Last Monday night, my mother, my Auntie Kathie and I went to the ballet. We do this five times a year. It’s become a bit of a tradition for the three of us – we have a glass of champagne in the foyer beforehand, and Mum and I get ice creams at interval. We talk about family dramas, our jobs, and share news. And of course we see the show.
I’ve been thinking about the ballet a lot lately, and not just because I’ve seen a lot of it over the last few years. Since I started working in the performing arts sector (I’m currently employed by Melbourne Theatre Company) I’ve been thinking about its role in the Australian arts scene. But I also wonder a lot about ballet as a form in and of itself: from its origins in the Italian courts, its development in France and its inherent relationship with particular class structures, to what it might mean in a contemporary context and how I engage with it as an art.
Watching a ballet is not like going to see a play, and it’s certainly not like going to the cinema. There’s the obvious extra level of abstraction that occurs whenever a concept or narrative is transformed into dance, and perhaps because of that, ballet demands audience engagement first and foremost on an aesthetic level. This is more striking, I think, for those of us who don’t have a language with which to talk about the dancing itself. We have to process the experience differently, taking our cues not only from the set and the lighting, and of course, the music, but from how the lines and patterns in the dance make us feel. Sometimes there’s a story; sometimes there isn’t. Often if there is a narrative, it’s little more than a ghost, haunting the action on the stage rather than directing or channelling it. At least, this is my experience of it. Sometimes, I don’t even notice the story. In fact, the more beautiful and balanced a production is, the less of it I tend to remember. That’s forgivable though, I think, because surely when there’s a visual feast before you and a live orchestra playing Tchaikovsky, you’re well within your rights to let it carry you away for a while.
The latest offering by The Australian Ballet is an adaptation of Pushkin’s classic verse novel, Onegin. I’ve never read the original text, but since there are no such things as spoilers in ballet (the cast sheet you are handed on arrival gives you a scene-by-scene summary), here’s my précis:
Onegin is the story of a total jerk (the title character) and a young woman (Tatiana) who becomes girlishly infatuated with him. Thinking her immature, Onegin rejects her and proceeds to flirt with her sister Olga instead, who just so happens to be his friend Lensky’s fiancée. Lensky gets jealous, challenges Onegin to a duel – and loses. Onegin feels really sorry for himself since he’s just killed his friend, so he leaves the country. In the meantime, Tatiana grows up a bit, gets married to a wealthy but much older Prince Gremin, and becomes the centre of Moscow’s social scene – which is where Onegin comes across her again. Now that she’s stately and graceful and beautiful and popular, Onegin thinks he might have been wrong to reject her all those years ago. So, not caring for the fact that she’s married, he proceeds to beg for her affection again in the most unbecoming fashion.
When I think about my experience of this particular show on Monday night, a whole host of things come to mind. Like how it took me at least a couple of years as a subscriber to actually feel like I could tell whether the ballerinas were dancing well or not on any given night. Or how awestruck I get whenever I remember that someone actually thought up those patterns and sequences on stage. Or how I can drift in and out during a performance only to suddenly find myself hooked in the last act. It gets under my skin. For example: I spent the first hour of Onegin having an idea for an article and then working out my argument. It would be easy to call that boredom – except that my mind was more alive than it had been all day, and watching that final scene when Tatiana tells Onegin to get the hell out of her house was the most satisfied I’ve felt in a ballet yet. I was furious at him and exultant for her, and for the first time I think I was cheering just as much for the character as for the dancers. I also left the show with a whole collection of ideas for totally unrelated things that I’m sure I wouldn’t have had otherwise. It fascinates me – not because I think it’s strange that something can be emotionally absorbing and intellectually stimulating at the same time, but because of just how disparate those two experiences are for me when I watch ballet.
But perhaps this says less about the ballet itself than it does about how we expect to engage with the arts. We want that obvious narrative. We feel as if we should be riveted to the action and the characters at all times – anything less is boring or false. If we are intellectually stimulated, well, that’s a happy bonus, but it’s for discussion after the show, not for independent exploration during it. It’s certainly true that narrative ballets are much more popular than the abstract or experimental, and I wonder if it’s for the same reason that many people find it difficult to like a song with no lyrics, or why even poetry itself has become so niche. Perhaps it’s because Hollywood has us all in its billion-dollar grip. Or perhaps we just understand ‘entertainment’ these days to be passive and linear – a bombardment via advertising logic – and the complex, subtle and contradictory to be inaccessible and elitist. That would be a real pity, because I think there’s something really exciting that it is created between the audience and performers in art forms like this. It’s intimate, it’s unique and it’s elusive, but I can’t shake the feeling that it’s really important.