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What things did you watch in ballet?

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A parallel thread of learning to see things in ballet performances inspired another question: What did you watch and/or notice in your own very first ballet performances, before you learned to know and see "more"?

When I first started watching ballet, I was totally ignorant of everything. I had no idea of what I was seeing, but I was totally facinated by the line of the dancers. I would watch their shape and movement in space, and ooh and aah at it. :flowers: I also loved the music.

I had no idea that big jumps and pirouettes were supposed to be exciting and difficult, or that seeing a specific dancer to interpret a role was somehow significant. I remember being vaguely interested in the emotions portrayed and the development of the plot, and liking classical mime (the program notes back then used to contain small primers for a few gestures, and the puzzle of fitting all the different pieces together and finding out what they were saying on the stage was irresistible).

The funny thing is, I stayed that way for several years, completely satisfied in just seeing beautiful things once a month from a cheap student-price seat. No intellectual curiousity at all. ( Then I became a ballet student, and everything changed. :) )


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This is a terrific question, and I hope we'll get LOTS of answers.

The first ballet program I saw was a Nureyev and Friends program -- Ashton's Marguerite and Armand, Le Corsaire pas de deux, Bejart's Songs of a Wayfarer, and Limon's The Moor's Pavane. Fortunately or unfortunately, I always try to figure things out -- ballet was completely new to me, and I remember trying to figure out WHY they were doing what they were doing -- what was the structure? Marguerite and Armand, for example, has a solo for Armand that didn't advance the narrative, but did portray his character. So I remember thinking, "Oh, that's how they tell a story in ballet." And then they did Corsaire, and I was totally confused, because it seemed to tell a story -- or at least suggest one -- but it was steps applause steps more applause more steps lots of applause. Songs of a Wayfarer, I got, because it wasn't a story, just ....just....well, two men dancing and being beautiful. Lots of subtexts, but it seemed to me they were up to the viewer. Then Moor's Pavane (I know now this wasn't the performance one would have gotten from the Limon company) seemed like parading around and waving handkerchiefs, a very reduced storytelling.

I never could just love iit -- I wish I could, sometimes. I do remember that some of the movements were beautiful, some exciting (barrel turns), and, especially in Marguerite and Armand, I knew I was in the presence of great dramatic personalities, even if one might not call it great acting.

I always loved mime -- it was a couple of years before I learned that this was old-fashioned and that most people hated it. I was always interested in the use of the hands and the eyes, and some of my most vivid memories of dancing over the past 30 years are of hands and of glances.

The day after that performance I was at a magazine store, looking for magazines about dance, and the day after that in a book store and the local library looking for books about dance -- there were very few -- and then on a train to New York to see a weekend's worth of performances.

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I was always peripherally aware and maybe a little curious about ballet. One Friday night a few years ago, not having anything else to do, I noticed that our local school (Gustafson Dance, associated with State Street Ballet) was having their end-of-summer school performance, and decided to go. I don't remember much about that performance except for the way the choreography filled the stage. There was so much to see and so much going on, and I couldn't see it all! The spatial complexity of the dance was what really engaged me.

Another epiphany came the first time I saw Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake not long after seeing the school performance above. That was the first time I realized dance could tell a story in a dramatic, emotional way, and how dance could reveal all the little psychological and dramatic corners of music. It went downhill (for my ballet addiction) quickly after that. :)


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The first time I watched ballet I was a small child and have no idea what it was. I suspect that since my parents and grandparents were devotees of the Ed Sullivan show, it was broadcast on this show. I only know that my parents told me they couldn't pry me away from the television, and I was inconsolable when it ended. Oh the days before VCR's!

The first ballet I remember seeing on TV was Pillar of Fire with Sallie Wilson. The first ballet I saw live was Swan Lake with Makarova and Nagy, and Marianna Tcherkassy in the Act I pas de trois when I was 13.

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Thanks but we want more ! psavola wrote:

What did you watch and/or notice in your own very first ballet performances, before you learned to know and see "more"?

Not just why you went and what performance it was, but what and how were you watching? Steps, lights, costumes, smiles, jumps, stories, patterns? All of the above -- none of the above? Dig deep!!!

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I learnt ballet as a child but my parents could not stretch funds for tickets to ballet performances. It wasn't until I was an adult and working that I could afford to go. The first ballet I saw was Cinderella, and what I noticed (I realised later) was that if a dancer had beautiful arms I concentrated on that, almost mesmerised by the movement. If a dancer had great legs and feet that was what I noticed; so different dancers, different parts of the body- the movement or steps.

