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Learning to "watch" a ballet performance

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After the last two nights of very different ballet performances and having both cyber and noncyber chats with balletomanes extraordinaire:D, I've started to think, again, how great it would be to take a course with a really knowledgeable and really good teacher with whom one could watch videos of ballets, (yes, live would be better - but annoying for other audience members) read the history, discuss what was going on in the world at the time the piece was originally choreographed, from a cultural, political, etc., point of view.... Sort of like the Comparative Arts Course I took long ago in college...but, this time, it we be ballet centered as opposed to fine arts centered.

I'd say it was about four years ago that I decided it was time to start taking my young daughter to see dance regularly. We started with a Junior Membership to The Joyce in NYC, and added a sprinkling of NYCB and ABT here and there...Then I began subscribing to Winter NYCB and Spring ABT...with Lincoln Center's Summer Festival dance thrown in from The Bolshoi and Kirov to Merce Cunningham.

Since my offspring has serious aspirations, I have thought of our tickets as part of her education...and along the way, I've turned into an addict myself. :D As luck would have it, my husband enjoys it too...although he has been generous enough to hand over his ticket to a ticketless friend on occasion. (Don't think I would ever be so kind!)

Many who post here are highly educated in ballet and dance in general. Some are professionals as either dancers or choreographers...some teach some do not... Some apparently grew up on the ballet as their "mother's milk" and then, there are those of us who, for whatever reasons, are relatively new and unschooled. How do we learn what makes a ballet "good"...and I don't mean the subjective parts! There must be some subjectivity involved, right? Obviously, up here in the New York region there are diehard NYCBers and their counterparts who adore ABT.

What are the neophytes to do? There are two books that I've found really helpful:

Ballet 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving the Ballet

by Robert Greskovic and Classical Ballet Technique by Gretchen Ward Warren

Both of these books are excellent and can be purchased through our handy Amazon site, above, but I need more!

How does one learn to see when one does not or has not danced? Do I need a set of head phones with Leigh's voice, real time, giving me a play by play? ;) Or maybe we could have different channels to choose from Victoria Leigh on Channel One, Alexandra on Two, Leigh on Three, Manhattnik, Calliope, Andrei, Kevin, Farrel Fan, Aubri, Estelle, Katharine, etc., ad infinitum, on our satellite connection?

Just reading my "review" ;) of the POB students vs the other's shows from whence we come.

Does anyone have any suggestions or comments? What are your methods?

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I'd like to begin with a tangential comment, but I think it's important.

If you go to the ballet and have a great time and and say so, then knowledgeable poster X comes in and says, "No, the performance was not good" does that mean you have to stop enjoying the performance? Even as one gains more knowledge about what you're looking at, be careful for the tradeoff being liking it less. That was never the point! Don't watch a performance worrying whether your enjoyment is knowledgeable, or even worse, legitimate! I worry when I hear things like this, because I think it discourages a ballet audience, and even worse, makes company directors not program complex or difficult works because they're terrified the audience will resent "not getting it." So we get Dracula, where everyone knows the story, and ballet loses yet more gray matter.

It helps to remember that Ballet Alert is in some ways an artificial construct - how often is someone in the audience forced to write about what one saw? I didn't start writing about ballet until I had at least a decade of serious viewing and more than a decade of ballet training behind me.

I think many of us learn to talk about ballet in a time-honored way, apprenticeship. I watched ballet as much as I could and read on it voraciously as well, mostly concentrating on NYCB through a variety of factors, some almost coincidental. I usually mention the triumverate of NYCB writers, Lincoln Kirstein, Edwin Denby and Arlene Croce being the ones who shaped my eyes.

As BW noted, there's a lot of subjectivity involved even in knowledgeable viewpoints in ballet. I think recognizing this makes discourse better, and I think it's the best David Frost "How to Fake a Discussion" trick in ballet to use as one acquires more experience and a more formed opinion. Loving a performance should never get anyone in trouble (if it does, you're talking to the wrong people.) Comparisons and superlatives can.

Before I write an article for print, I go over it as best I can and check through my assertions. "I loved Sheesno Fonteyn as Juliet! I cried the entire performance!" is an uncontradictable statement. "Move over Taglioni! Sheesno Fonteyn's performance is the greatest in the history, past, present or future from the Jurassic to the destruction of the Universe!" has a lot of pep, to be sure, but you're going to be asked to defend that statement by rabid Taglioni fans, to say nothing of people who question your logic in comparing a performance with one you couldn't have seen.

