Like many small girls at the age of four or five, I went through a phase of wanting to be a ballerina when I grew up. This was preceded by having wanted to be one of those people who bags groceries and then a football player, so I’m sure my mother was relieved by this. Me being me, however, I was always determined to do it myself, without the need for actually learning what was involved in the art from someone who knew what he or she was doing. This resulted in a dislike of the ballet class I was duly enrolled in, and permanent damage to the big toes on both of my feet because I was certain that I could master pointe work if I just learned to balance. I retained a desire to possess one of those pink-and-white ballet boxes and a fondness for wearing leather-soled ballet slippers around the house, but soon after this I discovered Laura Ingalls Wilder, L.M. Montgomery, and Robin Hood, and moved on to even less practical daydreams of being an adult in times other than the one in which I lived.
I didn’t pay much attention to ballet again until I was sixteen and happened to see a brief Vladimir Malakhov performance on television one Sunday, back when the A&E channel in the US actually showed Arts and Entertainment programming. I waited patiently for a repeat, or other performances; the only thing that I could find were recordings and screenings of the Nutcracker. Finding these interesting but not especially inspiring, I gave up and returned again to my books and music.
The Christmas before last I saw an ad that PBS was airing the film of Matthew Bourne’s production of Sleeping Beauty. I noticed the costumes more than anything else–all sparkly and lace-trimmed goth aesthetic–and set it to record. I had other things on my mind at that time and didn’t bother to watch it for a couple of months, but when I did, I was hooked. I did like the costumes and the twist on the classic story, introducing vampires and other new elements to an old fairy tale, but I loved watching the dancing. It isn’t classical ballet by any means–lots of dancing barefoot, and I don’t remember any pointe work–but this was my gateway drug. It was like discovering a new genre in fiction I’d never paid attention to before, learning the terminology, the different periods of dance, watching enough to distinguish between the styles of specific choreographers and dancers.
I have learned enough to have preferences, but I’m still an amateur, not a proper fangirl yet. I haven’t found anything that bores me in the field–every production I’ve seen yields something interesting in terms of the techniques of the dancers, the way the movements tell a story, the costumes. I have acquired five different performances of Swan Lake, without meaning to specialize in a particular piece; the thing about relying on the handful of fairy-tale-inspired ballets that keep drawing audiences back generation after generation is the consequent need to reinvent and reinterpret the stories to keep them alive. There are classic versions with sumptuous sets and costumes, and there are stripped-down versions with modern choreography and, Matthew Bourne’s production, most of the genders of the roles switched.
I recently read Jennifer Homan’s Apollo’s Angels (2011), in order to learn something of the history of the art. I do recommend it as a thorough introduction to the origins and different regional styles of the art through the centuries, but I disagree strongly with her assertion that the art is dying if not already dead. Choreographers such as Christopher Wheeldon and Wayne McGregor are hammering out new ways to tell stories through dance, and dancers are again becoming prominent pop culture figures, drawing new audiences and more importantly inspiring new generations of dancers–Natalia Osipova and Sergei Polunin, Steven McRae, Carlos Acosta, and most of all Misty Copeland, are known to audiences beyond dedicated ballet aficionados, and are bringing ballet back to international prominence. There are companies such as the BalletBoyz, who created a dance to commemorate the centenary of World War I, and the collaboration between the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet to create a new version of Handel’s Acis and Galatea, with the singers shadowed by dancers who illustrate the opera as it is sung.
There are so many amazing dancers that it would take too long to go into even a handful here–aside from those mentioned above, Eric Underwood, Zenaida Yanowsky, and Lauren Cuthbertson are always well worth watching. Vladimir Malakhov is still a prominent figure, more as a director and advisor these days than a performer, although his Caravaggio (2009) is as vital and enthralling a performance as anything done by younger dancers. My current favourite, though, is Edward Watson. There’s something shallow in a lot of the emotion portrayed in a lot of the stories told in ballet, generally a necessary side effect when the aim of the art is making such strenuous and difficult movement look effortless. Watson has a particular gift for making the emotions his characters are possessed by feel real, especially the darker ones–grief, fear, desperation, and madness. His performance in Mayerling, as the hedonistic and unbalanced crown prince of Austria who is obsessed with his mother, abuses his wife, and eventually kills his teenage mistress before killing himself, is as compelling as it is disturbing; he is even more magnetic as Gregor Samsa in Arthur Pita’s adaptation of The Metamorphosis.
Alongside the old standards of fairy tales, there are new works appearing every year based on literature, from Shakespeare to Lewis Carroll to Virginia Woolf. There are also works that follow Balanchine rather than MacMillan or Ashton in dispensing with a storyline altogether in favour of pure expression and form. Next time you’re looking for something to watch online, give a ballet a try–it isn’t all tutus and sugarplum fairies and Tchaikovsky. Now there are sets decorated by Swarovski, costumes by prominent fashion designers, music by Jack White. I’m entirely convinced there’s something for everyone, if only everyone would give it enough of a chance.