Adventures in Ballet (or, how I grew up and learned to enjoy abstract dance)

This is a part of the dance of Pigling Bland from the Tales of Beatrix Potter ballet. There aren’t really the words for how much I love this ballet. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t watch it. It is entirely possible it was the toddler equivalent of catnip for me, along with Bagpuss and Brian Cant telling stories on the BBC. I grew up on Beatrix Potter – and on going to the ballet. If you played me the audio for the whole of Pigling Bland’s dance, I could tell you the story every musical passage of the way.

When I was old enough to go to the ballet it was Saturday matinees, the occasional classic like Swan Lake or Coppelia, but mostly newer one-act ballets in a mixed bill. There were things I loved (the dancers, the stories, the music) – including the whole experience of ‘The Trip to The Ballet.’ But I couldn’t have told you what I liked about the dance – the process of movement to music.

By and large, I still couldn’t.

I still love the experience of going to the ballet (and before you ask, I’ve never been a dress up for the ballet kind of girl – I go in jeans, thank you). And I’ve carried on going, even without my mummy taking me. I get tickets for the cheap seats and sit in the back of the auditorium of the ROH or Sadlers Wells, and I thoroughly enjoy myself. But why? Beyond the fact that I’ve always gone, and ballet is something ‘I know I like’?

Well, the starting place may be that I like stories (books, theatre, film) – and because I’ve been watching ballet all my life, stories told in dance just make sense to me. A classical story-ballet is easy to understand and easy on the eye, if you grew up with it (and especially if you had all the tales in book and audiobook form as well, along with the music). I read ballet more easily than I read comic books, say, (also a visual storytelling experience) because I learnt how. The telling of the drama in movement and music works for – and while generally I dont respond as emotionally to ballet as to film – one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve ever seen is Alina Cojocaru dancing the end of the first act of Giselle. This is the balletic equivalent of Shakespeare the way it’s meant to be done.


Yet I’ve rarely moved beyond classical ballet. There were a few more recent full-length ballets I enjoyed (Hobson’s Choice, last years Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland at the Royal Ballet), as well as several of the more humourous one acts (Elite Syncopations, Still Life at the Penguin Cafe, Nutcracker Sweeties) – and by virtue of living in London I’ve been able to broaden what I’ve seen. But still, I generally haven’t veered towards contemporary dance or abstract ballet.

I did ‘stage’ (contemporary dance) alongside my ballet and tap lessons as a kid (till I was about nine) – but we didn’t really see abstract classical or contemporary dance. Very few companies toured to Cornwall – most of what I saw before the mid-90s was done by the Birmingham Royal Ballet or Northern Ballet at Plymouth’s Theatre Royal, and it was farly traditional. I can’t blame them – we were lucky they toured and they wanted to fill as theatre as much as possible. Later came Rambert, occasionally, but I’ve never actually seen them.

But this year I’ve reached a point where I’ve seen a lot of the classical repertoire, and it’s time to expand my later twentieth century choreographers beyond Ashton and Bintley, or ask if I really like the dance or just the experience of going to the ballet. I don’t think there’d be a problem with the latter – I’d probably just try to spend less money tickets. So I’ve seen a bunch of stuff this year. Macmillan has cropped up a few times on programmes – and I’ve enjoyed it. I want to see Meyerling. I also want to go and see some studio stuff off the main strage (but it costs more, woe). I’ve realised that the traditional Sleeping Beauty as the Royal Ballet perform it is bloody long and periodically quite dull. I may never choose to see it again, in favour of dancing around my kitchen to the waltz and experimenting with Matthew Bourne’s new version next month.

And tonight was my first mixed bill of entirely contemporary choreographers dealing in abstract dance. Viscera / Infra / Fool’s Paradise (Liam Scarlett, Wayne McGregor and Christopher Wheeldon) at the Royal Ballet. Here’s a chunk of Infra:


I’m not going to lie – it was pretty hard work. By the time I got into Fool’s Paradise I was really glad of Joby Talbot’s beautiful music. The problem with abstract dance is that like anything abstract-arty, you kind of have to have some terms of reference – and while I learned to read ballet stories, I didn’t really learn to read dance. I’m learning that now – or I have to if I want to get something more than ‘pretty movement, pretty music’ out of regular evenings like tonight. Then you have to not think about it too much – because if you think about it, you stop really seeing and feeling what you’re watching. Ballet kind of needs to go through your subconscious, not your conscious, I think. I’m in some awe of ballet critics who can tell you what’s going on and develop aesthetic criteria, and write about dance in an intelligent and intelligible way. At the same time, my brain feels really stretched in a good way, which it isn’t always by the ballet. I really enjoyed the power and the delicacy of Viscera and the strangeness and singularities of Infra – as well as what Wayne McGregor was trying to do fusing art and dance to think about sameness & individuality without language. And I think I would enjoy seeing Fool’s Paradise again – just not at the end of a full-on mixed bill like this.

It doesn’t mean I’m abandoning my old preferences (I do hear people getting snotty about traditional dance), I think there’s a lot to be said for just relaxing and enjoying a lovely Nutcracker or Cinderella, and I’ll be at Swan Lake on Thursday to see Alina Cojocaru dance. But if anyone wants to go see Rambert, I’m in.

Oh, and for fun – some of Still Life at the Penguin Cafe:

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