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Ballet Myths Busted

by Emilia on December 10, 2009

Things have changed a lot in the last century in terms of technological advances and ways to exchange information. This means people have changed as well, with new generations becoming harder to impress and more likely to spend time in front of the TV or computer where everything can be found at the click of a button,  their attention spans increasingly shorter. This also means that the arts have had to adapt to this new era, juggling the interests of established audiences with a desire to attract new ones.

Ballet in particular has been faced with various dilemmas. In addition to arts budgets which stifle creativity in favour of bankable productions, preconceptions about the art form have been passed on from one generation to the next, resulting in core audiences largely formed by the wealthy and/or the senior. However, ballet companies continue to seek new and younger ballet audiences, making increased use of social media channels. This week, for instance, the Royal Opera House announced the launch of a new iTunes channel where ballet and opera masterclasses and other educational videos can be downloaded into one’s iPod within seconds (and free of charge).

These new avenues will not necessarily change the mindsets of those who are used to associating ballet with snobbery and inaccesibility but at least they make it easier for all of us to try. And try we must. In this post we take a stab at tackling some of the biggest misconceptions about ballet. We challenge those of you who have never been to a performance to try it (and do tell us about it ). It is never too late and you might be – positively – surprised.

Myth #1

Ballet is all about old fashioned tales of Nutcrackers, Sleeping Beauties and Swan Lakes. It revolves around princes and fairies, tutus and men in tights.

First things first: Princesses in tutus are 19th century ballet symbols. While it’s true that ballet companies still go back to the bankability of old classics, especially in our credit crunched times, ballet did manage to evolve beyond that garment over the years. A revolution took place when Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes steamrolled their own artistic movement out of Russia, spreading their view of dance as art and as a way of life in the early 20th century, nurturing revolutionary minds that had a long-lasting impact on the art. If tutus are not your thing, don’t despair, there are plenty of alternatives.

Your Prescription: Go see a full length MacMillan ballet. Try a Balanchine Black and White (ie. pared down) ballet such as Agon or The Four Temperaments.

Watch the documentary “The Story of Ballets Russes” this Friday on BBC4.

Myth #2

All ballets are the same, if you don’t enjoy one then ballet is definitely not for you

As one of our Twitter buddies, Robbintheoffice, puts it: if you go see a movie and don’t enjoy it, you don’t stop going to the cinema altogether, right? But for some people, one ballet they don’t like will be enough to put them off for life. Before you decide that ballet is definitely not for you try at least a few different styles and schools. If you don’t like a 19th century classic or a Romantic ballet maybe you will like a MacMillan ballet. If you are not keen on narrative ballet perhaps abstract plotless works might win you over? Mix and match.

Your Prescription: A mixed bill containing at least one contemporary or new work to give you a flavor for which style may suit you best.

Edward Watson in Glen Tetley's Sphinx, part of a Mixed Bill. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

Myth #3

Ballet is too expensive

Ballet can be expensive but so can theatre and musicals. If you can afford tickets for U2 or Madonna, Hairspray or Legally Blonde The Musical, then ballet prices should not come as a shock. The key is to book as early as possible (first day of public booking) or as late as possible (day tickets and returns). Depending on the ballet, you should be able to find a mid-range seat for less than £50. For as little as £20 you can grab a seat in the amphiteatre sides or – if you are not keen on heights – stalls circle benches with restricted views are generally good value for money. For the price of a cinema ticket you can bag a supervalue day standing place or perhaps even a ticket for the ballet at your local cinema screen.

Your Prescription: Experiment with different amphiteatre seats or stalls circle bench seats to see which suit you best. Buy very early or very late. Read this post.

Myth #4

Ballet is formal, snobbish, elitist & not for young people

Fair enough, classical ballet does draw formal, older crowds especially in the area around the Stalls and Grand circles. But this should not intimidate you, there will be representatives of every kind of demographics in the house, from Bermuda guys to Oscar de la Renta ladies. And if you attend a Wayne McGregor premiere at the Royal Opera House you could gather enough material for an anthropological study about diversity in ballet audiences, quite the opposite of your preconception.

Your Prescription: any work by Wayne McGregor, David Bintley’s Cyrano, or Wheeldon’s company Morphoses. Read this post about dress codes, etc. at Intermezzo blog.

