by David Allison
Last season I went to a Ballet BC performance for the first time.
I want to tell you about that, but I thought I’d tell you a few things about myself beforehand, so you’d know more about why I am writing this.
I’ve been to a few ballets in my life, each time under duress. I saw The Nutcracker once or twice, and a performance of Giselle, decades ago, by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. That’s about the sum total of my exposure to ballet. I’m 48 years old.
Attending a Ballet BC performance wasn’t something I really really really wanted to do. It’s not that I didn’t want to go. There was just no big red Sharpie-felt-tip-marker-circle-with-exclamation-marks-and-stars around this evening on the calendar. But I was there, and I was with some very lovely friends who are dance fans and long-time supporters of Ballet BC.
As you read this, it might also help to know that I am very interested in visual art. I collect art when I can afford to. I volunteer at art galleries. I have conversations – sometimes even sober ones – with artists about what the hell they are trying to do. Thinking about art isn’t entirely foreign to me. Thinking about dance is new.
There I am, last season at Ballet BC, in my seat waiting for the lights to dim and the curtain to come up. I was flipping through the program, searching the list of charitable donors for the names of people I might know. (It is a scientifically-proven fact that the best-read section of any arts program is the list of donors. We all like seeing who is more generous than who.) I was fully expecting to have a public nap in a dark theater and nothing more.
But instead, what I saw that night had me so rapt that I felt like someone else had taken over the controls to my brain.
I thought I was going to be bored. Instead I was the opposite of bored.
I sat still through three dances.
I didn’t come up with an excuse to bolt at intermission, which is something I often do.
I even wanted the show to last longer.
I felt the same way you might feel if you were walking along the street one day, thinking your normal thoughts about what to have for lunch and the shape of the clouds and if you like your shoes, and suddenly someone popped out from behind a tree and handed you the keys to a shiny new car parked right next you and said “keep it, it’s yours” and then ran away. You’d be flummoxed and overwhelmed and excited and confused.
I didn’t know what to make of it. What the hell had I just seen? Why hadn’t I ever seen anything like this before? How come I felt so uneasy about it?
I was even a little angry that I’d been missing out on this equation of music plus art equals dance for so long. Why hadn’t anyone told me it was so good?
On the walk home from the theatre, I realized something else. Unlike the visual art world where you can look at a painting over and over again, I couldn’t see those three dances ever again unless I went back the very next night, which was the last night of the 2013/14 season. That was part of why I was feeling uneasy: I knew I wanted more but it was almost not possible. The next morning I quickly called Ballet BC and booked tickets to go again. For those of you counting, that makes two nights of ballet in a row. We got slightly different seats – a bit closer to the stage this time.
And you know what?
Even though it was the same three dances we saw the night before, they were completely different. Because I was different. My reason for being in the audience was different. The crowd was different. Our view was different. This second night of seeing dances that were the same but different confounded me even more.
Luckily, I had an inside-source to turn to. I knew Branislav Henselmann, the Executive Director of Ballet BC. We’d met and talked several times at art events, and we share some mutual friends. A day or two later I called him up.
Branislav listened to my wide-eyed-absolute-beginner-dance-idiot rambling. With his Bavarian baritone he told me that these feelings I was having were more or less universal. I wasn’t the first one who had ever felt this way.
Branislav introduced me to Emily Molnar, the Artistic Director of Ballet BC, and the conversation about dance got ratcheted-up to another level. Branislav and Emily met with me and talked to me about dance many times in the following months: over drinks, over brunch, over cake, over a boardroom table. Sometimes I had to work very hard to keep up with the conversation as they explained things to me, but they kept at it, and so did I. I’m not sure why we kept talking, but we did.
After a lot of conversations with Branislav and Emily – which was a pleasure because they are both so fascinating and smart – I agreed to write this screed you are reading now.
Why? Well, it’s because there is a lot of writing about dance, but almost none by people who know absolutely nothing about dance. Shocking but true.
Seriously though, this is an experiment. Can I find a way to talk about dance without all the jargon and vocabulary and experience that dance professionals have? Maybe without the insider-lingo, other Ballet BC Virgins like me will read this and understand it more easily. Maybe a few of them will become Ballet BC fans too. If this experiment helps even one or two people become part of the Ballet BC family it’s worth it, don’t you think?
If you are one of those dance experts who knows everything already, you might think this article is a waste of time. I apologize in advance. Maybe you know a newbie like me, who will find this uneducated point-of-view more approachable? If you do, please pass this on.
So here it goes, my first piece of dance writing. I hope it helps create some fans. I’m calling it:
10 WAYS TO WATCH DANCE.
What are you supposed to do while you are in the audience staring at dancers on a stage? It’s something no one ever teaches you. Asking about it out-loud would be slightly embarrassing, like admitting you don’t know how to turn on the dishwasher, or how to tie your own shoelaces. Most people might just sit and stare and try hard to figure things out, which, as I’ll get into later, is one perfectly acceptable thing to do. But there are others.
Let’s start with a bit of background. Then I’ll get into specific things you could be doing while you are in your seat watching a dance piece. Think of what follows as an instruction manual for the uninitiated about how to consume Ballet BC performances.
I think it helps to think about dance like a language. I’m a big fan of analogies because they help everyone feel like they are on familiar turf.
A language has letters which combine to form words, and when you combine words into phrases and sentences you get this amazing thing called communication. People understand each other because they understand the same language.
A very long time ago The Language of Ballet was codified by various people – you don’t need to know about all that – just accept that there is a language of dance moves in classical ballet that everyone knows. There are letters and words and phrases and sentences and eventually, when they are all combined, communication ensues. It’s not quite as easy as “step step jump point steppity-step pounce” means “I’d love a ham sandwich right now, except I’m off gluten,” but work with me here.
