July 29, 2012

My awkward relationship with ballet

Today, opera-lovers, let us turn our attention to an art form that plays an important role in music drama: ballet.  Okay, maybe not in Lucia di Lammermoor. Or Tosca. Or Fidelio. And by the way, Richard Wagner, if you had such a "thing" about being all gasamt-y with your kunstwerk, how come none of your Valkyries are wearing tutus, hmmm?  Forgot about the whole dance thing, didja?  Good job. You rock.

Three-three in a tutu...  (get it?)
But of course, innumerable operas, and virtually all the French ones, devote at least one scene to dance of some type or other.  And in this post, I fear I must lower myself in the esteem of you, my loyal weekly readers.  I have a confession to make, and already I sense your respect for me draining out of the very pores of your epidermis.

I have a li'l attitude problem with ballet.  There.  I said it.

You know, a lot of my job description at Virginia Opera consists of giving lectures, talks and classes explaining opera to people who don't really like opera very much.  I never lose patience with these Unenlightened Ones; I understand and sympathize.  You see, while I am somewhat knowledgeable about ballet and appreciate the immense skill of its practitioners, I just don't enjoy it as I should.

Ballet performances have many elements in common with opera: the sets look like opera sets, they've got an orchestra in the pit, - it has the look and feel of a music drama.  The prima ballerina makes a dramatic entrance just like a prima donna:  "Look!  There she is!  Stage left - behold her beauty and charisma!!"  It's at this point they lose me.  Why doesn't she sing?  She just stands there, posing, and then she begins leaping around, or doing that kind of ostrich-walk thing ballerinas do when they do their dancey version of walking.

Whassamatter - you forget the words?  Cat got your tongue?  C'mon, woman, SING!!  Open your mouth and WARBLE A TUNE!!  ..........But she doesn't.  None of them do.  They just dance.  <sigh>

I will now share a painful anecdote from my youth with you. Perhaps the trauma of this incident from some forty years ago will help explain my highly inappropriate attitude towards ballet. As a freshman music major at the School of Music at Indiana University in Bloomington, I faced the unpleasant duty of taking a mandatory Phys. Ed. class.  I am the least athletic of men (childhood asthma kept me from trying my hand at sports; that, plus hours a day of piano practice) and had no taste for soccer or archery or any similar courses.  Looking over the catalogue, a class caught my eye:  Beginning Ballet.

"Well, there you go", I thought, "I shall dabble in ballet.  After all, am I not a man of culture? One who appreciates beauty and artistic expression, yea, in all its earthly manifestations? Indeed I am. I shall embark upon a study of The Dance and, hence, become the well-rounded, culturally literate gentleman I was destined to be from birth."

Oy - had I only realized what lay ahead.

I promptly purchased the required dance clothes and shoes.  When the first day of class arrived, I decided to dress in my dorm room and put my street clothes on over them, saving time when I arrived at the ballet studio.  When I got there, I simply hung up my jeans and shirt in a locker and, trying to muster a facade of utter cool and savoir-faire, strolled out onto the dance floor.

The first thing I noticed caused my cheeks to burn with embarrassment:  there were about thirty students milling around waiting for class to begin.........

.......and I was the only guy.

Ruh-roh - what had I gotten myself into?  Now, understand: today, this would be a dream scenario for your friendly blogger Glenn.  One fella surrounded by a veritable gaggle of attractive young co-eds?  Yes, please. But I was inexperienced and awkward around girls at age eighteen, and I could not have been more intimidated.

But worse was still to come.

A male instructor passed by, and in one glance I realized I had made a cataclysmic error, one I might never live down.  The instructor wore his dance belt UNDER his tights.  Not like me, who put on the tights first, and then the dance belt over them, for all to see.

How could I have been so obtuse, so idiotic, you ask?  I do have an excuse.  Think about all the super-heroes of TV and movies:  don't Batman and Superman wear their dance-belt-thingies outside their tights?

They do.

How was I to know?

Once I made the surreptitious adjustment to my wardrobe, class began, which brought me yet another personal epiphany:  my skeleton is made, evidently, of styrofoam.  I don't bend.  At all.  Tough to dance when your bones are as brittle and unyielding as mine were, and remain to this day.  It's good, very good, that no video exists of my lunging, creaking, crackling attempts to get my body to do what everyone else's were doing.  Let's put it this way:  when I executed the petit battement I looked like someone scratching a nasty rash on his shin with his other foot.


So I throw myself on the mercy of the court.  When I attend a performance of La Traviata, I sit as patiently as I can in the lively dance segments at Flora's party in Act III.  I try to be a good sport during the Walpurgis Night scene in Faust.  I do enjoy The Nutcracker, but my attention diminishes in Act II with every charming character dance and long before the finale I'm checking my watch.

Don't hate me because I'm a Philistine.  Nobody's perfect, right?

My new book The Opera Zoo: Singers, Composers and Other Primates is now available from Kendall Hunt Publishing. Order online
at http://www.kendallhunt.com/operazoo or by phone from the Customer Service line at 1-800-344-9034 ext.3020.

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