2018 was a busy year for me and ballet. Holy wow, what a weird feeling it is to type that sentence. Traditionally I just don’t ‘get’ ballet; I generally view it more as sport than art (like ice-dancing, for example) and despite ballet’s (to me, tenuous) connection to that most ethereal, human, yet divine art of music, I have always found it difficult to derive any true pleasure out of the genre.
Despite (or perhaps because of) this, in 2018 I somehow ended up becoming my music-journalist friend’s standard +1 for ballet performances at the National Arts Centre. It started with a new, ultra-modern show called Betroffenheit (which astounded me with greatness) followed by another modern troupe and then a performance featuring the very-famous and relatively traditional Royal Winnipeg Ballet, both of which reminded me of my non-love for the discipline.
And so when my friend asked me if I wanted to join her for a performance called Sutra featuring a ballet troupe from San Francisco called Alfonzo King LINES Ballet I was initially excited, as I misread it as being The Lion King, which I’ve never seen.
Just kidding (except the part about not having seen The Lion King).
In all seriousness, my first reaction was to bow out; three kicks at the can seemed like enough for one season. But then I watched a clip and found that the music behind the show was Indian tabla music. Then I discovered that the composer was the great tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain, with singer and sarangi player Sabir Khan. Further research led me to inconclusively assume that Hussain and Khan would actually be performing the music live in-house during the performance. And that really, really excited me.
Taking my soft-seat on November 16th and perusing the program I quickly discovered that no, the musicians would not be performing. Instead, the eleven dancers were dancing to a recording. And while this was a pretty disappointing development the music was still truly amazing, and I enjoyed it throughout.
As a matter of fact, I’m sure if Zakir had actually been there I would have been wholly distracted by his playing, and as a result I would have all but missed the ballet itself. And that would have been a shame because I actually quite liked it this time around. I was especially engaged with the group conglomerations, like the human tumbleweeds that slowly rolled across the stage before melting into flattened puddles of limbs. And the interlocked groups that undulated around the stage like giant centipedes.
Actually, something I noticed at this show was that when I somehow managed to forget that I was watching ballet I loved it. When I left the idea of dance-meeting-music and ignored all the tip-toeing I found myself enjoying the synchronicity of music and sound at a Cirque du Soleil level, and come to think of it, Cirque is really just a big pile of ballet weaving in and out of mind-bending feats of strength, balance, and agility (similarly set to music).
(Speaking of “set to music”, one thing I’ve always had a problem with was the seeming disconnect between the movements I’ve seen in ballet and the music that accompanies them. I just never feel that the two go together. Same thing when I see ice-dancing or figure skating. I never, ever find that the motions synch with the music at all.
At this show I decided early on to let go of my hangup. It occurred to me that ballet [and figure skating] would just be patently boring without musical accompaniment, that’s why the two go hand-in-hand and why should I care if the two don’t meet up?
And can you believe that as soon as I convinced myself of this, I immediately started seeing the connection? Of course you can.)
Anyway, as I sat there it hit me that I merely had a bias against ballet that needed to be overcome, and I think that realizing this fact alone was enough to make me overcome it.
Or not. I guess I’ll find out at the next ballet.