by B. Barker
God there are a lot of different art forms, all with their own language. The other day in London, you could pay to enter a room where the Bolshoy Ballet were doing some dancing.
There is something fascinating about approaching a new art form. Inevitably there is some skepticism that it won’t bring anything new or interesting to the canon of artistic areas you find valuable. You ask yourself: what can dancing do to change the way I feel about the issues that move me? There is also an uncertainty about how you will end up ‘reading’ the work. Is ballet narrative driven like a musical, is it skill driven like gymnastics or is it a piece of abstract art where meaning exists independent of real world references. The answer typically is a little of all three.
A few things about ballet. It’s long, and they pretty much dance the whole time, so you really will have to find something to like about dancing. There’s a lot of clapping. A little less than a cricket match, but slightly more than an AA meeting, so don’t expect to be drawn into a believable world where the fourth wall is never referenced. Performers will regularly come to the front of the stage and ask your opinion of the previous few moments of leaping, spinning and knicker showing. The fourth wall is also interrogated by the presence of on-stage actors watching people dance. If they are the audience within the play, what are we? Also does that mean dancing is what people actually do in this world to communicate emotions and travel large distances. If it is, then why are people always watching? Wouldn’t it be completely mundane and rarely, if ever, draw a crowd. It’s not a critiscm, but it’s worth remembering that logical, thought-out worlds are not what your buying into.
So how do you read ballet, what provides its artistic appeal? It’s not the narrative, that can be said with some certainty. It’s unlikely that anyone who didn’t know the story of Le Corsaire before hand could make even a mumbled suggestion of what the story was. It’s also not in the spectacle either. Yes there are moments when a lot of well choreographed bits happen, but they rarely do more than form a back drop to the main dancers. The strongest feeling I came away with was of human physicality, both singularly and relation to others. The explanation and exploration of human relationships through touch, gesture and immaculately held posture. As one dancer scuttles off the stage to be replaced by another who will contort and frolic, then meet up again with the other to flick and twist before grasping each other and coming to receive their applause. So it’s a narrative of the human body, not sexy, but beautiful. You come away uplifted and reminded of how lovely a thing it is. What you’re reading is the relationship between those bodies, those collections of muscle and grace.