How to watch ballet

15 December 2021

Are you a newbie to the wonderful world of classical ballet? Rita Clarke tells you everything you need to know.

When do I clap? What should I wear? What does it mean? Why don’t I understand the story?

If you’re a newcomer to ballet then you might find your first experience of the art-form prompts many questions. Ballet is drenched in convention, both for the dancers and the audience.

But going to the ballet for the first time needn’t be a daunting experience. Rita Clarke explains.

In this article we’re going to talk, predominantly, about Romantic or Classical ballet (as opposed to neoclassical or contemporary ballet).

These ballets date back to the 19th century and they’re the ones people think of when they picture ballet – pointe shoes, tutus and fairy tales.

To learn more about the differences between Romantic, Classical and Neoclassical ballets, scroll down to our handy glossary.

Why watch ballet in the first place?

Some people love to see the aforementioned spectacle of pointe work and tutus, but ballet is much more than that.

Dancers, like athletes, train, scold and mould their bodies until they gain the supremacy needed to excel in their chosen field. And we watch them all for the same reasons we watch our sporting heroes – to see perfection in the movement of the human body, the subtle grace and the unleashed and unfathomable power which can be generated.

And then there is also the lure of the fear and excitement – that began with childhood fairy tales – of the supernatural and the fight between good versus evil, which Romantic and Classical ballets are mostly all about.

What do I wear to the ballet?

Once upon a time you dressed up to the nines – and you can still do this if you wish, especially on opening nights when diamonds and diadems and black tie and long dresses are often expected and much appreciated.

But nowadays ballet companies encourage people to be smart casual and comfortable. Not a good idea to have your hair in a 60s beehive as the person behind you might be peeved, and no hats – although pretty fascinators should be fine.

What are the dos and don’ts?

Don’t be late – doors are usually shut after the ballet starts so you’ll have to wait for Act I to finish before you can go in.

Ballet Mistress and Associate Artistic Director of West Australian Ballet (WAB) Sandy Delasalle also asks that you don’t bring children under four, as their cries are very distracting for the dancers.

And please don’t unwrap sweets during the performance, adds WAB Ballet Master Craig Lord-Sole.

Do clap when dancers perform impressive feats… but not in time to the music! Pictured: Julio Blanes and the dancers of WA Ballet in ‘Giselle'(2021). Photo: Bradbury Photography

Do read the program notes. You might think that all you need to know about Dracula is that people with pointy teeth are going to dig them into some innocent necks and those luckless people will spend the rest of their days in coffins rather than cafés, But no – as shown in WAB’s recent, lauded production at the Crown Casino Theatre, there’s an interesting story behind this empathetic Dracula which you might not pick up on if you haven’t read the notes.

Do clap during the performance – often you’ll see the dancers encouraging you with not-so-subtle hints, such as holding a pose after a difficult duet or solo and staring at the audience. The resolution of a music phrase and a pause from the orchestra gives you another hint. You can also clap and/or yell out “Bravo!”(for a male dancer) or “Brava” (female) at all the feats of derring-do… when a dancer pulls off a particularly impressive move (see: keep your eyes peeled), audience members will sometimes spontaneously applaud mid-solo. Only please don’t clap in time to the music, says Lord-Sole, it may well put the dancers off.

Principal dancers love being clapped when they first appear on stage, adds Delasalle, as it boosts confidence and can allay nerves. And, of course, dancers will be elated by numerous curtain calls at the end.

Understanding ballet

As well as audience etiquette, there are conventions for ballet dancers which will help you understand what you’re watching:

“I swear to you my love.” An avowal of intent in WA Ballet’s production of ‘La Syphide’. Pictured are Claire Voss and Oscar Valdes. Photo: Emma Fishwick

Mime has long been a tradition in ballet and it’s reasonably easy to read. For example:

  • Hand on heart gazing longingly at someone = I love you.
  • Pointing to a ring finger = I’m fed up being single, you’d better marry me.
  • Clenched teeth and fist = I’m gonna get you!
  • Looking up clutching a cross, or if no cross, raising two fingers = an avowal of intent.

Dress code
When you see lots of ballerinas in frothy white tulle, it’s time to think supernatural.

A convention that dates back to the Romantic ballets, the white tutu is a clear signal to the audience that we’re watching something magical, dream-like or unearthly.

In Giselle, for example, the ghostly spirits of dead girls (the Willis) in their beautiful long white tutus escape their coffins at night intent on revenge against the cad that jilted them at the altar.

Long tutus, also known as Romantic tutus, are worn in (surprise!) Romantic ballets, such as Giselle and La Sylphide, while the shorter, disc shapes ones that stick out sharply from the dancer’s hips are called “pancake tutus” and are associated with Classical ballets, such as Swan Lake or The Nutcracker.

In Classical ballets the pas de deux often includes spectacular lifts. Pictured here are Juan Carlos Osma as Prince Desiré and Alexa Tuzil as Princess Aurora in WA Ballet’s ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ (2021). Photo: Bradbury Photography

Story line
Like most films and books, Romantic or Classical ballets will open with an exposition – setting the place and time and probably introducing the protagonists and/or their compatriots. Then comes the trajectory of the story and finally the denouement.

The plot, however, is generally not considered as important as the dancing and the choreography is designed to keep all eyes are on the prima ballerinas, soloists and demi-soloists, whilst the corps de ballet (the ensemble) provide, as it were, the extras.

