usually consist of three short (around 30 minutes each) pieces split up by intervals. Although there is usually an over-arching theme to the evening (it might be works by a single choreographer or relating to a certain subject) you will usually end up seeing three very different and distinct pieces. The short time length and multiple intervals let you digest what you have seen and if something wasn’t to your liking you don’t have to sit through 3 hours of it!

Seeing a full length ballet can be magical – the music, the costumes, the sets, the narrative and, of course, the dancing! Whether the classic Swan Lake, the Chrsitmas-sy Nutcracker, the mildly depressing Romeo & Juliet or the emotional roller coaster that is Giselle you cannot help but get swept up in the story and sheer spectacle. Many people worry about following the story but be reassured that you’re not going to be confused: most ballets have a clear storyline and you can always read the programme notes in the interval.

Alina Cojocaru as Giselle. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

So after all that, what should you pick? That’s completely up to you. My only rule is that you should pick something that looks interesting to you. It could be the storyline, the costumes or a dancer you’ve seen on YouTube – but there is no point going to watch something you don’t really want to see!

How to watch?

A lot of people worry about how to watch ballet and are put off by thinking they need to watch in a certain ‘way’. This isn’t the case! Whenever people ask me how to watch a ballet I just tell them to “sit back and enjoy”.

People wonder if you have to pay attention to certain dancers or should only look at their feet or faces. In truth, you should pay attention to whatever grabs your attention. Everyone on stage is performing for your enjoyment so sit back and enjoy it :) In fact, if you get swept away by the music and get distracted from the dancing, that’s completely fine too!

Where to sit?

Okay, so you’ve decided what to see; now how/where do you buy tickets? It is a complete misconception that tickets are unaffordable and out of reach from anyone earning under a six figure salary. I can go see the Royal Ballet for £3 – that’s less than a pint of beer in some pubs!

If you are a student or under 25 it is well worth checking if there are offers running. A lot of the larger companies do student rush tickets: “day of” tickets sold to students at greatly reduced prices (between £10-20/$15-30). These are often for the best unsold seats in the house and as such it’s often luck whether you get a good seat or not. I even once got a top price ticket at New York City Ballet for only $25! The Royal Opera House also has a great Student Standby scheme which offers £10 standby tickets to certain performances alongside four designated “Student Amphi” performances where the entire amphitheatre is reserved for students at discounted prices!

What if you’re not a student? Well there is nothing wrong with sitting in the “nose-bleed” seats at the top of a theatre! You may not be close enough to see the dancers facial expressions (though opera glasses/binoculars can help) but you gain a new perspective on the piece. For a lot of non-narrative pieces this can be a boon.

View from the back of the 4th Ring at NYCB (Andrea Mohin/The New York Times)

Another option is sitting to the side of the auditorium. These are often “restricted view”, meaning you can’t see the far corners of the stage, but are highly discounted. Don’t be afraid to ask someone at the box office their thoughts on the seat; they probably know if the restricted view will greatly affect the piece or not. Often most of the action for a ballet is done centre stage so this might not be a huge issue.

Finally, there are often standing room tickets sold (sometimes on the day of the performance). Although standing for a couple of hours doesn’t sound fun, I usually find the ballet is absorbing enough to not notice. Depending on the venue, ushers may let you sit in unoccupied seats after half an hour or so, but this is in no way guaranteed!

There are usually a huge range of prices for ballet tickets which makes them really accessible. A ticket to see Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in a Premier League will cost you £46 upwards. A ticket to see the Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House will cost you £3 upwards (and at certain performances the top price is £37).

What to wear?

People fret about what to wear to a ballet – thinking they need to wear a tux or evening dress. I’ve only worn a tux to one ballet event – the Royal Opera House Fall Gala where it was the suggested dress code. In general I would recommend going for “smart-casual” and whatever that means to you.