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I first saw ballet performed when I was in college. In fall of 1975, I took a semester at a college in NJ and went into the city for concerts, plays, etc. quite often. The first ballets I saw were Firebird and Dying Swan, and probably some other pieces (but my memory fails me). I also saw Nutcracker. These were all performed by NYC Ballet. What I remember most was the color, the sets (the Chagal Firebird painting was so HUGE!), and the costumes. I was just like a small child when I saw the Nutcracker Christmas Tree grow several stories above my eyes. Unfortunately, I don't remember a thing about the technical aspect of the dancing itself, other than I thought it all beautiful. I threw out my programs from those ballets :) when I got married. Little did I know that one day my daughter would be thoroughly entrenched in the art. What I really don't like is that I have no clue as to who I might have seen dance -- anybody have any ideas?

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The first ballet I clearly remember seeing was the San Francisco Ballet's Nutcracker, when I was about 5-6. What struck me most was the look of the female dancers' legs and feet -- the shape, and also the look of pink tights in bright stage lighting (something I still enjoy).

I saw the Bolshoi in its second tour in the US when I was about 11, and although I wasn't taking ballet yet, I was aware of technique, although I think it was the obvious pyrotechnics that impressed me, such as Plisetskaya's jumps or Vasiliev's turns. But I also was very impressed by fluid arms. By the time the Kirov came to the US, I had started studying ballet and was aware of the less obvious elements of good technique.

I think it would be wonderful, at times, to be able to see a performance as a first-time viewer would.

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:) That may sound a bit funny to some - but what I loved doing (and I still do that!) when I came to my VERY FIRST BALLET (i was 27 then) was: 1) Sit as close to the stage as I could (tickets were not more than $10, so that was easy) - "sitting almost on the stage" some people might call it, and

2) watch and listen to every move and every whisper, every wink, every breath of those super-natural etherial female creations and such manly and may i invent a new word "gentlemanly" male dancers (ex-Soviet Union suffers from a bad terrible lack of real gentlemen, you see :D ) doing some thing supernatural on that stage, that is dancing, and even when (especially when) they were not actually dancing.

If they whisper - it must be something totally different from what us, ordinary people, would whisper about, when they sigh - it is because what they're doing is so difficult - they do not breath as us, ordinary earthly folks. When they wink - that is for a great reason - they are lending each other that invisible arm of support, like they're saying to their co-dancers: "You're cool, you're the best".

I hope nobody would laugh at this - i am being as honest and sincere as possible, laying all my gutts out here :blushing:

When i was a beginner i used to prefer to sit in the center, then i realized that if i move to the very side of the rows, located really close to the stage (rows 2 to 5), then i will be able what those mysterious beautiful creations do when they are not on stage - HA! They stretch, they chat, the jump and stretch again. May sound perfectly ordinary to those who do that professionally - but to me it was like a taking a glance at their "otherworldly" life. Of course, even back stage - they are not really like us, earthly people! That is what i thought to myself. That is what I have discovered - to my total satisfaction, when I was lucky to have met some of them in person, and even spend FEW MUNITES (total delight!!!!!!) backstage during one of the Swan Lakes. To me - a perfectly ordinary earthly person that were perfectly special sacred and unforgettable few minutes. You can laught but I felt i could have happily died after that - to me it was like "To see Paris and to die"

There is that big incredible illusion that those dancers create for us - that dancing is really easy and effortless. That is of course, everyone who has no real idea of what ballet is about, usually thinks (i confess, was sinful of that too). But when I actually started taking lessons from that favorite and much-adored ballerina of mine - i realize what that etherial lightness is all about. Sweat, pain, super-human efforts (so I WAS RiGHT about the super-human moments there!) AND remembering to always hide it underthat illusion - that it costs them nothing, it is sheer joy and pleasure. Forget the aching muscles, bleeding blisters on dancers' feet, aching backs of guys lifting up couple of hundreds of kilos during one performance, totalled up.

Then i've discovered - pretty fast, i've discovered - another thing about ballet that is still an eternal mystery to me but it keeps me hopelessly addicted to ballet - please just read my quote below my bubbling down there :thumbsup::wink:

My admiration towards those people is as big as the ocean or universe - and it will remained unchanged Till the End of Time!! :lol::wink:

PS DJB, you have seen Plisetskaya AND VASILYEV dance LIVE !!! You are a lucky soul! I only have tapes of them dancing - i came a bit too late to this Earth :D That must have been one of the experiences of your life - making it worthy of living, no?

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I don't know about any other ballet that was on the program, but I do recall that my first ballet performance (by NYCB) included "Opus 34". I was about 6 or 7, and that thing scared the living bejeezus out of me! Looking back on it now, I think Balanchine was drawing from the horror movies/comics craze of the day, and the surgery scene left me with a longstanding fear of hospitals that I didn't fully conquer until I got into the service.