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BW, I totally sympathize with you. I took a criticism course when I was new to ballet (I saw my first ballet when I was in my mid-twenties and knew absolutely nothing about it before then). I thought that's what a criticism course would be -- that the instructor would teach us how to look at ballet. Not in this case. He was just interested in how we wrote about what we saw. He asked me to write for the Post when that class was over and I spent the first four or five years, at least, trying very hard to describe what I saw rather than judge it, because I knew I didn't know very much! I mostly covered the local modern dance companies, so I didn't have to worry about performance comparisons, as the works generally lived only for a season or two and the emphasis was on watching and analyzing new work, or extensive historical background. I remember vividly being sent to review what was then called an ethnic dance company -- the National Folk Dance Troupe of Whereveria -- and I had never seen a folk dance performance. I wrote what I saw.

The two books you mentioned are excellent resources. I also read a lot of criticism and learned a lot from that. Both how to see and, sometimes, how not to see.

I'd also like to echo what Leigh said. If you go to see something and write "I loved it! I thought the dancers were better than anyone I've ever seen" and someone else comes in and says that the technical level is deficient -- please don't let that interfere with your enjoyment. Sometimes one can learn from it -- one example might be the dancer who makes everything look hard so you know he's working, and churns out 12 pirouettes and you think it's great, and you never notice the guy next to him who only does four and doesn't grin. Someone may write that the 12-turn guy wasn't centered, or didn't pointe his feet, or that his extended leg dropped a half-inch with each turn, and that the 4-turner's placement and technique were perfect. Well, okay. That may be true. But you still may rather WATCH the guy who turns more and who you thought was more exciting. If you go for a couple of decades, you may eventualy prefer the quiet perfectionist -- and you may, at your 99,999th performance, still be cheering lustily for superturner. This goes to taste as well as experienice.

Another thought. We all have different backgrounds and focus on different things. And even knowlegeable people disagree. I had several off-board conversations with about a half-dozen people about a performance written up on Ballet Alert! that was controversial. Some of the people I talked to insisted that the dancer had absolutely perfect placement, others said that her head was so out of alignment with her body that she, as one put it, "looked like a broken doll." I could only imagine that both groups were definining "placement" differently.

When I was doing research for my book, I found an extraordinary review, by today's standards, written in 1948 by a political writer -- not an arts writer. It was a review of the Royal Danish Ballet's first performance of Massine's "Symphonie Fantastique." The reviewer keyed his commentary to the music. "Now, the Andante, and four women..." He also wrote about the sets and costumes in the way one would write about a painting -- how the colors looked when they MOVED, not just how pretty the costumes were. He was seeing and hearing something very different than someone today, who looks primarily at patterns and the dancers' technique, would see. (Not that everyone does that, of course, but it's a, perhaps the, predominant American school of criticism.) I really envied him. I wish I could see like that, but I haven't trained myself to see like that. (He also wrote about the dancers' technique, and personalities, and how they looked different in this compared to their regular repertory, and who was in the audience, and what the women's hairstyles looked like!)

Finally, I was struck by what Leigh wrote about watching for a decade before writing -- I read a recommendation by Clive Barnes along the same lines. I didnt have that luxury; I wish I had. But I noticed a real difference at the beginning of my 11th season. It was partly time -- even if you see 3 performances a day for 2 years you'd need some time experience for comparative purposes -- and partly number of performances, as this was when Washington had a 20-week ballet season, and I'd go 8 times a week during those 20 weeks, plus another two performances, generally, on the non-season weeks to other kinds of dance. And I wanted to see critically -- I wasn't going primarily for entertainment.

