by KM Rowley
The key to appreciating any art is understanding distinctions. Let’s start with the simple art of food preparation. Taste testers evaluate this specific art. Those who work as taste-testers do not have more taste buds than the rest of us, but what they do have is the knowledge of distinctions between individual flavors and textures. They appreciate good and bad food because they can tell the difference in a more exact and meaningful way than the general eating public.
So what do you need to know about ballet as a non-dancer to get more out of your annual holiday viewing of The Nutcracker? Here are a few things that will help.
The key to appreciating any art is understanding distinctions.
Ballet is not easy. The easier the dance looks, the better the ballerina is. If you would like to put this theory to the test, go ahead and extend one leg out in front of you. Now look at your foot. Is it pointed? How much? Could you stand on the tips of your toes as the ballerinas do in point shoes? Look at your knee. Is it fully stretched? Now your pelvis. Did you lift it or tilt it at all the get that leg up there? That is a big no-no if you ever want the alignment to balance or turn with your leg up like that. Now let’s look at something even the best ballerinas sometime forget: your supporting leg. How straight is that knee? The point here is that ballerinas do things that take years of strength training using muscles most people don’t know they have. These dancers make it look so easy that the audience members don’t realize what strength and hard work goes into each simple movement.
The truth is the dancers are not actually floating. They are just really good at looking like they are. Dancers achieve this floating sensation not by jumping higher than other athletes but by striking their in-air poses faster and holding them longer. This comes from practice. Try running and jumping right now holding the exact same beautiful shape from the moment you leave the floor to the moment you touch back down. Achieving these shapes quickly requires extreme strength and flexibility. Appreciate it next time.
The technique is the part you may not fully appreciate unless you have had at least of few months of training yourself. But there are a few key concepts you can begin to appreciate. First: the turn. There are many different ways to turn with different complicated French names. What is important to pay attention to is the supporting leg. The best turns are done without moving from one spot and by maintaining perfect balance. A twelve-turn pirouette from which the dancer stumbles onto her lifted leg at the end is less impressive than a strong four-turn pirouette where she stays on her standing leg for an extra second once the turn is finished. Next: the leap. Anytime the dancer enters the air, she should get her power from her legs. Throwing her shoulders and arms does not help. The dancer should enter her pose quickly, hold it during the flight, and release in at the last second. Finally: the focus. This is an often-overlooked part of dance, but it makes a difference. Pay attention to where the dancers put their focus almost as if it’s a fifth limb. Do they relate to other dancers on the stage? Do they acknowledge the audience? Or are they looking at their feet and simply looking past the other dancers? Learning to pay attention to these technical skills will make you a more appreciative viewer of good dance.
Principles of staging can be applied to any live performance. Or any work of art, really. The main thing you need to remember is this: everything that happens happens for a reason. I mean this in the most literal sense. If a man enters stage right, stomps his foot, and walks off, you shouldn’t blow it off because you don’t know why he did it. The director or writer or choreographer told him to do it for a reason. If you figure it out, you will have a better understanding of the plot or characterization than the guy next to you.
There is intent behind movement. The dancers are dancing with a purpose. That is, they are if this is a respectable company. I suppose there should be a clarification: understanding that the dancers should be dancing with a purpose will help you appreciate if they really are. Each movement should be purposeful and intent-driven. Why did that man just run in a circle and jump? There is a reason. Whether it was he was chasing something or he was metaphorically finding himself, finding your own understanding of the meaning behind the dance moves will allow you to appreciate why you are seeing The Nutcracker in ballet form instead of as a play or musical. It is important to remember, though, that every interpretation is a correct one. So don’t worry about not getting it or about being wrong. If it’s meaningful to you then it has succeeded as an art form.
Next time you see a production of The Nutcracker, instead of just napping during the dance of the sugarplum fairies, think about all of these things and you will finally understand and appreciate why you spend the money to see it every holiday season.