In general, I normally wear smart trousers, smart brown shoes, and a shirt. I’ve usually been to a Ballet class in the city during the day so often have a bag with me, but I always leave this at the coat check. Maybe some of my female readers could suggest appropriate wear for the ladies reading this? Most girls I go with tend to wear a summer dress or blouse/trousers etc (but I’m not an expert on female fashion!).

What rules of “Balletiquette” are there?

People get hung up about whether there are particular rules of etiquette for going to see ballet. There are no set list of things to do/not do – just use your common sense! For example: be on time, turn off your mobile, don’t take photos, save lengthy discussions with your neighbour for the interval, don’t eat in the auditorium, be quiet as soon as the orchestra starts playing and don’t leave as soon as the dancing finishes.

Darcey Bussell giving a curtain call

If there is a live orchestra you should applaud when the conductor appears. When else should you applaud? That’s a tricky question and I got differing opinions when I asked people their thoughts. You should definitely clap any time a dancer bows but you can also clap at the end of a particularly impressive sequence of steps, or when a principal appears for the first time. If in doubt, you can always just follow what everyone else is doing!

You’ll probably also hear shouts of “Bravo”, “Brava”, or “Bravi” during the applause. These are Italian words to show appreciation for a dancer’s performance. Technically Bravo is for male performers, Brava is for female performers and Bravi is for more than one performer. However, you’ll probably hear Bravo more than anything else, regardless of the dancers gender. I’ve got to admit that I’m still not brave enough to “Bravo” (no pun intended!), it’s completely optional.

What if there’s no ballet near me?

So you don’t live in London or New York? Maybe there isn’t a `local’ ballet company or you only get a couple of touring companies nearby each year. All is not lost: a lot of the big ballet companies have started live cinema relays of a handful of productions each season.

These relays can be a great informal way to see a ballet and a chance to see world class ballet at your local cinema. It also has a sense of familiarity – everyone has been to the cinema before so it is an unintimidating setting.

Just go for it!

So that’s pretty much it for my guide to seeing a Ballet except to say “just go for it!”. At the end of the day it doesn’t really matter what you see, what you wear or where you sit. Just go, enjoy the dancing and bask in the experience. It’s great!

Oh, and if you’re still intimidated by the idea of going to see a full Ballet – watch some DVD’s first! There are some excellent recordings of the world’s best dancers dancing the great Ballets and it can be an informal way to get familiar with a piece before going to see it live.

If you’re a Ballet regular then please share any tips you have in the comments, or let us know what your first Ballet was and how you found it. And if you are going to see a Ballet for the first time, please let me know what it was like!

Until next time, keep dancing!

DaveTriesBallet’s Guide to Stretching

I often get emails and tweets asking for suggestions about stretching. I want to start by pointing out that I am no expert. Nowhere near. I don’t have any sort of medical or physiological training and can’t do the splits or a six o’clock penchee. But when I started ballet I couldn’t touch my toes and can now shoulder my leg so I guess something must have worked.

Recently I’ve gotten into the habit of stretching every day and have seen a huge improvement – I tend to do it either at the gym after a workout or at home in front of a DVD and it only takes ten minutes or so. In the space of a month or two I’ve gone from only just being able to shoulder my left leg (with my hand grabbing my ankle) to now being able to shoulder my right (with hand at ankle) and left (with hand on heel) relatively comfortably. In fact, last week at my Russian Youth Ballet Company rehearsal the teacher had us shouldering our legs in centre (without a barre!) and I managed to do it to both sides :) I started with a routine that an awesome tweeter (@LilAngelicRose) sent me and I’ve since tinkered with to make it more suited for me.

I’m going to start with the usual (and very smart) disclaimer: never stretch without warming up your muscles! It can be very easy to overstretch cold muscles and injure yourself. Obviously stretching isn’t completely pain free but there should never be sharp pain – if there is then stop immediately. It can also be easy to overstretch warm muscles so always adapt a stretch to your ability – if you can’t touch your toes yet (I couldn’t when I started ballet) then don’t attempt to shoulder your leg straight away. All of these stretches should be familiar to dancers and if there are any you don’t know then don’t attempt them.

