People who have followed along for a while (or, especially, who follow me on Instagram) know that I’m obsessed with ballet (particularly classical ballet – the kind with the tutus and pointe shoes and stories about princesses and swans and all that good stuff). This is a new obsession for me, developed only over the last couple of years, which means I’m still on the learning curve, and I’m still in super-excited-new-learner mode. It’s magical.
I’m almost as obsessed with ballet as my husband is with baseball, and I’m noticing a lot of parallels. I’m coming to know the famous “players” and which “teams” they play for (the dancers and their companies). I know the standard “plays” (the groupings you always see and what they’re called – like the duet “pas de deux”, or the solo, known as a “variation”), and I’m getting to know the technical names of the movements and what exactly makes one dancer’s execution of a tricky move more spectacular than another’s. I’m also learning who the all-time greats are and why. Basically, I’m learning how to watch and talk about ballet, just like someone learns how to watch and talk about baseball.
So maybe you’re here because you’re like me and love all things artsy and want to expand the kinds of arts you love and understand and follow. Or maybe you have a budding ballet star in your family and you want to be knowledgeable about what they’re learning about and loving. Or perhaps you already love going to the ballet, you just want to dive deeper into why you love it (and sound smarter when you talk about it). All amazing reasons to dive into the world of ballet. So let’s get started.
STEP ONE TO BECOMING A BALLET FAN: JUST WATCH
If you’re here, you’ve probably already done this step. But just in case you haven’t, or in case it’s been a while, here it is: watch some ballet. Just watch! No homework other than enjoying either some live ballet in your city or binging some epic ballet videos on YouTube. Pretty fun homework, right? You don’t have to analyze what you’re seeing; you just have to watch and be delighted.
But, of course, the classic question: where do you start? Well, if you have a ballet company in your city, lucky you! Google their next performance and buy a ticket (actually, buy two – going to the ballet is a great friend date or date-date, and I think that interesting people love being invited places they wouldn’t normally go). Regardless of whether you were able to score tickets for a live performance, dive into YouTube. We live in such an incredible time for the arts. You used to have to see ballet live or, at the very least, procure a recording from the library (if you could even find one). Now, every major company and every ballet star is on YouTube. So here’s where I would start:
If we think about our objective at this step – immersing ourselves in the world of ballet – there’s kind of no wrong place to start. That being said, if you’re going to start getting into anything, why not start with the greatest stuff? So here are 10 short amazing videos of huge ballet stars doing some of the most famous parts of some of the most famous ballets. I hope you love them as much as I do!
1. Coda from the Black Swan pas de deux from Swan Lake
(Perhaps the most famous moment in all ballet, when the dancer playing Odile, the Black Swan, does 32 fouettes – those are the fast “whippy” turns” – in a row without putting her foot down.)
2. Giselle Entree Willis
(Aka, the part in Giselle with all the lady ghost-spirits)
3. Albrecht variation from Giselle
(One of my favourite male variations in the repertoire)
4. “Waltz of the Flowers” from The Nutcracker
(My favourite part of this iconic ballet)
5. Sleeping Beauty Rose Adagio
(A totally iconic scene where four suitors try to win Aurora’s affection)
6. Don Quixote Kitri variation
(Kitri is notoriously hard to cast because she has to be both incredibly vivacious AND catch giant air on her leaps. Plus, each of her variations has a different flavour, so the ballerina has to have mad acting chops.)
7. Romeo and Juliet balcony pas de deux
(I mean, does it get any more romantic?!)
8. “Kingdom of the Shades” from La Bayadère
(The most famous corps – that means “big group” – scene in all of ballet)
9. Swanhilda’s Waltz variation from Coppelia
(One of my favourite variations because of all the adorable character moments)
10. La Sylphide variation
(I just had to include this, even though it’s an audience bootleg, because it’s 19-year-old Canadian Shale Wagman, who just made a historical premiere in this role)
STEP TWO: LEARN THE BASICS
Learn some basics that will go a long way in helping you (a) know what the heck is going on in the ballets you watch, and (b) understand what makes ballet amazing.
