Ballet 101: Dispelling myths for newcomers and skeptics

The artistic director of The Washington Ballet and some of the company’s performers give a beginner’s guide to watching and understanding ballet. (Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

Here’s a simple truth for all the skeptics, the people who have never watched a ballet and have no intention to, or those who went to “The Nutcracker” once and checked it off their list of things to never do again:

Ballet is more than layers of tulle and satin shoes. It’s ripples of muscle, explosive athleticism and inexplicably moving stories.

Ballet is “like the English language, which can be used by Shakespeare and by Emily Dickinson and by Ernest Hemingway, but also by MAD Magazine and ‘Family Guy,’ ” says Washington Ballet artistic director Septime Webre. “It’s very pliable.”

If you’re still not swayed, there are at least four chances in the coming weeks to be convinced. American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet and Russian National Ballet Theatre are all coming to town. And our acclaimed resident company, the Washington Ballet, also takes the stage, bringing back an old favorite and presenting a world premiere.

So step away from the stereotypes and read on for solid evidence of why the common misconceptions about ballet are bunk.

It’s froufrou

Even dancers who retired their pink slippers at age 7 know that ballet isn’t just an art form, but also a sport. Ballet dancers need to leap like LeBron and spin like Ronaldo while also keeping rhythm, telling stories and conveying emotion. Those men in tights? The sartorial choice only highlights their extreme athleticism and eye-popping quadriceps.

A pro’s schedule is grueling. Between class and rehearsals, dancers spend upward of 35 hours a week working on such steps as pirouettes (spins) and jetes (jumps), and that schedule doesn’t include performances. They also cross-train, pumping iron to prepare for lifting, throwing and catching other dancers, and do cardio to keep from losing their breath under the hot stage lights.

“We’re sprinters,” Webre says. “We do solos that are a minute and a half long, duets that are two to six minutes long. . . . We’re doing very big bursts of energy.”

What to see: Those in search of feats of physicality should get tickets to the New York City Ballet’s performance of “Glass Pieces,” part of one of the company’s mixed-repertory programs (a sampling of shorter works). Set to a repetitive and minimalist yet haunting score by contemporary composer Philip Glass, the 1983 piece by choreographer Jerome Robbins is “for somebody that’s not going to be so much into romantic ballet — or, you know, tutus and swans,” says NYCB principal dancer Jared Angle.

The costumes are contemporary, the setting is urban and there are some captivating scenes, including a stunning pas de deux (a type of duet) that unfolds in front of a backdrop of silhouetted dancers moving in unison.

“It has a very sort of New York energy to it,” Angle says. “The last movement of that ballet just builds and builds and builds, and it’s so exciting. For a first-timer, or for somebody you want to introduce to the ballet that might want something with a little more edge, that would be a great piece.”

New York City Ballet, March 26-31 at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600. www.kennedy-center.org. $25-$95.

It doesn’t make sense

Ballet aficionados know the tragic tale of “Giselle” and the climactic shipwreck of “Le Corsaire,” but others might be put off by the unfamiliar narratives, much less pieces with no plot whatsoever. But newcomers needn’t stress over the sequence of events.

“For the first time, don’t try to understand everything,” says Alexander Daev, ballet master of the Russian National Ballet Theatre. “Sit back, listen to the music and watch the dancers, as the choreography and their bodies will tell you the story.”

If being in the dark puts you off, seek out evening-length ballets with strong narrative threads, and keep in mind that ballet doesn’t always mean foreign titles. The National Ballet of Canada, for example, recently brought a spectacular “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” to the Kennedy Center. The Washington Ballet’s recent productions have included such diverse yet familiar titles as “The Great Gatsby,” “Dracula” and “Peter Pan,” which debuted in 2009 and gets a remount in 2014. Part of Webre’s mission is to demystify ballet without dumbing it down.

“I like to present work that represents the best from the canon but also new works that reflect the world around us,” he says. “In that [latter] case, the audience can somehow see themselves onstage more easily and relate to the work.”

