The first ballet I saw live on stage was Swan Lake at the Grand Theatre in Leeds, more than likely performed by the Northern Ballet company. As enjoyable as it was I didn’t go to see another ballet for 20 years – if I could actually find the words to express how much I regret this I would, but maybe the time wasn’t quite right for me to appreciate it fully.
I danced as a teenager, mainly modern dance with performances in local shows and suchlike before discovering clubs where I could dance the weekend away, and did so for many years. Life changes, things move on, knees become worn out and those heady Saturday nights become a distant memory. A few years ago I accompanied a friend to see the Sydney Dance Company perform a piece by choreographer Rafael Bonachela at the Southbank Centre in London and fell completely head over heels in love with dance again…and I mean head over heels! A visit to see The Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden soon followed, and whilst my reaction to classical storytelling ballet wasn’t quite so immediate as that of the modern works, I fell in love with the whole experience – the costumes, the auditorium, the music, the audience, the lighting, the sets – everything about it and I haven’t looked back since.
Evenings, and the occasional matinee spent at the ballet are now very much a part of my life. Living so close to one of the greatest ballet companies in the world affords me the luxury of going at every available opportunity, and with ticket prices starting at less than the travel fare there and back, it would be rude not to make the most of it! Many of the classic ballet stories are strange and simple tales of girl meets boy, falls desperately in love, before a tragic ending befalls the couple. They are rarely happy stories and it’s often the case that I have absolutely no idea what is going on! February marks the start of a couple of months going to the ballet at least once a week, so I have gathered my reference books off the shelf to read up on the stories.
The Faber Pocket Guide to the Ballet is an accessible and handy book covering most of the classic ballet stories. A brief history of the specific ballet precedes the plot and scene synopsis before wrapping up with notes on different productions and tidbits of interest. You will also find a glossary of ballet terms and a ‘View from the Wings’ giving a dancers perspective on the performance. It’s a brilliant book for a quick run down as to what is going on and I highly recommend it for any new to the ballet or those wanting to read a little more background about the dances.
The second ballet book I go to is 101 Stories of the Great Ballets by George Balanchine and Francis Mason, covering a selection of most of the popular ballets both classical and contemporary. It provides a more in depth analysis of the plot lines than the Faber Guide, along with anecdotes and tales from performances Balanchine worked on as choreographer, ballet master and teacher.
My understanding and learning about the ballet has been very much by osmosis, picking things up along the way and chatting to friends about performances, but both these books have definitely helped me to appreciate, or at least try to understand the story being presented.
After seeing a performance of Onegin a few weeks ago, I immediately went to track down a copy of the story told in verse by Alexander Pushkin. Whilst I failed to find a copy on the shelves in Foyles, I did happen across a poetry book by John Burnside, titled ‘All One Breath’ and exploring our shared experience of life and how we are ‘all one breath’. This came home with me instead and a mail order copy of Onegin arrived from Foyles a few days ago, so in amongst the fantastical dance stories which will keep me busy over the next few weeks, I also have some verse to read on my travels back and forth to the ballet.
If you do get the chance to go to the ballet grab it with both hands. Don’t try to read too much into it and don’t worry if you’re not sure what’s going on, just appreciate it for the experience.
The Year in Books is organised by Laura at Circle of Pine Trees. Hop over to join the link-up and see what others have been reading in February.