The pas de deux (dance for two) is a particular highlight and is usually romantic (with a small r) in nature. In Classical ballets this is generally divided into three sections: an opening adagio (composed of slow, sustained movements), a series of solos for each dancer in which they alternate showcasing specific skills, and a coda in which they come back together for a spectacular finale. Exciting lifts are an important part of pas de deux – and because this is classical ballet and there is no gender equality, the man always lifts the woman.

Then there are divertissements, short dances which generally add little to the storyline, but afford more occasions for the dancers to show off their technique and artistry. They might perform – sometimes quite out of context – a European folk dance. These divertissements are usually performed by dancers from the corps, or soloists.

Divertissements are short dancers that afford more occasions for the dancers to show off their skills. Pictured are dancers of West Australian Ballet in Giselle (2019). Photo: Sergey Pevnev

Keep your eyes peeled!
It’s exciting to look out for some key, fiendishly difficult steps which the dancers make look easy. And this is where enthusiastic clapping is called for:

The Rose Adage
This is one of the most famous and challenging moments in classical ballet, featured in The Sleeping Beauty (recently performed by WA Ballet). In this lengthy solo, Aurora meets her suitors and each one must support her as she balances in an arabesque en pointe, for an extended length of time. In round one she simply balances; in round two, she also promenades (turns slowly on the spot) with each suitor. At the end of each suitor’s turn she relinquishes their hand and balances poised, on one pointed foot, with both arms outstretched… eight times in total!

The 32 fouettés in Swan Lake
Fouetté (meaning “whipped” in French) describes a pirouette series in which Odile turns on one leg whilst whipping the other around her body 32 times. It’s a test of endurance but when the dancer performs it well it seems as though the steps just fall away.

Captured mid-cabriole: Oscar Valdés as Jonathan Harker in Dracula (2020). Photo: Bradbury Photography

Double cabriole
This is jump typically performed by a male who leaps high in the air opening his legs as wide as possible whilst performing a double calf click (known as a beat) as he rises and descends. The ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov was known to perform this to perfection, eliciting gasps of appreciation from the audience and riotous applause (notably as Prince Albrecht in Giselle.)

This is audience favourite is a carousel of steps – often involving challenging pirouettes or impressive turning grande jetes (leaps) – performed in a circle around the stage.

When you see these movements performed in all their exquisite perfection you can applaud, just as people jump to their feet or shout approval when Federer outwits his opponent or a footy player leaps high in the air above the others to take an astounding mark. It might pay, therefore, to build up your clapping muscles next time you watch some of these ballets – Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, Giselle, Romeo and Juliet, Coppelia, or La Bayadere all of which are in our State ballet company’s repertoire.

Aren’t we lucky?

This is the second in Seesaw Magazine’s “How to watch” series, a collection of guides to artforms. The first is “How to watch contemporary dance”.

Stay tuned for “How to watch an orchestra”.

Pictured top: Dayana Hardy Acuna as Giselle, Oscar Valdes as Albrecht with the dancers of WA Ballet in ‘Giselle’ (2021). Photo: Bradbury Photography

Glossary of types of ballet

Romantic ballet: soft and emo
If you’re watching lots of ballerinas in long white tulle, wafting about the stage then you’re probably watching a 19th century Romantic ballet, such as La Sylphide or Giselle.
These story ballets centred slow movement, line, balance and form, framed by soft “port de bras” (carriage of the arms), and allegorical storylines that often involved supernatural forces, such as sylphs or ghosts.
The long Romantic tutus worn by the female dancers helped to depict these unearthly creatures, as did pointe shoes, which were invented to give dancers the illusion of ethereal lightness. When first introduced, in the early 19th century, the shoes were stuffed with cotton wool and the dancers held aloft by ropes and pulleys. Pointe work became the focus of the emotional Romantic ballets as did the ballerinas and their fairytale tutus.

Soft and emo: ‘Giselle’ is a perfect example of a Romantic ballet

Classical Ballet: spectacle!
Many of the titles that epitomise classical ballet today – Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker – were made famous by the late 19th century French choreographer Marius Petipa. As ballet master of the St Petersburg Imperial Ballet he injected colour and movement into the moody softness of the Romantic ballet.
Petipa began working with designers and composers, persuading, in a stroke of genius, a reluctant Tchaikovsky to write music for ballets. He inserted faster and more complicated steps, dramatic storylines and visually beautiful formations and settings.
Tutus were shortened and the pancake tutu became the go-to, allowing the dancers’ legs to move freely through the Petipa’s energetic and dynamic choreography.

Neoclassical ballet: athleticism and abstraction
Working with stylistically diverse musicians, such as Igor Stravinsky, George Balanchine (1904-1983) is credited with creating what is termed “neoclassical ballet”, lessening the influence of the story-line. His ballets were often plotless and concentrated on the amazing athleticism of the dancers (with male dancers prominent) more expansive arm and leg gestures, deeper plies and lunges and riskier and faster movement.

George Balanchine is credited with creating the neoclassical ballet, known for abstraction and athleticism.

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Author —
Rita Clarke

Whilst studying arts at UWA Rita found herself working at Radio 6UVSfm presenting the breakfast and Arts shows, and writing and producing various programs for ABC’s Radio National. A wordsmith at heart she also began writing features and reviews on theatre, film and dance for The Australian, The Financial Review, The West Australian, Scooby and other magazines. Tennis keeps her fit, and her family keeps her happy, as does writing now for Seesaw.

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