What to see: The Washington Ballet is staging adaptations of two famous tales in the coming weeks — “Cinderella” and the world premiere of Webre’s “Hemingway: The Sun Also Rises.” Webre choreographed the fairy tale in a more traditional style with a strong nod to classicism. Yet there’s also comedy, he says. The score is conventional, with music by Sergei Prokofiev. “Hemingway” is less typical, using French cafe music, 1920s jazz and Spanish flamenco to capture the novel’s European settings.

“ ‘Cinderella’ has a kind of classical appeal,” Webre says, “and ‘Hemingway’ is a big new production with a lot of sex appeal.”

The Washington Ballet’s “Cinderella”: Wednesday through March 24 at the Kennedy Center. “Hemingway: The Sun Also Rises”: May 8-12 at the Kennedy Center. 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600. www.kennedy-center.org.
$25-$125.

It’s boring

In a high-tech world that feeds short attention spans, the prospect of sitting for a couple of hours and watching a show without being able to flip the channel or surf to another image might seem daunting. (Not to mention that there is no talking or singing.) Even dancers can sympathize.

“We’re on screens all the time . . . like you can see anything on your phone,” Angle says. “I think sometimes the experience of being in a theater can seem not as exciting. Even for me, [I think], ‘Well I’ve already heard this on my iPod.’ ”

But the doubts tend to fade once the curtain rises.

“There are 100 people onstage and in the orchestra pit doing this thing that only happens once,” Angle says. “You can’t go watch it on YouTube again. That’s what’s so special and relevant. It’s something the performers and the audience collectively share, just one time.”

If concentration is truly cause for concern, consider a mixed-repertory program instead of an evening-length production. That option promises a buffet of dance with a series of shorter pieces, often with an intermission between each work.

What to see: American Ballet Theatre is bringing two programs to the Kennedy Center, including five performances of the classic pirate ballet “Le Corsaire.” But the company’s mixed-rep program will generate more buzz, and not just for those who might lack a singular focus. The program includes the D.C. premiere of “Symphony #9” by the company’s artist-in-residence, Alexei Ratmansky. The work debuted last fall and is the first in a three-part series set to music by Dmitri Shostakovich.

Audiences will get more than a dose of what’s big now, though. The program also features “Symphony in C” by George Balanchine and “The Moor’s Pavane” by José Limón.

In other words: “You’ve got Balanchine, who is legendary,” says Kate Lydon, artistic associate of ABT’s studio company. “And then you have ‘Moor’s Pavane’ which was arguably one of Limón’s most famous works . . . his sort of retelling of Shakespeare’s ‘Othello.’ So it might not be what you expect if you’re expecting tutus, but there’s a great range in that program.”

American Ballet Theatre, April 9-14 at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600. www.kennedy-center.org. $25-$109.

It’s intimidating

How scary can an activity practiced by millions of little girls in tights and leotards really be?

Yet some forms of high art, such as opera and Russian literature, can turn people off. Ballet has that tendency. But watching dance is ultimately no different than going to a play or a concert. And unlike with those endeavors, ballet audiences aren’t expected to participate; the fourth wall is intact.

Not that you should leave your brain at home, but there’s nothing wrong with simply sitting, staring and letting the action and music wash over you. Webre has especially easy-to-follow advice for first-timers: “Enjoy watching these superhuman dancers just move in amazing ways.”

What to see: There’s a reason the classics have endured all these years, and some newcomers might benefit from starting with a mainstay. Russian National Ballet Theatre’s program includes two such beloved ballets — “Giselle” and “Swan Lake.” Daev leans toward the latter for a novice.

“It is a very simple story, and the music is recognizable and very beautiful,” he says.

The soaring “Swan Lake” score by Tchaikovsky — best known in the mainstream for his “Nutcracker” arrangement — is another benefit.

Angle adds: “You’re seeing music that was pretty much meant to be danced to.”

Russian National Ballet Theatre, April 6-7 at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts, 4373 Mason Pond Dr., Fairfax. 888-945-2468. cfa.gmu.edu. $27-$54. (The company also performs April 12 at Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas.)

Washington-area native Stephanie Merry covers movies, theater and art for Weekend and the Going Out Guide. She’s also the section’s de facto expert on yoga, gluten-free dining and bicycle commuting.
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