This is another long answer -- sorry :D But it's a complicated question. I always asked "where did this come from?" That was a question that interested me and it's the one I've pursued. Everybody has different questions. If the only question is, "Did I like it?" that's fine! If you want to try to figure out what other people are seeing (or think we're seeing!) then the books you've mentioned, and reading other writers, including the ones on this board, may be provocative -- not necessarily helpful, but provocative :)

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Just a thought from a different perspective, BW, and that is I'm not sure you want to learn to see it the way some of us do! The more you know, especially about technique, the harder it is to really enjoy a performance. :D

As an audience member, and especially one who wants to express an opinion in writing here on the board, the main thing is whether you enjoyed it or not, and maybe some of the whys that you do know. You don't have to be technically knowledgable to know, for instance, that the costumes were glorious or ugly, or that the ballet made no sense, or that it made no sense but was still quite lovely to watch! And if the dancers looked very fine to you, then saying that is quite fine too :) The fact that some of us are going to pick them apart technically does not make your opinion any less valid. You have to remember that we do tend to be a bit hypercritical sometimes ;)

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I understand what you are saying, Leigh and Alexandra and Victoria. One of the things I love about this board is that total neophytes (me) can post reviews and not get dumped on. (This is very important, because as far as I can tell there are very few Chicagoans willing to post reviews. If BalletAlerters want to know about dance here, they'll just have to see it through my eyes, untutored as they are. So it's important to feel that my efforts are accepted.)

Having said that, I absolutely feel the same as BW. Yes, it's fine to love or not love a dancer, a move, a piece of choreography. I'd llike to understand why a turn looked so pretty, why I felt so peculiarly moved -- or why I couldn't have cared less and wished it was over?

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Treefrog, your efforts are absolutely appreciated! What generally happens, too, is that where there is One Chicagoan, there will soon be Two, then Three, and then a few more, and we have a discussion. The Ballet Moms and Dads forum was very underpopulated its first few months. I started it because we would get a parent come to the board, introduce him/hersellf and then go away, because there really wasn't a place to talk about parent issues. Ergo, Ballet Moms and Dads. I hope the same will happen with Chicago. There's a major company resident there -- the Joffrey -- and the studio company deserves discussion as well.

I totally sympathize with your wanting to know things and ask questions. I was so lucky that I did start writing early because that gave me access to other critics -- I could ask them. I'd say, "That was wonderful," thinking I'd seen a sublime performance, and get a gentle, "Well, you never saw Verdy in the role." And then I could ask why the dancer I thought was so good wasn't quite Verdy. Eventually, I realized that even if I had seen La Sublimova in the role I may still like Sheezno Fonteyn.

So....ask. If you see a performance that you think is absolutely terrible, you were bored out of your skull, and someone else writes how sublime it is, ask. Or vice versa. "I was interested in what you wrote, but curious, because I thought the girl in the second act pas de deux was absolutely wonderful. I liked her feet, and I liked that her turns were so fast." And you may find that the person doesn't think a short, fast turner is really suited to that role, or that the turns were fast, but they weren't centered -- and you'll get a definition of "centered" -- or that the person was used to seeing X, Y or Z do it, or that the dancers' shoulders slumped, or that the phrasing was a bit mechanical -- lots of reasons.

We've worked hard here to get away from "How can you say that? Have you no eyes?? She was absolutely terrible!!" or "Well, I guess she was good if you're partial to moronic robots."

I think the more different voices we get, the more interesting it is, and if people want to have a "interesting, but why did you think that?" dialogue, then that would be wonderful.

It's something we all need to work on as Moderators -- to make sure the discussions are discussions, not battles,, and we draw people out and get at what they think.

You can help! Keep posting your reviews.

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I can only answer for me on this one, but let me try and enumerate some of my standards. They come from my own dance training.

Alexandra's example of placement is one of the most frustrating, only because you would think that it should be objective, right? How can one person say X has good placement and another swear s/he doesn't? Bearing that in mind. . .

When I talk about placement I'm not usually talking about epaulement. To be certain, the head and shoulders have a lot to do with placement, but I'm usually looking at the dancer's hips and torso. How clean is his or her fifth position, does s/he wiggle to get into it? Is the torso placed over the hips or does it look as if the dancer is splayed or falling back? Are the arms held "from the back" or do they look unintegrated?

Other things I watch for when I watch a dancer: Their position in a retire - is it turned out from the hips? How articulate are his or her feet (this is a separate question from if they point or are arched. I'm looking at how the dancer works them.)

Most importantly when evaluating a performance, though, I'm looking also for something that takes no technical expertise at all. I look to see if the dancer projects. But that's subjective (Look at the discussion about Vienna Waltzes recently to see what I mean.)

In ballets, I know my evaluation criteria are personal. I'm looking primarily at structure. If it's a narrative ballet, is the narrative clearly told and comprehensible? is the choreographer fully investigating his or her ideas or just tossing them around as if this were some sort of All You Can Eat buffet, sampling a spoonful of herring, then one of chocolate pudding? Do I get a sense that s/he knows what she is aiming for in the work, does s/he know what NOT to include?

