‘A Step Tutu Far?’ (Swan Lake Ballet, Royal Opera House Review)

First published on AOL Asylum.co.uk (August 4th 2011) //

Asylum’s investigative reporter and cultural gadfly Declan Tan takes a trip to the Royal Opera House. His mission? To discover whether or not ballet is suitable for the masses…

“Ballet is a word,” he says, “both intimidating and French.”

I nod. He is correct on both counts.

“Wealthy in history and probably a bore.”

“The French?” I enquire.

“Ballet,” he confirms.

“Just a word,” I say.

“The French?” he asks, as I realise this tedium could feasibly go on and on without end. I lean back against the wall and out of the immediate zone of comfortable conversation, where I am aligned with people like and unlike myself, waiting to collect tickets at the box office for tonight’s performance of Swan Lake put on by the renowned Mariinsky Company, once known as the Imperial Russian Ballet. For a while longer I resist answering my eager interlocutor and he responds by hugging his spacious M&S bag, the largest one available. I can’t guess what’s in it.

The open-mouthed look on his face tells me he might be preparing for a brief discourse on the storied history of this evening’s entertainment: ‘A mode of dance originating in 15th Century Italy,’ he might say. ‘Exported by Catherine de’ Medici to a once-frillier version of France where King Louis XIV would eventually cultivate and instill some conveniently self-serving etiquette on his weary subjects (whom he in turn also subjected to exhibitions of his own perfumed prancing, before probably instructing them silently to applaud).’ Then I would nod and go deeper into quiet.

Thankfully we’re nearing the front of the line and he doesn’t; he seems glad to be rid of me and my impoliteness as he walks past the kind of T-shirt stand you might expect at Riverdance or, even worse, We Will Rock You, though admittedly without the mustachioed shapes of a Freddie Mercury or a gravel-faced Michael Flatley ornamenting the over-priced merchandise. Instead, within the prestige walls of the London classical dance scene, they’re selling Tees and tops with pink images of prima ballerinas and pointe shoes.

Though things have moved on slightly from the times of my imagined history lesson concerning Louis’ forced court-dances, it’s obvious that despite the tacky wares on sale ballet remains one of the preferred amusements of the upper classes, who are perhaps amused by the idea of a dancer’s life-long dedication to performing for their passing delight, bred for the stage, giving entire lives to pure mastery of body and mind, wearing out their tiny pointe shoes and halluces in the process. So why is it then that a majority of the audience this evening in Covent Garden is wearing decorum-defying miniskirts, talking about Natalie Portman, and own markedly less wrinkles than the usual middle-aged ballet aficionado?

The perception that ballet is not one for the masses seems now to be disrobing itself as some kind of clothy myth; I question my choice of a suit, loosen the suddenly redundant black tie, and regret those long hours mentally preparing in front of the infrequently worthwhile Sky Arts 2 channel.

Now looking around the foyer it’s easy to identify the try-hards who have fallen victim to over-preparation like myself; we are the over-dressed, the confused, looking like the faces that roll the streets of central London in stretch Hummers unaware of their incoherence, though, as I return from the disappointingly plebeian toilets, the realization dawns that I am in fact alone in one respect; I slyly zip up my embarrassed fly; an encouraging start.

In the auditorium, the £200 seats, £100 seats, £50 seats and £10 seats fill with an array of variously attired posteriors. And, though tonight’s show is taken from a version premiered at the Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg in 1895, it is over a hundred years later that Darren Aronofsky’s film, Black Swan, seems to revolve most punters through the doors this evening, which marks the 50th Anniversary of the company’s first excursion to London.