Federico Bonelli and Sarah Lamb in Wayne McGregor's stylish Chroma. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH ©

Myth #5

Ballet is boring, sickly sweet, definitely not cool

As we said before: different ballets for different people. Are there sickly sweet ballets? Yes. Boring ballets? Most definitely. But what I might find sickly or boring is completely different to what the person next to me will. If you want your ballets loaded with substance you might want to start with something dramatic like Manon or Mayerling, the anthitesis of sweet. Or if you want to explore something that looks sweet but which can still punch you in the gut you can try Bournonville’s La Sylphide. If you are looking for purely cool, then try modern ballets by edgy choreographers.

Your Prescription: Birmingham Royal Ballet’s E=mc2 (one of the coolest things we saw this year) Wayne McGregor, Michael Clark Company, the Ballet Boyz.

Gaylene Cummerfield, Tom Rogers & Matthew Lawrence in Bintley's E=mc2. Photo: Bill Cooper / BRB ©

Myth #6

Ballet is not for men, it’s a girly thing

Actually most of the 20th century was dominated by superstar male dancers: Baryshnikov anyone (if you don’t know much about ballet you will at least have heard of him in Sex and The City)? Dancers like him were instrumental in inspiring future generations of male ballet dancers. Don’t believe us? Then follow the various male dancers and male ballet enthusiasts on Twitter, there are quite a few of them sharing their experiences from both sides of the curtain.

Your Prescription: Read this post written by a guy about going to the ballet for the first time. Go see a Carlos Acosta & Friends show or watch Acosta dancing Spartacus, the balletic equivalent of Russell Crowe in Gladiator (it’s available on DVD).

Male Power: Carlos Acosta as Des Grieux in MacMillan's Manon. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

Myth #7

One needs to understand ballet in depth in order to enjoy it

Another cool thing about ballet (by the way, have we mentioned that we think ballet is cool?) is that it can be understood in many ways, there are no rules, nothing prescribed about what you should be taking away from a performance. Of course preparation pays off, especially when it comes to narrative or semi-narrative ballets. Reading the story and knowing a bit of the background will help, though it is by no means mandatory. An eye for detail helps too but, most of all, you will need an open and contemplative mind.

Your Prescription: A bit of googling before a performance goes a long way. Try to read the reviews (but try not to be too influenced by them), see what people are saying about the ballet you are planning to see on different social media channels and forums or – shameless promotion – over here at The Ballet Bag.

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{ 8 comments }

Tom December 11, 2009 at 4:30 am

Technological information might have changed a few things – and one of them is the ability to pass on your thoughts on something you’ve watched, seen, been involved in.
That can be a film, TV show, or ballet performance.

As Gary Vaynerchuck well pointed out – if you want ROI conversion, Word of mouth is up in the 80% mark. If a friend enthuses a lot about something that interests you, and you have the money, then 8 in 10 will go do it.
See him for the references on this.

Harder to impress? Well yeah, for £30-50 pounds it isn’t an impulse buy to most young people!

At that price in other areas, you’re near certain the person has interacted with the community, and bought/listened to/watched other performances at a lower cost.
You usually see a live gig for the £30-50 *after* you’ve listened to the band beforehand. Or watched the music videos online. Why else would you splash out? Maybe word of mouth, your other half dragging you, a *damn* fine review?

Has the arts truly adapted to this new era? Where’s the interaction with the audience? Where’s the community?
Watch Gary Vee’s talk at le web. He’s talking in terms that are relevant to art as much as other business forms.
http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/2851904

Does the art world fall between two stools trying to be in the middle of “juggling the interests of established audiences with a desire to attract new ones”?

Stifled creativity? Seeing the same ballet productions mentioned – a seemingly inpernetrable lingo and set of productions? Finding it hard to understand what it’s all about?
I’d imagine ballet has these issues just as (modern) art can have. Opera is another good example.

Maybe those preconceptions are there, because they haven’t been rebutted, challenged and defeated. They’re still there, no?
Is your core audience older, and going to look down on the other younger audience you want to capture?

Maybe you can do events in different ways? Does Ballet need to be in a theatre? Where’s the outreach to the audience?
The ROH iTunes step is a step in teh right direction.