A while back, I wrote an essay that might be of some assistance called "Looking at Dance, Looking at Dancers" Maybe it will help elucidate one set of standards?

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Well this thread is titled how to watch a ballet and we seem to have strayed into how to write about one. But communicating your subjective impressions of the ballet experience is so much a part of watching and learning that that is as it should be.

Something that I learned, to my delight, when I started writing about ballet on the Internet, was that to the extent that anyone's opinion counts, the opinion of the complete newcomer who kind of thinks they might like ballet is next in importance after the critic in your hometown paper and the chairman of the board at your local arts funding drive.

That's because all the machinations that go into training dancers and creating ballets don't count for anything if the finished product doesn't elicit a response from at least some people who don't know a gargoulliade from a failli for heaven's sakes. You are important because you bought a ticket. Your life experiences are what train you to "watch" a ballet as much as doing homework on the minutiae. If the performance sparks your interest, read more about the choreographer, composer, company, history, and so on.

As for writing about it, I just blunder ahead, with great sincerity out of profoundest ignorance. I frequently learned more from the people with whom I disagreed than from anyone else. I haven't reached that ten year mark yet but I think Leigh is right about that being a reasonable amount of study before you can speak with great authority. But don't wait that long to tell us what you think! There's more to learn here than anyone could ever know.

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Leigh, someday I hope to get to the point where I can watch epaulement and use of the feet and placement and centeredness and all of that. Right now, it's all kind of a blur (sometimes literally!). I think it must help to be very familiar with some aspect of what you are watching, so you can tuck that away for the moment and concentrate on something else. That's where watching a lot comes in, I suppose.

I am formulating a little plan. By now, I am thoroughly familiar with the choreography in the Joffrey Nutcracker. Since I see it several times each season (thank whomever-you-like-to-thank for those $10 parent rush tickets!), next winter I think I'll try to concentrate on watching the dancers and analyze what I see. Since I often get to watch different dancers in a single role, I can compare all the different stuff Leigh was talking about.

But here's a choreography question, raised by Leigh's buffet example. Is there anything in ballet akin to the sonata form in music? That is, does one introduce a kinetic theme and then develop it, etc? What makes choreography hold together?

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Treefrog -

There is something similar but it isn't codified as such. Very often, a ballet will get its structure from the music, which becomes the armature the ballet is draped around. One ballet you can see this structure in is The Four Temperaments, which has what someone else (I'm sorry that I can't recall whom) defined as a "cellular" construction. There are certain motifs within it (the woman being lifted and then brought down onto the man's thigh is one) that get amplified or altered during the choreography. it's introduced in its most simple form, and then a beat is added at some point, etc. The score itself is a Theme and Variations, so Balanchine is moving parallel to the structure of the music. I recently noticed that in Symphony in C the Fourth Movement ballerina functions as the "Theme" for the finale; she states all the movement motifs in their initial form, which are then taken up in the reprises. I don't know Petipa as well, but I'm almost positive there is a similar use of choreographic motifs. Alexandra? Do we see this in both Petipa and Bournonville?

By the way, your idea of watching a single ballet repeatedly with different casts is a great one. In truth, you can usually tell when you need to know ballet from a more intimate perspective. Some people are happy to just watch it and love it, some people need to see the bones beneath the skin. I think it's an interesting journey if one feels called to take it!

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Keith, I didn't mean to speak about the technical aspects of writing criticism, but the analytical ones. For me, that's the same whether the result is a conversation or a review or essay.

Treefrog, there is a very basic "sonata form" for ballet. It's very elastic, and provided the structure for many of Petipa's classical acts, and was bent and expanded and condensed in the 20th century. The basic pas de deux has four parts: entre, adagio, variations, coda. In most classical pas de deux, the entre is truncated; they just enter. The adagio is when the man and woman dance together, the variations are the solos, and the coda is the ending. Often there is a choreographic theme all the way through -- a step, like the arabesque or pas de chat, say.

A longer ballet, like the "Shades" act in La Bayadere, uses the same form. It just expands it. The entree is the entrance of the Shades. The adagio, the first pas de deux between Solor and Nikiya. The variations -- the three Shades and Nikiya (Solor's was added later); and a coda, more solos and a final group dance.

