Some would argue that ballet and opera are no longer living arts. That is, they do not affect the cultural landscape in the same way films or other media do. To be sure, a new and excellent ballet can and does affect a number of people and change them, but not society as a whole. It does not seem to be something that the modern mind connects with. Nevertheless, on my honeymoon I went to see a ballet in the amazing 1875 Paris Opera House, the Palais Garnier.
My wife had given me these
tickets during the previous Christmas and we were both excited. Neither of us
had ever seen a live ballet before. Unfortunately, it turned out that the two
seats she was able to score for that night were not adjoining, or even in the
same "box." We split up inside the beautiful old opera house, promising to meet
at intermission. I was immediately struck by the enormous six-ton chandelier,
ornate gold facings, and plush red seats. This was what I expected from a ballet
in Paris, an ancient ritual in a domain of flamboyant riches.
The ceiling, painted more
recently by Mark Chagall, took my breath away. Yellows, reds, blues, and greens
swirled around scenes of Dionysian revelry. Couples embraced and I thought of my
wife, and vainly tried to peer down and around to where I thought her box might
be. Meanwhile, a French family entered the box, and their young daughter
complained that she couldn’t see. So, being the polite gentleman I like to think
of myself as, I let the small girl take my seat. Immediately, I knew I made a
mistake. My view of stage left became partially blocked by a pillar, though if I
leaned out over her I could see more clearly.
The ballet of the day was
Paquita, apparently a typical 19th century production. As the music
struck up, I realized that I did not have a programme, and even if I did, it
would be in French. I certainly had not read up on the ballet, did not know the
libretto, and as the dancers appeared I realized that I was going to have no
earthly idea what was happening.
I could appreciate a few things
immediately, of course. The costumes were bright and colorful, made with care
and extravagance. The dancers themselves performed athletic spins and twirls and
jumps that put pro basketballers to shame. A barbarian like me could wonder at
these marvelous skills, even while remaining in the dark about the
Rather than let myself be swept away by the music and dance moves, I
decided to try to fight my confusion and figure it out. Gypsies, bullfighters,
and soldiers mixed on the stage, all seeming to fight over one Bohemian girl.
The company stood on the edges watching the performance like the chorus in Greek
theater. Groups of children ran across the stage in several scenes and I
wondered how much they understood of what they were doing. I had always enjoyed
the symphony, but here it seemed tangential rather than the primary attraction.
Having attended operas and musicals, I kept expecting the dancers to burst into
song, and their silence baffled me.
The girl in my assigned seat blew her
nose loudly and the mother hit her on the shoulder. Nevertheless, she did it
again, louder. I tried to ignore her and concentrate on the plot. The gypsy girl
has a falling out with a gypsy man. A soldier is much nicer to her and seems
like the hero. The gypsy steals a locket from her. A bald guy in red hangs
around the background, and I surmise he is the devil. The second act is easier
to understand. The gypsy goes to kill someone in a bar. The bald guy, who
appears masked and certainly must be the devil, encourages him. They invite the
soldier in to the table and are going to get him wasted, and then stab
Of course, the girl who loves the soldier isn’t going to let this
happen. They set the table for pasta and meatballs, which I find to be an odd
choice in what I thought was Spain. The gypsy and soldier eat, and the girl
sticks around, even though the gypsy doesn’t want her to. She switches the
glasses, and breaks the bottle "accidentally" so no one can drink more. The
gypsy king drinks while the girl dances around, providing entertainment. The
gypsy keels over, and drops the locket. The girl and soldier grab it and escape
through a magical passage in the chimney.
At intermission I share my
interpretation of the events with my wife, who looks a bit confused herself. She
has been focusing on the technique, the beauty in the dance, and the music. She
mentions the dozens of movements happening at once, the nearly mechanical wonder
of the performance. I shrug. "I still wish I had the libretto."
intermission I can’t locate the right box and only by peeking in through various
curtains to look for the little girl in my old seat do I find it. A ballroom
scene full of soldiers follows. I use my powers of literary analysis and peg
this as "the hero’s return to his world." The girl accuses the bald guy in red,
who is not the devil, but some rival or other lord of the solider. He is dragged
off, looking quite put out. The parents of the hero accept the gypsy girl, and
this has something to do with the locket stolen earlier by the other gypsy.
Perhaps she is not a gypsy after all, and by some 19th century logic is
acceptable in their polite society.
The story is over but the dances
continue, all fairly similar. The music spins like a carousel, round and round.
The last few dances lose narrative coherence and seem completely extraneous. At
this point I realize that the entire story was only an excuse for spectacle,
that Paquita did not strive for emotions like opera, but rather worked as
a feast for the eyes and ears. Was it only this piece? Or do all ballets work
this way? Does that make it better or worse?
Regardless, I had been
entertained trying to figure out the plot, even if it wasn’t important. The
performance also challenged my ideas of what to expect. Don’t those two
characteristics combine to make the "living art" that society needs? Maybe I
wasn’t such a barbarian after all. Maybe there was a place for ballet in the
modern mind. However, as I got up to leave, I noticed the parents of the little
girl in my former seat shaking her. She had fallen asleep.
First published at Hackwriters.