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[Y]ou have seen Plisetskaya AND VASILYEV dance LIVE !!! You are a lucky soul! I only have tapes of them dancing - i came a bit too late to this Earth  That must have been one of the experiences of your life - making it worthy of living, no?

Yes, those were among the great experiences of my life. Unfortunately, I missed seeing Ulanova dance live, on the Bolshoi's first US tour. It's a good thing these dancers were filmed, eh? And now I must ask -- what's the origin of the name Ulanova? I think it should mean "immortal," but I know that "Bessmertnova" gets that honor.

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I am still learning to watch ballet, so I am not sure the past tense in the question applies to me. :)

Anyway, I know what I have always looked at in ballet, but I find it really difficult to describe - before starting to take classes myself it would have been completely impossible. What catches my eye and what I wait for in a performance is some kind of a combination of what I now think is called the dancer's "line" with his/her movement. Or the combination of the individuals' lines with the movement of the group, which is even better (I prefer watching group or crowd scenes over watching solos, go figure). Line is good on it's own, movement is good on it's on, but when these coincide to produce something more than their sum, that's when I go "ooooooh" and feel I have gotten what I paid for.

Since I started taking classes myself, I have also started to look at the steps performed and checking if I know their names, and if I see something that doesn't feel quite right to me I try to spot if there is a technical impurity behind that feeling (surprisingly often there is a technical reason even where the moves look superficially ok).

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For me it was the music and the patterns, and I think it still is. As a child I listened to what was then called 'serious' music, and then I saw it integrated with movement. My first view of ballet on the stage was 'Les Sylphides'--it is no wonder that I have been 'hooked' ever since.

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I’m not sure I can really identify when I “started” to watch ballet. Depends on how that is defined. I know my first sight of ballet was when I was young, perhaps 10-12 years old, seeing ballet on television. I don’t recall the programming, but I clearly remember being attracted to the jumps and turns, particularly those by males, like me. I have to admit to this day, I tend to watch male dancers more than females, perhaps because I’m male.

I also recall later in life, again being exposed to ballet on television, reacting to those old romantic ballets. I hated them. I saw them as pointless relics from 100 years ago—museum pieces as they say. Today, though I wouldn’t say that I hated them, neither would I pay money to see them.

My first live performance I do remember being attracted to the theatricality of the production as a whole and the connection between the movement and the music. The work was all contemporary, costuming grand for the major piece, and though I was just a beginning ballet student at the time, I thought the dancers were terrific (it was a regional company production).

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What did you watch and/or notice in your own very first ballet performances, before you learned to know and see "more"?

I'm still learning to watch ballet, just like Jaana Heino.

My first perfomance was the Bolshoi doing Romeo and Juliet. My seat was way off to the side which made watching the far end of the stage difficult. Consequently when the principals were distant I tended to watch the nearby dancers. Nowadays I sit closer to the center and devote more attention to the principal dancers.

I also spent some time looking at the audience. I still do that.

Initially I didn't pay much attention to the steps. Later on I did, but found it less interesting than watching the whole dancer. Of course, I've barely studied the steps. Just a little introduction from the little book "Basic Ballet: The Steps Defined" by Joyce Mackie.

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When I first started seeing ballet, I started writing about it right away, in letters home. I was living overseas at the time--- and suddenly my letters filled up with ballet.

But I haven't re-read them; my mother saved them, and I have them in a box somewhere. I'll have to check them out.

But I DO remember what I started DOING after I started seeing ballet. (My first was a Saturday matinee of La File mal Gardée at Covent Garden, which a friend who was already a balletomane dragged me to -- it was Leslie Collier's debut in a full-length ballet, and he was a fan of hers and was very excited. I don; remember her in the role, but I DO have VERY vivid recollections of her fast FAST feet in red heeled shoes dancing Ashton’s Tarantella in Swan Lake, which I saw later that year.

But what I remember from that era was how wild I was to see the ballet -- I'd leave Oxford by train, be in Paddington Station in about an hour, take the subway to -- where ? Shaftsbury Square? and run the last bit of the way to the theater, which was at least a few blocks -- and the closer I got to the theater, the more my feet would turn out. I'd do little jétés as I jumped onto the curb -- I still do -- and when the crowd was thick I'd turn my shoulders into fourth arabesque and slice through it like butter.