So what do you need to know? Three big things:
Classical ballet is about storytelling, so it’s kind of essential that you “get” what’s going on in the ballet you’re watching. Sure, if you’re going to see a full-length ballet, you can pay attention and figure out the plot from watching (some of the time). But, lots of ballets are either (a) based on stories from earlier eras that we just aren’t familiar with anymore but that the choreographer in the 1800s assumed the audience would already know, and/or (b) are really (sometimes unnecessarily) complicated, with mistaken identities and plot twists and supernatural elements that are kind of hard to pick up on if you’re watching for the first time.
Which is why your “homework” for this part of step two is to read (or, frankly, skim) the plot of any ballet you watch BEFORE you watch it. To help, I summarized the most famous ballets in two sentences each HERE, but if you’re going to see a ballet live, you should at least read either the Wikipedia page or (much much better) the program notes before the show starts. It’s not spoilers – it’s a way to actually understand what you’re seeing and appreciate it so much more.
Plus, whether you’re just getting into ballet or you’re many years into a life-long love affair with the art form, you will often see just tiny snippets of ballets, either on YouTube, in recitals, or at special performances. If your kid gets up to do a the Lilac Fairy variation from Sleeping Beauty, it’s really nice to know what the plot of the opera is, where that variation happens in the story, and what the heck a lilac fairy is doing in the middle of an opera about a princess.
So, rule of thumb: read the plot summary for a ballet before you watch it.
Terminology is where a lot of people get turned off on the whole “become a ballet fan” thing. They see French and they’re like, “I’m outta here.” But don’t fear! You only actually need a handful of terms to get started, and once you know them, you’ll feel way smarter about your ballet fandom than you did before. Plus, you never have to say them out loud to anyone. There’s no test at the end of this post. No one at a performance of Swan Lake is going to make you say “fouetté” correctly (it’s basically fwet-tay). Knowing the terms just helps you feel knowledgeable about what you’re seeing, and helps you read about the art form, watch videos from ballet companies and dancers about what they’re doing, and actually get what a reviewer or competition judge or your kid’s ballet teacher means in a critique.
So here are the basics. Every move in ballet has a French name. You don’t need to know the VAST majority of terms, except when you pick them up for fun.
What you do need to know are:
Variation – a solo.
Pas de deux – a duet (you might see this abbreviated “pdd”).
Corps de ballet, or just Corps (pronounced like “core”) – the chorus, or main group of dancers.
Ballerina – a female ballet dancer.
Danseur – a male ballet dancer (but people also just say “male ballet dancer”).
Principal – the highest rank for a dancer in a ballet company, they perform the main roles.
First soloist – the second highest rank in a company, they do featured solos and smaller roles.
Balletomane – a person who, like, really loves ballet (as in, a “ballet maniac”).
Choreographer – the person who decided on the steps for the dancers to do.
Company class – ballet class that the dancers of the company attend, focussing on technique, not choreography.
Barre – that long wooden, well, bar that ballet dancers hold onto when they practice; part of class is “at the barre”.
Centre practice – the part of class not at the barre (i.e., in the centre of the room).
En pointe – up on the tippy toe part of pointe shoes.
Adagio – a series of slow, graceful movements dancers do to improve their strength, flexibility and fluidity. An “adagio” can also be a section of music (the word “adagio” is a tempo, or speed, marking in classical music, and can demarkate a whole slow section).
The rest, really, are all technical movement names which, frankly, you can pick up over time or, honestly, never. There are the five positions of the feet (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1fSa3ESmA1s) and arms (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S5HwZJQ8NuA), which are fun to know, and then you’re into the giant list of technical names for each movement (American Ballet Theatre has a phenomenal ballet dictionary with recordings for pronounciation here: https://www.abt.org/explore/learn/ballet-dictionary/).