What does it take to change the mindset that ballet is snobbish and inaccessible? maybe just working hard on being less snobbish, more accessible? The mindset is a very flexible thing – Word of mouth can change this.
Friends tell friends. Girlfriends bring boyfriends. Tutors recommend to pupils. Parents bring children.

>We challenge those of you who have never been to a >performance to try it (and do tell us about it ). It is never >too late and you might be – positively – surprised.

Just to be cheeky – but the word challenge is an interesting one.

You want outreach? How about taking a leaf from Ross Noble and others who’ve done telestreaming – using cinemas to project a live feed from an event? Bring ballet to the big screen, in a comfy cinema, where it’s more accessible, the price would likely be cheaper, and maybe a more mixed audience might attend (it’s likely more local for a start).

Make it a national day/week – do it one cinema chain.
get reviews from people who the target market trusts. Get reviews in places, papers, sites etc that these people use.

Myth #1

>Ballet is all about old fashioned tales of Nutcrackers, Sleeping Beauties and Swan Lakes. It revolves around princes and fairies, tutus and men in tights.

What’s the breakdown of sales for the top 10 productions. Where do NutCracker, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty fit in this top 10?
If they’re high, then the presumption that these productions are important are true. Not necessarily saying that it’s all about them, but that there may be a select number of performances – “bankable productions”. Are many women in tutus, and men in tights in ballet or not? Just wondering ;)

Great counterpoint to bring examples to try. Will look at the documentary “The Story of Ballets Russes” this Friday on BBC4.

Myth #2

All ballets are the same, if you don’t enjoy one then ballet is definitely not for you

It’s not the content that’s the same, it’s the venue, cost, environment, potential accessibility to what the thing means etc.
If you go see a French movie, and don’t understand it, you might not watch as much international film. But you’d still watch other films. Just not that genre. Ballet is an entertainment genre. A subset. Depending on how much a person is offput or turned on by something affects their future likelihood of
a) seeing more
b) changing their position/being more flexible about giving it another shot.

Feeling confused, looked down upon, paying for something but not being able to get the value from it (and thus getting low VFM) are all potent things. These hit emotions, and the pocket.
£40 is a concert and drinks and dancing all night with friends. It’s a movie and meal for 2. It’s a computer game. A book, a card. It’s a tank of petrol. What’s the mileage they’ll get out of ballet?

Is a person likely to have gemmed up on styles of ballet before seeing something? Should they have an onus on them to learn the styles, schools?
What’s the way a young person can now, today, learn about different styles? Where’s the 3-5 minutes youtube video showing styles, with commentary. Where’s the trailers for ballet? Where’s the web page showing with a decent layout, graphics, links to reviews for ballet?

Where’s the gateway ballet? The introduction? Or should the audience being talked about jump straight into the hardcore?

Myth #3 Ballet is too expensive

It is expensive. It’s all about value for that expense.

What’s the likelihood people getting any of the given examples (U2, Madonna, Hairspray, legally Blonde) haven’t either watched/listened to the music/movie/DVD before, or is going with someone who has?

And you’re wanting someone an audience ill familiar with ballet to proactively search themselves in order to get the early seats? Last of all works better.
Where’s the NUS discount? Or priority/ring fencing for new folk? Where are the taxi drivers in dance speak?

Myth #4

Ballet is formal, snobbish, elitist & not for young people

Sounds like the post all but acknowledges this. Yes, but don’t be intimidated? Hmmmm. Change your dress code. Look up the rules regulations. Change yourself. Then you’ll fit right in?

Would you see the older crowd at theatres doing this when coming into the world of the younger not so familiar with ballet’s world? There’s casual, smart casual, and then there’s smart, and full dress.

Myth #5

Ballet is boring, sickly sweet, definitely not cool

If there’s different ballet for different people – what’s the penetration of this message, and also availability, accessibility to the desired audience?

See for me, it took a while – but e=mc2 sounds interesting. edgy choreographer? sounds more my thing.

Myth #6 Ballet is not for men, it’s a girly thing

It isn’t a myth, it’s a sterotyping. Is it stereotypically masculine to go see ballet? It is more or less masculine to go see ballet over a U2 concert, a night out etc?

Ballet the performance can be dominated by blokes, but the stereotype is about seeing it, no?

Myth #7 One needs to understand ballet in depth in order to enjoy it

No. But as said – “Of course preparation pays off, especially when it comes to narrative or semi-narrative ballets.”

