Go figure: Ballet is at the same time one of the most popular high-culture art forms in America, and one of the most intimidating. Countless pleasure-loving people who go to museums or the opera without a second thought freeze up when it comes to tutu-and-leotard shows. What's the problem - or, as my New York friends say, what's not to like? The answer, so far as I can tell, is twofold: (1) Jargon. (2) "Swan Lake."
Ballet talk is the worst jargon in the world, partly because it's mostly in French and partly because far too many balletomanes (that's ballet talk for dance buffs) use it as an offensive weapon, a way of bludgeoning curious outsiders into submission.
What could be worse than stepping into the lobby at intermission and suddenly finding yourself bombarded with unintelligible talk of epaulement, gargouillades and coupes jetes tournant?
As for "Swan Lake," my theory is that it's done more to scare off potential dancegoers than hundred-dollar tickets. Yes, it's a masterpiece; yes, Tchaikovsky's music is sublime. But it goes on and on and on - and it's full of women pretending to be birds. That may have gone over big in the 19th century, but nowadays, it's more likely to leave first-time dancegoers stone-cold. Yet "Swan Lake" is probably the first famous ballet most people see (not counting "The Nutcracker"), and thus colors their idea of what ballet is all about.
For those readers whose dance education stopped with "Swan Lake," I have an announcement: Ballet is not about birds - it's about handsome men and beautiful women executing intricate steps to gorgeous music. What's more, you don't need to know a word of French to enjoy it.
All you have to do is point your head at the stage and keep your eyes open, and you'll suddenly find yourself thrilling to the most immediately accessible of all art forms. Ballet is romantic, athletic, poignant, and sometimes even side-splittingly funny. And as the great dance critic Edwin Denby once pointed out, "Ballet is the one form of theater where nobody speaks a foolish word all evening - nobody on the stage, at least."
So how do you steer clear of "Swan Lake" without getting your feet wet? A quick trip to your neighborhood bookstore, plus a modest investment in two videocassettes, will show you what ballet is really about. Get it right the first time, and you'll be saying to yourself, just as I did 10 years ago, "Where has this been all my life?"
Here are the only two words you need to memorize in order to get started: George Balanchine (pronounced BAL-an-cheen). Born in Russia in 1904, Balanchine came to New York in 1933, where he started the first important ballet school in America (the School of American Ballet) and the most important ballet company in the world (New York City Ballet).
By the time of his death in 1983, he was universally acknowledged as the greatest choreographer of the 20th century. Fourteen years later, every major ballet company in America dances his ballets, which come in all flavors, ranging from tough-minded, arrestingly angular main courses like "The Four Temperaments" and "Stravinsky Violin Concerto" to spun-sugar desserts like "Stars and Stripes" (set to the music of John Philip Sousa) and "Western Symphony" (in which the dancers don cowboy clothes).
Instead of making the full-evening bird ballets beloved of Russian choreographers, Balanchine specialized in plotless one-act dances which dispose of story and scenery in order to focus more tightly on the essence of ballet: movement and music. "When you have a garden full of pretty flowers," he said, "you don't demand of them, 'What do you mean? What is your significance?' You just enjoy them. So why not just enjoy ballet in the same way?" Yet most of his dances, even the plotless ones, are at bottom about the mystery of romantic love, and are all the more powerful because the romance is implied, not stated.
George Balanchine's story is told clearly and accessibly in Bernard Taper's "Balanchine: A Biography" (University of California Press, 458 pages, $15.95 paper). This profusely illustrated book, based on a series of articles originally published in the New Yorker, brings its subject to life in all his glorious eccentricity, and tells you everything you need to know in order to start looking at his ballets.
A year in the life
Joseph Mazo's "Dance Is a Contact Sport" (Dacapo, 313 pages, $9.95, paper) is the ideal companion volume to "Balanchine: A Biography." In the spring of 1973, Balanchine gave Mazo unrestricted backstage entree to New York City Ballet. He spent the following year observing the company at work and play, attending rehearsals and performances, interviewing everybody from ballerinas to rehearsal pianists and - most important - watching Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, the company's second-in-command, at work.