Classical ballet is mostly about using this old and accepted language to tell a story. Most of the stories were written down in Big Books of Dance a long time ago. The Nutcracker is The Nutcracker and despite a kooky costume change or a new jaggedy-edged set design that looks like a post-apocalyptic landscape – it will always be The Nutcracker.
More recently, Contemporary Ballet came along. In Contemporary Ballet the dancers and choreographers are all trained in the old classical language, but they are more interested in using that shared knowledge as a base to invent new languages. This is what Ballet BC does.
It’s like Jazz.
The musical notes in Jazz are the exact same notes Beethoven used. But jazz has it’s own groove going that Beethoven could never have come up with. It’s a product of the time in which it was created.
Or you could think of it in terms of the work of Picasso.
Pablo knew how to paint photocopy-perfect paintings that looked like real horses and bowls of fruit and naked women. He had the classical training, but he wanted a new language. He used his foundation in the classics to create something entirely new.
Just like artists in other disciplines, some contemporary choreographers stick to a language they invented and use it as a kind of signature. Martha Graham’s dance moves are more-or-less recognizable as Martha Graham’s dance moves.
Other contemporary choreographers invent a new language for every dance piece they create, or they mash-up old and new moves, or they do whatever they feel like at the time.
The light bulb moment for me was when I figured out that the choreographer and the dancers are using these languages to talk to us. They are trying to tell us things in a particular way that dance can do best. It’s our job as the audience to try and participate in the conversation.
Here’s ten things you can do to help make the conversation more interesting:
You can just let it wash over you and be in the moment, and let little bits of the conversation catch your attention here and there. You have permission to do that. It’s one of the last places on earth where you have permission to not understand everything always. That should be celebrated.
Remember you are never wrong. Everything you feel is right. You are free to hate it or love it or be bored. It’s all good. Emily Molnar said to me: “We aren’t all coming to the performance from the same place, so of course we aren’t all going to end up in the same place afterwards.”
Accept the gift. Emily told me that on average 6 hours of rehearsal time goes into every one minute of what you see on the stage. That’s not even counting the costume-making and lighting and music and fundraising and all the other things that happen. You paid for your ticket, but what you are getting in return is hugely more valuable. It’s a gift that probably close to a hundred people or more have worked on for a very long time. Be open to receiving it.
Remember that no one else will ever see what you are seeing. It’s like that old line about how you can’t step into the same river twice, because the river keeps changing. The dance you are watching will only ever happen once this way. Knowing that this dance is only for you, with the other people in the room right now, makes it kind of special and privileged. Someone else can come and see the performance tomorrow but they will not see the dance you saw. What you saw is gone forever.
Emily Molnar said this to me: “Just let go. Let it be. Think about it later. Be comfortable here. And just let it happen.” It’s a smart thing to say. Be open to feeling and sensing the moment. Where else do you get this opportunity? Yoga class maybe, but there’s all those sweaty people in yoga class who are distracting, even though they are not supposed to be.
It’s OK to enjoy the beautiful bodies up there on the stage. It feels kind of taboo at first – we are supposed to be here for the Art after all. But OMG there’s lots of skin up there, sometimes nearly naked young men and women who spend all day every day making their bodies look fantastic. It’s OK to talk about it.
They are gorgeous! They move like water! They have beautiful legs and sinewy muscles! All good! Say it out loud if you want. They all talk about it themselves. Stop being a Puritan.
Besides, Emily told me that the dancers love the compliments.
Dancers are trained to lob balls of energy at us. These are bursts of calibrated energy of course, sometimes angry and sometimes happy and sometimes soft and sometimes hard. You could think about these energy projectiles as messages, if you like.
The dancers learn and practice all kinds of tricks to shoot energy at you. It might be a look. A small knee movement. An alignment of a moment in the music with a moment in the lighting with a certain thing a costume does when a shoulder is moved in a certain way.
It’s all on purpose. Try and catch what they are throwing your way.
Sometimes there’s nothing to understand.
I think we all want there to be a Thing to figure out. “Oh I get it! She’s the jilted lover and he’s in love with the goat, and that other gang of six girls are really on his side because the goat is secretly a princess and…”
Sometimes it’s just about dancing. Don’t work too hard. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
For many years my friend Andrew Raeburn ran a big international piano competition – think of it as the Piano Olympics – and spent his life working in the classical music world.
One day I asked Andrew about how to listen to piano music and he told me something that can apply to dance and visual arts and everything else, too.
Andrew said: “A great piano player makes you forget that it’s a piano.”
In other words, when you aren’t aware anymore of the little hammers hitting taut steel strings like so many tiny percussion instruments all lined up in a box, that’s when it’s good.
It’s Art when someone puts their own emotional soul into the music: when you can feel the grief of a marriage ending; the screams of sugar-high kids running in circles in a playground; the grey dreariness of unexpectedly incessant rain. It’s the same with paintings. It’s not about the brush strokes. It’s about the power of the idea.
When emotional communication supersedes technical proficiency, regardless of the tools being used, that’s Art.
Dance is like this too. There are plenty of technically perfect dancers who have every baby-toe curled and gluteus muscle flexed in exactly the right way. The Artists, however, are the ones who can make you forget you are watching a dance and instead manage to get you involved with the conversation.
Emily said the same thing to me. She said “Technical perfection alone, without art, is the death of ballet. Dancers need to be saying something.”
Come often. The more you look and listen and receive the gift and feel the energy and admire the bodies, the more you will understand. The more you understand, the more you will realize how much there is left to learn. When you realize that the questions are actually the point of it all, that’s when you can get truly comfy in your seat and just enjoy the show.