There are plenty of people who’ve made it to adulthood without ever going to the ballet. Maybe it seems intimidating. Maybe you don't think you know enough about it, or have just never been convinced of why you should.
The fact is: the secret of "getting" ballet is realising you don't have to "get" anything. With the help of The Australian Ballet’s artistic director, David McAllister, we lift the veil on ballet and learn how to thoroughly enjoy it.
How will I understand what’s going on?
Traditional story ballets tend to be tragedies, romances and comedies, or a combination of the three. There is typically no speaking in ballet, which can make it tricky to follow. McAllister says there are shortcuts to understanding the action, from Googling the story beforehand to reading the synopsis on the cast sheet.
“If we’re doing our job well, it should naturally unfold,” he says. “And of course, a lot of ballet isn’t about anything, it’s just beautiful music and fantastic movement coming together to make moving art.”
How do they make it look so easy?
Many people don’t realise being a professional dancer in Australia is a full-time job. A typical day may start with Pilates before a daily morning class, then rehearsals in the afternoon and a dinner break before the evening show.
Australian Ballet dancers work six days a week and perform around 200 shows a year. The golden rule of classical ballet is to make it look effortless, no matter how exhausted you are. A particularly gruelling ballet, In the Upper Room, is secretly referred to as “the vomit ballet” – dancers have been known to dash off stage and throw up from the effort.
When should I clap?
Unlike classical-music concerts, there are no rules around clapping. If you think someone is doing an amazing job up there, show your appreciation. Stamping your feet is also encouraged, particularly when the dancers take their curtain call, or bow, at the end.
What if I don’t like the music?
Every year a ballet company will offer both traditional story ballets performed to live classical music – Swan Lake or The Sleeping Beauty or Romeo and Juliet – and contemporary non-narrative ballets, typically set to contemporary scores.
If Tchaikovsky or Prokofiev aren’t for you, check some of this year’s newer Australian Ballet works. They include music by composers such as Michael Nyman, whose music features in both the triple bill Vitesse and a new work by corps de ballet dancer, Richard House.
What should I wear?
Going to the ballet is always a fun excuse to dress up. But you can wear whatever you want, really. At intermission you can see people in jeans drinking champagne and women in ball gowns eating Magnums.
Okay, I’m prepared to give it a go. But what do I see first?
If you’ve never been to the ballet before, you can’t go past Swan Lake, and this year’s ultra-classical production by Stephen Baynes has all the ingredients: romance, tragedy and beautiful costumes adorning the rows of identical white swans.
“Everyone should see a Swan Lake in their life. It’s like A Streetcar Named Desire, a big epic work that captures your imagination,” McAllister says.
If you’d prefer something more modern and international, Vitesse features three short works by some of the world’s finest, including British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, Czechoslovakia’s Jiří Kylián and the great American choreographer, William Forsyth.
Ballet facts to rattle off at interval:
• During the year, The Australian Ballet’s ballerinas go through 350 pairs of tights, and the company uses 7500 pairs of ballet shoes.
• It can take up to two weeks of work non-stop just to make one tutu.
• The stage floor is often mopped with Coca-Cola so the dancers’ shoes grip the sticky surface.
• When The Australian Ballet tours internationally, the dancers are split between two planes to ensure the precious cargo isn’t all in the air at the same time.
Want to know more?
The Australian Ballet hosts chats with McAllister and at least one dancer on the first Saturday of every season. Music director Nicolette Fraillon deconstructs the music side at least twice a season. And there is a Q&A session where you can ask all the questions you’ve always had.
Broadsheet is a proud media partner of The Australian Ballet.