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:
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.
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.
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.
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!