Performances in the last year have seen increased demand and a strong turnout since the release of Aronofsky’s postmodern take on the classic, with the resurgence of popularity coming primarily from the off-set tales of Portman’s supposedly gruelling initiation into ballet for the role, leading to a widespread but perhaps superficial respect for the discipline, and curiosity as to the darker side of the porcelain smiles displayed on-stage, along with reports that other more confused newbies have been calling the Royal Opera House enquiring as to when Natalie Portman will be performing. (I’ll make the same joke during the interval, as people scoop up cups of ice cream and discuss whether Black Swan is in fact ‘better’, and when exactly Natalie Portman will make her arrival on stage.) Cue hundreds, nay thousands, of would-be ballerinas having their daydreams of ballet success reignited not only by the film, but also the idea that an adult can pick up some ballet shoes, convincingly pull off the role and appear a seasoned professional, albeit to an uninitiated audience of film-goers.

But is that bad? Is the current youthful influx detrimental to the once-elitist world of ballet? Will we be sitting waiting for the clap-leader to applaud, because we’re too afraid to show appreciation without expert knowledge? After all, audiences inevitably change as my girlfriend seated next to me notes, “You don’t have to be obese to enjoy good food.”

The orchestra arrives and knocks out a little pre-curtain ditty as the audience squeezes out its last words of fascination at the glorious innards of the Royal Opera House, sips some contraband water, straightens its spine and audibly gasps as the red velvet rises to unveil the Russian dancers. All those assumptions about the audience disappear, reverse-snobbery dissolving, as the swans and kings make their digitigrade flight before astonished eyes and bared teeth; we can all relish the moment, regardless of whether we’ve poked toes into dance schools, as something of personal appreciation, different to the cinema, the room in which often emotion is a controlled substance and prescribed wholesale, the audience feeling much the same thing at much the same time.

But only a connoisseur could do justice to an event which is in turn fascinating and baffling, albeit possibly the most indirect, impressionistic and meandering form of storytelling there is. Even more lacking in exposition than an episode of The Wire, despite its apparent simplicity on paper, ballet seems to be, quite admirably, more about the telling than the plotting.

Requiring the utmost concentration for a degree of appreciation respectful to the dedication and sacrifices each dancer has made for their lengthy ovations, it appears that sections of the audience certainly get restless, a fact repeatedly illustrated by the tearing of Velcro behind my head somewhere, presumably a case housing a digital camera someone is determined to use. Then there are the accompanying whispers, with the subsequent annoyance amplified by the price on the ticket and the inanity of the clearly audible words. Someone coughs uncontrollably. But in the breaths between the whispers and the Velcro and the bags of Minstrels, is the sound of bone on wood, the thumping of a landed jeté coming over the strings of Tchaikovsky’s allegros, and goosebumps. And at least there are no weeping children.

During the second 25-minute interval, I wait at the bar, going over the dance terminology I’ve struggled to absorb pre-show: yes, jeté (check), tourné, plié, glissé indeed, as I attempt to read the glossy souvenir programme over a black-suited shoulder. He shifts in his jacket as if strangled, and wipes his brow. We sip at our drinks and I retire to the restrooms, remembering this time to zip up.

Easy as it is during a two-and-a-bit hour show to zone out from the realisation that the slender mutes before you are in near-constant pain for entertainment purposes, you sit there absentmindedly wondering how these people conduct themselves in everyday life; pirouetting smiley-faced down stairs, eating a packet of crisps one at a time, avoiding a puddle. More time is afforded to sit pondering the question that if sex is the poor man’s opera, then opera is the rich man’s what? And are they offended by my unrefined, full-palmed applause? As an art form it is beautiful, commanding respect, but it is essentially an inoffensive diversion; neither edifying nor enlightening, just relentlessly graceful.

Curtain call: a rushed portion of onlookers have already vacated their seats, as if preparing themselves for a rush out of the gates at the final whistle. Everyone else is seated as they applaud (no standing ovation); there are a few whistles and yells. As the villain, Baron Von Rothbart, appears to take his bow there’s a jarring pantomime moment as a ripple of booing echoes about the walls.

As I stand amidst the boos, I see fevered waving from behind a pair of opera glasses, this man with a plastic bag bundled under his pit, somehow spotting me out in the crowd; the intimidation of the evening waved away by the one-armed M&S man, as we all clap our hands raw for the dancers’ broken feet.

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