So with that cheery disclaimer out of the way, here’s my usual daily routine.

  1. Start with a nice simple butterfly stretch (note that I have no idea if my names for stretches are even close to correct!): sit on the floor with the soles of your feet together and a nice straight back. Cross you arms and grab your opposite ankles rather than your feet (a teacher told me this prevents sickling in the exercise) and beat your knees (wings!) quickly to help warm up your hips. If you like you can pause to stretch your hips open and stretch forward.
  2. Butterfly stretch (picture found on Google)

    Butterfly stretch (picture found on Google)

  3. Next stay seated and open your legs as wide as they will comfortably go keeping straight kneed. Don’t worry if they’re not particularly wide – I’m terrible at this stretch!
    (If like me, you can’t open your legs very wide a good thing to work on this is to lie on your back with your legs straight up against a wall. Make sure your bottom is against the wall and your legs are turned out. Open your legs (staying turned out!) and you can let gravity do the work for you!)
    Sat on the floor with your legs open, flex your feet and point them a couple of times (I tend to keep mine pointed for the rest of this exercise). Put your arms up in 5th and stretch to the side. If you are flexible enough you can hold on to your ankle to help (but don’t overstretch!). Return to sitting up straight and twist to face the same leg. Keeping arms in fifth again bend forwards aiming to get your chest on your thigh and forehead on your knee. Repeat to the other side.
  4. Still with your legs open, bend forwards with your arms in fifth and allowing your back to bend, aiming to get your forehead on the floor. Repeat with a straight back aiming to get your chest on the floor (I’m so far from either it’s not funny!). Finally do some full circles stretching to the side, rolling through to the front and then to the other side.
  5. Bring your knees back together so your legs are straight in front of you. Work your feet thoroughly: try to point your toes back at your chest then work through a flexed foot, demi-pointe and into a full pointe. Repeat this over and over and over! You can also use a theraband here if you wish. Flex your foot, rotate outwards then pointe to draw a circle with your toes. Repeat inwards.
  6. Lie on your back. Do five or so grand battements devant with one leg then on the last one grab a hold of your leg and hold it in the air stretching. Still in the air bring your leg into a passe then outstretch again, this time making sure your leg is nicely turned out. Hopefully you should be able to stretch a little further! Repeat with the other leg.
  7. Turn onto your side and do five or so grand battements a la seconde. On the last grab hold onto your leg and hold it in the air stretching a little further. Bring back into passe and emulate shouldering your leg: hold your ankle/heel/foot and extend to the front before pulling around to the side concentrating on keeping your leg turned out. Again, hopefully you should be able to stretch a little further than before!
  8. Pigeon stretch (again picture from Google)

    Pigeon stretch (again picture from Google)

  9. If you can do the splits then I’d put them in now, otherwise do some pidgeon stretches: it’s hard to describe so I’ve included a picture! It is like doing the splits but bending the front knee so that your shin is perpendicular in front of you. From here you can bend your upper body forward and back, lift up your back foot and grasp it with a hand or take your back foot on demi-pointe to lift your leg and elevate your hip. It’s all about opening up your hip and stretching your glutes – do whatever feels good!
  10. If you’re in a studio you can always follow these with the “standard” leg-on-the-barre stretches. Finally, stand up and do some plies and port de bras in first, second, fourth and fifth to finish off.

Following all these stretches I like to do a few balances just to re-center myself: fifth sous-sous, cou-de-pied, passe, attitude derriere and arabesque. When I’m in the gym I quite like trying these on the round side of a bosu ball (flat-footed) to strengthen my ankles. At home I do them on demi-pointe, constantly trying to hold them just a few seconds longer than last time!

So that’s my stretching regime! Do you stretch daily? Is your sequence of stretches similar to mine? Have I missed off your favourite stretch? I always like to hear new stretching tips so please share any in the comments section below.

Until next time, keep on dancing!