What is ballet all about?

I learnt ballet all my life, but I got caught up in thoughts when I came across the question, “What is ballet about?”

I suppose it depends on the context of asking this question.

My mind snapped back to BP Summer Screen at Trafalgar Square last month. It was a live screening of Royal Ballet’s “Metamorphosis: Titian” from the Royal Opera House. The show was something about dance and some paintings, and maybe some big names in ballet involved but as usual, I didn’t care finding out more.

Whilst I sat there and watched, I figured out nothing and thought, “This must be the dullest thing I’ve ever seen.” It was unfair, of course, as most importantly the performance was mediated. There were some really poor camera choices (I wonder who directed them), for example the set was eliminated most of the time when Carlos Acosta was on stage (am I watching a ballet or a person?).

The environment also became an issue. There was a festival-like atmosphere – people sat on the floor, eased into their most relaxed position, had food and drinks, a small minority chatted and laughed. It was real people out there but I was very uncomfortable because what the ballet was saying does not concern us or even me as a dance lover. I asked:

  • What is the purpose of having this outdoor screening?
  • Why this particular production?
  • From whose perspective this ballet is presented?
  • What is the narrative behind the camera choices?
  • How does the narrative achieve the purpose of the screening?

Having this experience in mind, my answer to the question “what ballet is about” is that it is an art from and for a social class that I am not from. To me it becomes self-concerned, inward-looking and soulless. In other words it is a dance form more than a language.

Which makes me really sad because I love ballet classes. I don’t know where the disconnection of being a participant and an audience came about. Is it because the language itself is too closely associated to the class? Is it because when a choreographer speak the language, there is nothing else s/he can speak of apart from words and content that are in that class? Would ballet be trying too hard if it is trying to be what it is not? (Thinking beyond, do all codified dance forms share the same concern?)

(The only ballet that I remember seeing and thinking “wow, this is great.” was Forsythe’s Artifact performed by Royal Ballet of Flanders. Why?)

When a codified (normally defined as “classical”) form tries to be contemporary (term “contemporary”, means, “relevant”? But relevant to who?), perhaps it is much more about the vocabulary (the form), it is also something else: the content (what is being said), the expression (how it is being said).

“Our culture does not really understand what ballet is about. They think it is girly and unmanly. It is more passionate and as physically demanding as football or boxing.” – Ayman Safiah on First Palestinan Male Ballet Dancer battles prejudices