3. KNOW HOW BALLET “WORKS”
So, some people might disagree with this one, but me – I like to know about the whole ballet industry/system/business. Just like you would want to know that the sport you like has a “salary cap” (which means that each team can only spend a certain amount, which means everyone gets the same budget for superstars), or that players can be traded but only during certain times, or that the worst team gets the first pick of new rookies the next year, I think it’s helpful to know how ballet “works” to better appreciate and understand what you’re watching.
First, it’s great to understand just how much goes into making a world-class ballet dancer. If you have a friend or family member who is hardcore in ballet, you already know at least the first part of this. Many children who are really into ballet (slash, dance in general) take class every day, training across all styles (ballet, jazz, hip hop, etc.). Promising dancers might stick it out in normal high school, training intensely every day after class, or they might go off to a dance academy (like a boarding school), where they complete their high school requirements but spend most of their time dancing. Sometimes, teens even move to a different country to complete this rigorous training. Hello, early adulthood.
Aspiring ballet dancers also do summer training at various programs, usually in other cities than where they’re from, so they can get exposure to other companies, bigger teachers, more specialized training, etc., and that starts way early in adolescence.
So against that backdrop, you can get how ballet dancers are often compared to elite athletes. Cue the start of professional careers, where dancers audition for companies, try to get into the corps (remember, that’s the big group of dancers in the company, not the soloists), then try to work their way up, either within that company’s ranks, or to bigger and bigger companies. The work is gruelling – very few days off, very long days, and often (but certainly not always) low pay (which many dancers supplement by teaching, making their days and weeks even more jam-packed).
Dancers’ schedules are crazy (it’s actually a part of ballet I’m most fascinated by). A typical dancer’s day starts early in the morning, and includes a strenuous workout (often a mixture of strength conditioning and injury rehabilitation), company class (where all the dancers from the company take a technical ballet class together), multiple rehearsals for different ballets (a big company will have multiple shows running concurrently or very close together, so they have to rehearse several shows at once), costume fittings, then the dancer does his or her own makeup and heads to the stage for a performance.
What else can I say? The business of ballet is fascinating – what a company programs (that means, which ballets they decide to put on for the season), which dancers get promoted, which soloists are suddenly super hot and invited to make guest appearances at all the big companies… it’s actually a really fun industry to follow in the news and reviews. Plus, there are only a few huge companies to keep tabs on, so it’s definitely not overwhelming (the Bolshoi, the Mariinsky, Australian Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Royal Ballet, National Ballet of Canada, Teatro La Scala, and Paris Opera Ballet come to mind, but a fulsome list would include a few others).
4. FOLLOW THE STARS
Now is also a great time to become a ballet fan because: INSTAGRAM. A ton of ballet stars are on IG, and the ones who aren’t very active still pop up all the time on amalgamated fan accounts. There is SO MUCH ballet on Instagram I can’t even tell you. Follow the biggest ballet stars and you’ll get a daily dose of ballet marvellousness, you’ll start to learn the biggest roles and variations, and you’ll feel super in the know by having very up-to-date knowledge about the ballet world.
Here’s who you should start with:
STEP THREE: KEEP WATCHING
Remember how fun Step One was, where you just watched YouTube videos and bought tickets to the ballet? Now you just do that like, forever. The more you watch and read, the more you’ll learn, and the more you learn, the more you’ll understand and appreciate about what you see when you watch. That’s why they call it “arts appreciation” – because you aren’t just passively taking in what you see anymore, you’re actually appreciating (i.e., getting) what’s going on and why it’s awesome. So keep watching online, follow along on Instagram, Google when you don’t understand a term or know a plot or when you’re curious about something you see, and definitely, DEFINITELY see some ballet live and in person as soon and as often as you can. And if you have a budding ballet star among your family or friends, support them by showing your interest! And let other people know about your new obsession. You never know when a friend might be a secret balletomane as well!
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