By Caitlin Kelly
Fresh pink satin pointe shoes.
Clouds of dry ice.
Layers of tulle.
Men in tights, soaring through the air as if they have strings pulling them aloft.
If you love dance, music, gorgeous costumes, physical prowess, grace and strength, ballet’s for you!
NB: to my British readers — on December 19, BBC2 will broadcast the documentary “Rudolf Nureyev: Dance to Freedom”
People sometimes assume all ballet is stuffy 19th century tedium — Swan Lake, Giselle and Sleeping Beauty — but there are many modern ballets as well that eschew fancy costume and sets for minimalism.
If you’ve ever seen Rodeo, choreographed in 1942 by Agnes de Mille, you’ll know what fun it can be.
Even if you can only afford a seat in the 4th tier, (aka the nosebleeds), take a pair of binoculars and savor it all.
Even better, take a young friend, boy or girl, and introduce them to the utter joy of detaching from a screen, while gasping with wonder at what an exquisitely-trained human body can do.
Any boy who dismisses ballet as “sissy” needs to witness its astounding athleticism — and watch the terrific film “Billy Elliot.”
I’ve been studying ballet since I was 12 and took classes in Toronto at the National Ballet School; I auditioned to become a full-time student at the school a few times but was told I had the wrong body.
In the decades since, I’ve reviewed ballet many times in Toronto, danced eight performances at Lincoln Center in Sleeping Beauty with Rudolf Nureyev in the role of the prince, and teared up every time at the opening notes of Balanchine’s 1934 “Serenade.”
It is exquisite.
Here, from The Wall Street Journal, a story about it a former dancer who performed it:
As the heavy gold curtain rises at the start of “Serenade,” 17 girl dancers in long, pale-blue gowns are arranged in two adjoining diamonds, tethered estrogen. We do not move, grip gravity, feet parallel, pointe shoes suctioned together side by side, head tilted to the right. The right arm is lifted to the side in a soft diagonal, palm facing outward, fingers extending separately, upwardly, shielding as if from some lunar light. This is the first diagonal in “Serenade,” a ballet brimming with that merging line: This is female terrain.
From this opening choir of sloping arms flows an infinite number of such lines, some small, some huge. There is the “peel,” where 15 dancers form a full-stage diagonal, each body in profile, slightly in front of the last, and then, one by one, each ripples off into the wings, creating a thrilling wave of whirling space. In later sections, there are off-center arabesque lunges, drags and upside-down leaps, a double diagonal crisscrossing of kneeling, pushing and turning, and then finally the closing procession heading to high upstage. Ballet is live geometry, a Euclidean art, and “Serenade” illustrates a dancer’s trajectory, a woman’s inclined ascent.
To some people, ballet is a hopelessly outmoded art — created in the 15th century and popularized in France by King Louis XIV.
I find it elegant and love using and watching its French formal vocabulary: dégagés, fouettés, battements, arabesques, pas de chat, (literally the cat’s step, a leap with both feet tucked inward facing one another).
I take a jazz dance class twice a week; even there ballet still dominates, as its positions and movements form the foundation of many other forms of dance.
Ballet is a body language — once you speak it, it’s in you for life. Even when I lift weights at the gym, I’ll sometimes finish with a “port de bras”, graceful extensions of my arms out to my fingertips.
I was lucky enough to perform at Lincoln Center in my early 20s, although “perform” is less the right word than “survive.”I wrote about it for the Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper.
As an extra — they’re called “supers”, short for “supernumeraries” — I had no knowledge of the score or how my movements related to those of all the others on stage with me. My costume was heavy and very expensive and my shoes were far too tight. My role was both essential to the overall look and feel of the performances and far too small to matter to anyone in charge.
I’m not sure I’ve ever felt more scared, staring out at an audience who had paid very good money for professional excellence. (My orchestra seat for the Nutcracker this month was an eye-watering $170.00.)
I learned not to wear anything beneath my costume. As I left the stage entrance, a few people asked for my autograph. We stayed across the street at the Empire Hotel, its enormous red neon sign glowing still high above Broadway.
I came away from NYCB’s Nutcracker with surprisingly mixed feelings. The entire first act is mostly acting, with very little dancing, which I found dull. Act II’s pas de deux was wobbly. And some of what was amusing in 1954, the year the ballet was made, reads a little less so today — like the three Chinese characters who embody now-dusty stereotypes.
If you’re a dancer visiting New York City, you must visit the dance supply shop Capezio, (named for its founder), which has several city branches. The one at 51st and Broadway is huge, on the second floor, and you enter, oddly, through the lobby of an office building.
Inside is everything a dancer could want, from those black rubber pants and shorts to help shed weight (!) to a rainbow of leotards, tights, shoes, even round rotating platforms to help you perfect your pirouettes and long wooden forms over which to bend your arches to make them even higher.
The array of protection on offer is a testament — as any pointe veteran knows — to what a beating your toes take when you encase them in glue-stiffened satin and dance on them.
It’s amazing to watch, but pointe work is never kind to the feet and toes supporting you, no matter your age or skill.
Check out this great video of dancers at an airport — killing time doing plies!
Do you have a favorite ballet or dancer?
Have you studied it?