People new to the genre maybe aren’t used to comprehending a performance without words so much? A story without words.

Your Prescription: A bit of googling before a performance goes a long way. Try to read the reviews (but try not to be too influenced by them), see what people are saying about the ballet you are planning to see on different social media channels and forums or – shameless promotion – over here at The Ballet Bag.

Definitely agreed. But then maybe this info could be accessed more easily, bundled, linked to, from the site of the performance, or the gateway site?

I think there’s a hell of a lot to get from ballet, and lots of hard work to make it more accessible. Hope it doesn’t come across as criticism – I’m just commenting from the perspective of a bloke who hadn’t really seen ballet before.

In the end, a former girlfriend raved about The Trocs. Showed me a youtube video of them. saw it was acessible, hilarious, and seriously good performance. Boom. Banked in the memory. When they next came, I went to the ballet for the first time, as a surprise for my partner also. Thoroughly enjoyable. And you know what? The Trocs highlight what a normal lay audience member might see weird, or different in ballet?
The performance empathised, connected to the audience. In a sense, more real by not being “real ballet”, in the same way say Jon Stewart does so for many in the UK, US – doing news better than the news itself. And it doesn’t have to be simple, or condescending.

ANyhow, first time reading the blog, will have a look at your examples given – deserves a second look. Though i’d of course enjoy the ease of just clicking on youtube links to the mentioned performances….. ;)

youdancefunny December 11, 2009 at 8:32 am

Great post!

I don’t know how things are in the UK, but it’s worth mentioning that in the US many places (even the Kennedy Center in Washington DC which always gets the major touring companies like Kirov, Bolshoi and Royal Ballet) have student rush tickets to fill in leftover seats before the show. This is something local companies do as well, and it’s possible to get student tickets for as little as $10 (errr…£16) if you buy them at the door 1-2 hours before the performance. Not guaranteed…but for that price? I’ll take it! There’s some thrill in the chase too, and with season ticket holders sometimes in absence and whatnot, they fill in the better seats first.

Also, to the poster above, people ARE trying to bring live ballet broadcasts as well as regular screenings to the theaters. I believe in the upcoming months the Royal Ballet’s Mayerling will be shown in select theaters (I’ve been looking for information because it’s supposed to be released in the US but I can’t find anything…poor advertising!) and they do a couple of ballets a year (unfortunately, it’s always a Nutcracker, and usually a Swan Lake). Hopefully things will be better organized in the future…all I could find was a release date for MAyering (in 2 days!) but no theater’s website has any show times or anything. Pity…I want to see Ed Watson!

Benita December 12, 2009 at 2:19 am

To the giant commenter: good points but you are dead wrong about there being a dress code for the ballet, I wish there was. I live in NYC and I have attended performances where people have worn denim cut offs, swear suits, old jeans etc to performances. It’s good to dress up every now and then, it helps to make you feel good about yourself and where you are going, I’m not asking for men to be in tuxedos and women in full gowns but a nice dress shirt for men with a clean pair of slacks is NOT ASKING TOO MUCH. Grow up and dress like an adult when you go out, everyplace is not the mall, dress accordingly.

Tom December 14, 2009 at 11:18 am

Great to hear about use of cinema for ballet :) Also, yes, maybe there isn’t so much of a dress code. Hard to shake those myths, and I count myself suitably reminded hehe.

Kat February 24, 2011 at 12:27 pm

you guys have such looooooooonnnnnnnnggggggg comments.

Emilia February 24, 2011 at 12:35 pm

Haha, not typically – elsewhere on the site they tend to be short & sweet – but this thread did start with a “giant commenter” as Benita says above ;)

Dana February 17, 2012 at 2:13 pm

Dear Ballet Ladies,

I LOVE your blog. I’m doing a school project on the changing face of ballet, namely adult beginners, and I was wondering if I could interview the two of you, by e-mail or Skype. I really hope you’ll repsond back because I think that you have a unique, fresh perspective that deserves to be part of the conversation on what ballet is and isn’t.

Best,
Dana

Emilia February 21, 2012 at 12:40 am

Dear Dana,

Thanks for getting in touch & for the lovely feedback – please do drop us a line ( theballetbag @ gmail.com ) with more details on your project & how we can help. Best of luck with everything, E&L

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