Your wife walks into the room and announces, “I got us tickets to the ballet!” Or maybe your boyfriend surprises you with a romantic date to see the Nutcracker. Either way, your heart starts jumping a little faster when you hear this news, not just because you’re excited to spend time with your significant other, but also because you’ve never been to a ballet before.
Maybe you think dance is weird. Maybe you think ballet is only for stodgy patrons who can rattle off wine characteristics just as easily as a list of Puccini operas. However, ballet is for everyone, and there’s no need to be nervous about watching a performance of this beautiful, inspiring, and even provocative art form.
The first thing you need to know about going to the ballet for the first time is that, aside from story ballets like Swan Lake and Nutcracker, there are often several different sections of one program. The individual ballets can be referred to as “works” or “pieces,” but they are rarely called “dances.” The person who put together the steps is the choreographer, and the dancers in the company are the artists.
It might be helpful to do a little bit of research online about the ballet you’re seeing, just to get acquainted with some of the faces and the style of the repertory that’s being performed. At the least you’ll want to know if it’s a contemporary or classical work, so that you don’t sit down expecting Sleeping Beauty when out dash half-clad dancers with strips of mesh for a modern premiere.
Now, when the big night arrives, be sure to dress appropriately. Ballet is nowhere near as formal as opera, but it does demand a certain level of attire. Regular jeans will turn heads, but so will a lavish ball gown. Settle for something in-between, like what you might wear to a church service, but feel free to go more glamorous if you can pull it off elegantly. Heels trump Birkenstocks every time.
When you get to the theatre, provided that you’ve left enough time, wander around and take in the sights. Part of going to the ballet is the atmosphere, and that includes people-watching. There may be some sort of food and drink enterprise that’s owned by the theatre (usually with wine and cookies) so don’t try to bring your own refreshments. An opera house should not be treated the same as a movie theatre.
Basic courtesy rules apply once you’re in the “house,” or the auditorium area, so find your seat quietly and on time, then settle back to read the program. You’ll get information about where the dancers are from, the history behind the ballets being performed, and maybe some news about other local arts organizations. Once the lights start to dim, put your program down. It’s time for the magic to start!
You may hate the ballet, or you may love it. You may not understand it but still be fascinated by it. There’s no telling what kind of reaction the art will provoke in you. You know what? That’s the point. Art can be interpreted any way you want. Just make sure to keep your comments to yourself until after the work is over, and then you are free to discuss.
Once the ballet ends, pause. Take a breath and think about what you just saw. The purpose of this is not only so you can formulate your opinions but also so that you won’t be part of the herd shoving towards the parking garage. Getting out is not a race, and leaving early isn’t polite.
In fact, if you wait a little longer than everyone else, you might see the dancers heading out from the stage door. Don’t give an effusive critique of their performance, especially if the only technical terms you know are “pirouette” and “jump-thingy,” but they would always appreciate a kind word. A monetary donation to the ballet company, once you’ve gotten home, would be even better. There is some truth to the starving-artist stereotype.
Attending your first ballet doesn’t have to be an embarrassing or confusing excursion. With a little bit of research and an open mind, you can enjoy it immensely, whether you’re seeing the Nutcracker or William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. But even if you don’t end up being a season ticket holder, your attendance is still a cause for applause.