The Royal Ballet Autumn Season is getting closer and if you are addicted like us then you are probably busy filling your bags with tickets to start it full-throttle. Look away if you belong in this category. This post is for those of you who feel intrigued about going to the ballet, having watched some videos or discussed with friends and heard about their experiences. You feel curious but don’t know what to expect from a ballet performance, how best to prepare (body and mind) or what to do when you get to the theatre. Help is at hand and although we will be focusing on “an evening with the Royal Ballet“, our home company, you can easily apply these guidelines to any other ballet company/theatre.
Before the Performance
Of course the first thing you need is a ticket! The Royal Opera House box office sells tickets to all performances on a season basis (autumn/winter/spring/summer) and those can be purchased in person, by phone or web, the latter being the easiest, most secure and pain free option (unless you are booking on the first day of ticket sales!). If you go in person, the box office assistants will show you a seating chart whereas online you can select your seats from a virtual one. Note that the box office will, by default, always offer you those tickets located in the centre and with 100% unrestricted view, regardless that these may be in row Z. However, there are many “restricted view” seats with better views than those which are central-yet-far (particularly in the amphitheatre area).
Since it is your first time at the ballet, casting will probably not be very important but if you are adamant about seeing the starrier performers, you can ask the box office which casts are more popular.
Do Your Homework
The next step is: “do your research” that’s right research. We cannot recommend it enough, as it will greatly enhance your experience. There is nothing more frustrating than leaving a performance without having understood anything, especially in the case of story-based ballets. Synopses tend to be available in the ballet company’s website, but since they may elude some people, best practice in this information rich era is to go with Google or Wikipedia. You might also like to try our own website – over the next few months we will be boosting the ballet fact cards we have in our Bag of Ballets to feature those to be staged by the Royal Ballet this season. With more time, and if you are a music fan, you can also listen to the ballet score (try Spotify, Last.fm, Pandora, etc.). This is particularly important in plotless ballets which are more focused on the music, for instance as in most ballets by Balanchine. Finally, you can try YouTube for a preview of what you will be seeing.
Arriving at the Performance
It is advisable to arrive at the theatre at least half an hour before the performance (one hour if your tickets are held at the box office). Due to heavy London traffic and lack of parking spots near Covent Garden, going by car is a no-no. If you are a Londoner you probably know the Tube is not reliable and that you should check live updates via Transport for London. On arrival you may want to browse the Royal Opera House Shop, accessible via the Covent Garden market entrance. Here, as well as inside the theatre, you will find ballet programmes (£5) containing the full synopsis, gorgeous pictures, historical notes for the choreographer/composer and full dancer biographies.
There is no dress code at the Royal Opera House, but we are partial to dressing smart, after all this is a night out in town (Ladies, see our “fashion at the ballet” post here. Gents, you can never go wrong with a suit or dressy trousers and a jacket). The rule of thumb is: the more expensive your ticket, the dressier you should look, although there is no need to dust off the old Tux/Evening Gown! The Royal Opera House has a Cloak Room at no extra charge, so you can leave your coat there (if you are coming directly from school/office as we usually are, big bulky bags can also be held there).
After you present your ticket at the entrance your bags will be checked. If you arrived early, you can now have a drink at the Floral Hall (upstairs, in front the Cloak Room) or the Amphitheatre Bar. Announcements are made when it’s time to take your seats. Before you go, pick a free cast sheet from the ushers at the Floral Hall or Amphitheatre end corners where ice cream is sold, to check the latest cast information (since dancers can get ill/injured), as well as performance structure/intervals, duration and credits. Many people don’t usually bother picking one up, but if you decide not to buy a programme (as you feel very confident after all that research!) then glancing over the cast sheet and finding out the performer’s names is the least you can do - just like in a social event, it’s nice to put “a name to a dancer’s face”.
If you arrive late, the ushers will lead you to a room where the live performance is relayed onto a screen. You will be admitted in the auditorium after a suitable pause (usually after the 1st act in a full-length ballet or after the 1st ballet in a mixed bill). If you are early but forgot your ticket, go to the box office and give them your name and credit/debit card, they will be able to get a reprint for you.
During the Performance
The moment you’ve been waiting for! The conductor enters and bows to the audience, a surge of applause, the music starts and the red velvet curtains open to reveal….
… well, this is where your personal experience really starts. The eminent FT critic, Mr. Clement Crisp says that you will know if you like a ballet after 2 minutes of seeing it. Here are just a few of so many things one can look out for during the performance:
- In story based ballets one can focus on how the various characters are interpreted and how the dancers convey their persona through movement. In abstract, plotless pieces, one can focus on how the dancer interprets the music and how this makes you feel.
- The ballet mime: in classical ballets notice how certain actions are represented by mime, which gestures tend to be repeated throughout the performance and how the dancers respond to these gestures. (we will feature more on this topic soon)
- The technical aspects: jumps, spins, lifts, etc. How do these fit within that particular ballet’s context and how they are performed: height, soft landing, precision, quickness, floating (or ballon), grace & elegance of the movements, etc. If there is a large ensemble of dancers (corps de ballet) notice how they move together and whether they dance “as one” in perfect unison.
- The choreography. Which shapes are drawn through dance, how the various dancers come together and what is the overall “look” and “feel”.
- If you are attending a mixed bill, there might be a common theme linking them all (in many occasions the pieces are by the same choreographer, etc). Try to analyse the connections between the different pieces in the programme.
Sometimes dancers will stop after a solo packed with jaw dropping technical feats and the audience will burst into applause. In ballet, unlike classical music concerts or opera, you don’t have to wait for the performance to end to show your appreciation and it is normal to cheer and clap after a particularly well executed variation. However, you should take note of the key applause moments in ballet: at the beginning, when the conductor takes his stand and when the performance restarts after an interval; and at the end, when the company take their bows and during the curtain calls, when the principals and soloists come to thank the public individually.
During the intervals (typically 20-25 mins each) you can leave the auditorium and treat yourself to drinks and nibbles at the Floral Hall (Paul Hamlyn Hall Bar), the Amphi Bar or one of the other smaller restaurants and bars in the theatre. Food can be pre-ordered to be eaten during intervals. Many people choose to gather around the outside the Orchestra Stalls entrance area (the Pit Lobby) to chat and read the programmes.
After the performance
When the ballet ends and after the company takes their bows (reverence), there might be a series of curtain calls, where the principal dancers come to receive further applause, the length of which will depend on how the public gauged that performance, more calls indicating a particularly excellent one. You will see that at this point some people start to rush to the exits, usually those who need to rush back to a train station. Whether you should rush or not is a topic for another post, but it is fun to stay for the calls. Once they are over, you leave the auditorium, pick your coat up and leave.
It is very hard to hail a taxi at the nearby stop in Russell Street, since you will have to compete with many other West End theatre goers just out from their plays and musicals. It is advisable to either pre-book a cab or walk to Holborn to find one. Otherwise, it is best to take the bus or the tube.
We hope that these notes assist in making your evening a very enjoyable experience. We would love to hear from any first timers how your experience was, if you will be going back and why. Best advice is to plunge into it. On your way out, you’ll know exactly what did it for you.