I just don’t get classical ballet. I have tried, really. Last night I went to see the Royal Ballet performing a triple bill choreographed by Kenneth MacMillan. The first piece was set to Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto, with dancers in bright leotards variously creating military-style manoeuvres in groups or soloing with mechanical gestures and odd little flicky movements. This was all to the accompaniment of the rich, rambunctious score that veers between extreme beauty, comedy and passion. For the ballerinas’ purpose it had to be played metronomically and slow beyond endurance.
Ballet seems to be comparable to classical music in that it involves a specific language and a set of conventions, but what struck me was how little room for expression that language allows. The corps dancers are judged on their conformity and accuracy and the leads present as robotic, inhuman, although with incredible levels of control and artistry. String playing demands similar levels of discipline and craft, and orchestral players of course must conform to a degree, but not in such a complete, passive way. I was struck by the sheer joylessness of the dancing, which bore no correlation at all to the power of the music that swept around the opera house.
The second piece was The Judas Tree, a difficult, dark ballet about gang rape set to music by Brian Elias. Here at least the music and the action worked together, but I still found the language of the movement uninvolving, despite such a charged plot. It came as a relief then to get to the third piece, a series of dances set to ragtime music, with members of the Royal Opera House orchestra up on stage in brightly coloured costumes.
Here it seems that ballet dancers suffer from the same syndrome as many classical musicians – when you spend your life practising to play or dance in time, it’s becomes very difficult to pull off other styles, such as rags, convincingly. How many string quartets and soloists have I heard trying to play jazz, without the fundamental freedom and looseness that is necessary. The dancing was beautiful and elegant and disciplined, but I found it rigid and soulless. I just longed for Gene Kelly to come bounding across the stage with his great big grin to show them how dance can be an expression of the sheer joy and exuberance of life. Or of sadness, or passion, or lust; whatever, just as long as it expresses something, in the way that classical music does.
Is it just that I don’t speak the language well enough to be moved by this experience? In case it is, I will persevere, but in the meantime, I think I’ll spend Easter watching Singing in the Rain, and possibly dancing round my front room to Shostakovich.