So I must have been watching that I think what I was into was not so much the way they looked as a kind of kinesthetic identification with the dancers -- yes you have to look, the evidence comes in through your eyes, but the vision was not the main thing, it was the swing, the rhythm, the weight transfers, the feeling of being able to move in an ideally graceful way that was intoxicating me. I must have been feeling the way they were moving, because I was unconsciously trying it out, and I didn't care who saw me doing it. Of course, I was a stranger in a great city, so there was no-one about to say, "Paul Parish, you forget yourself: what ARE you doing?" I was indeed forgetting myself. That was a huge relief; I was very depressed at the time, and ballet virtually saved my life.

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I've never been adept at expressing myself verbally about any kind of art--to me, the arts are experienced at a much deeper level of my being, but I'll give this a try. The first time I ever remember seeing any kind of ballet as a child was on TV. I remember seeing Edward Villella guesting on The Odd Couple (I think), and I was totally entranced by his looks, his energy and graceful athleticism, and to my adoring pubescent eyes, his sexuality. Many years later, I still have so much to learn about ballet, but I have always looked at what I guess would be called the line of a dancer first, and the beauty of the human body as it moves with such apparent ease through space. Tie this together with the auditory experience of the music, and I'm in heaven. As my daughter has gotten more & more involved with ballet, I've begun watching more little things--placement & line of the feet, the "softness" of beautiful arm movements, the use of the upper body.

One of my more embarrassing memories of watching ballet happened a few years back when my daughter was about 6 or 7. I had volunteered to help backstage with our local pro company, keeping watch over a small group of young girls in the production (including my daughter.) With another mother, my main duties were sheperding these girls from their dressing room when the backstage coordinator called us, escorting them to the wings, and then escorting them back to the dressing room as soon as they finished their part. There was a beautiful pas de deux following the scene the girls were in, and I started watching the dancers without even being aware of it, or aware of anything else, for that matter. After the pas was finished, I looked around and noticed with some embarrassment that I was alone in the wings except for the technical people and a few company dancers. The other mother, luckily, had taken the girls back to the dressing room. My daughter, of course, will never let me live this down, and still occasionally reminds me of it. I still enjoy watching a ballet from the wings, but have learned to not let myself get so lost in what I'm seeing!

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Balletmom, I think you've expressed yourself very well indeed and I love the story about your being entranced in the wings. Cliff, Marianna, Garyecht, Jaana, Mel, Paul - everyone, from psavola on who has posted has brought something different to the table. You've all gotten me thinking about what impressed me most initially and what my experiences are like now, as an audience member.

For me, it was the big picture - music, sets, lights, action, costumes and faces. I wouldn't have truly known if someone was truly a good dancer or not. It was all in the feeling for me - my feelings, that is. I want to become not just unaware of my "own worries and troubles" but unaware of anything else around me when I'm watching a ballet.

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I think the very first thing I noticed, and struggled against, was the tutu. I seemed to have been hyper-aware of it. That, and the mime, neither of which I liked. I remember finding it all so stilted and thinking that ballet wasn't something I could give my heart to. It seemed slightly ridiculous.

But even back then, I was also very conscious of other aspects that still grab my attention now. The music: how does a dancer respond to it? Their upper bodies - are they fluid and expressive or are they wooden? Right from the beginning, I've noticed that at every single performance. I can't NOT pay attention to it.

I wasn't terribly aware of the patterns at first. That was a gradual awakening. When I paid any attention to the corps, it was to see if they were together. Interestingly nowadays, although I like a coherent corps, I'm more forgiving and WAY more interested in the patterns, how the choreographer moves people around.

Oh, and I remember at those first performances being made aware, without intending to, of the sound of the pointe shoes hitting the floor - "that sure takes away from the image of grace and lightness" and occasionally of a dancer's breathing. I remember thinking how funny it was to see their calm faces but (I was up close) hear them snorting through those nearly closed lips.

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Oh, vagansmom - what a perfectly wonderful post! I'm laughing even now as I'm typing!

You're so much more honest than I in your memories - I thought it was pretty stilted, too and oh those pointe shoes clopping! :rolleyes: :thumbsup::thumbsup:

Fortunately, I went back again! :blink:

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my first live performance I saw was in Virginia of 3rd grade, 8 yrs old, of the Richmond Ballet's Nutcracker. All I remember seeing and thinking of was how big Mother Ginger's skirt was. and then children came out of it???!

I guess all I looked for were the oddities :clapping:

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I'm not really sure, because the first ballet I saw was on television, when I was little. Given that it was the early 60's, I would guess either The Ed Sullivan Show, Bell Telephone Hour, or Firestone Theater. I have no idea what was danced or what the dancers wore, but because I wasn't a tiara-loving kid, I suspect it was bodies moving to music that got me hooked, and that's how I came to love figure skating and gymnastics growing up, too.

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