This isn't the only model, but it's one basic one as far as structure goes. (Balanchine follows the structure of whatever score he's using so that he really makes the music visible. Attending a Balanchine evening with a musician can be an exciting experience. "THAT'S SONATA FORM!" one such friend yelped during a performance of "Symphony in C."

Within that structure, the choreographer chooses steps and builds the choreography on those steps, the same way a designer might choose several shades of rose, and then two or three complimentary and one or two accent colors for a living room.

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This is way cool! Thanks so much.

So .... I'm guessing that one reason a ballet might feel boring is if the theme never really develops? Just keeps getting restated? And obviously, if the choreographer never develops a theme, just throws a lot of stuff together, that's pretty boring too.

My piano teacher was just explaining that music speaks by playing around with our expectations. I can see that the same thing probably applies to choreography. More of the same = very predictable = boring. Too much that is different = audience can't develop expectations = confusion. The right balance must set up some expectations, then manipulate them -- perhaps, oh, I don't know, altering a rhythm or a direction or something?

I'm really at a disadvantage here, conjecturing in a vacuum. I think I need to go haul out some tapes!

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Many thanks for bringing up the form and structure underpinnings! Having very little musical background, this discussion is really quite helpful.

Me thinks, I now understand why Manhattnik has that little quote down below his name - some dances are too long and now I am beginning to understand why...thanks to this discussion!:)

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BW, thanks for reviving the thread -- I'd be curious to know what Treefrog, especialy, thinks of this question NOW (and you as well, BW).

And, since it's the start of a new season, it's a good topic to bring up. We can start it over, if you like -- forget what we wrote last time. Take it from the top: how do you watch ballet? (Remembeirng, always, that it's perfectly ok to go and have fun and not worry about why, but for those who do....) How has your watching ballet changed over the years -- that's another way to get at this question. What can you/do you see now that you didn't before?

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Thank you for the invitation, Alexandra. I'm sorry I've left this hanging so long.

As you have all hinted, learning to "watch" a ballet -- as opposed to just "absorbing" it -- takes a while. Over the last year I've been to maybe ten or twelve performances, including five major companies (Bolshoi, Joffrey, ABT, NYCB, Ballet Nacional de Cuba). I've learned something new every time.

Overall, I'm more confident than I was. I know what I like and don't like, and I have ideas about why -- sometimes just glimmers, sometimes very firm, concrete ideas. Being someone who thrives on external motivation, it heartens me when people on Ballet Talk agree with me. It seems to validate my ideas, so I can spend less time worrying if I got it "right" and more time contemplating what it was I did or didn't like. (One example is loving Maria Alexandrova -- who was just one of a number of soloists the night I saw her, so I felt like I was picking her out of a crowd -- then coming back to the board and finding previous posts about her that mirrored my feelings. Now when I'm taken with a dancer or a performance, I trust the feeling more.)

My continuing frustration is that I lack a vocabulary to encode what I've seen. As a consequence, I cannot form detailed memories, and I have trouble describing particular scenes or choreography. Where I described the overall feeling of "Les Noces", someone (Paul Parish, maybe?) mentioned an important part of the choreography that contributed to that feeling. I'd love to be able to get to the point where I can consistently remember details, large and small.

By the way, I never did get to implement my Nutcracker plan. I did go to see it six times last year, but the luck of the draw handed me the same cast all but one time!

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I have conceded that knowing all there is to know about the art form of ballet will never be possible. I am happy to learn as I go, learning alittle bit here and there. Awhile ago I logically justified my ongoing ballet ignorance by deciding that knowing too much might interfere with the pure enjoyment of the performance. I found when I began looking for technical details I was also missing the total visual package created by the music and movement. Being a very visual, and only somewhat analythical learner, for me ballet is like watching a beautiful painting come to life. I also enjoy thinking about what the choreographer heard in the music and why he/she chose that movement for that count. I also find what others have to say about what they are seeing to be very enlightening and interesting. Case in point: the fact that I have enjoyed reading this thread. Of course, a certain level of technique is expected at the professional level. But, when I go to the ballet, for me it's ultimately all about being entertained/moved by the mood set by the composer, choreographer and performers.

And, so, the average audience member has spoken! One of those who watches the face and not the feet!

Thanks for reviving this thread, I didn't see it the first time around and really enjoyed it's content.

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