I'll admit that those fantasies I indulge myself in about my glamorous artistic adult life are lacking reference to an aspect of sophistication I actually see as quite important: an appreciation of ballet. How elegant, how worldly, how knowledgeable one must be to not only enjoy the ballet, but to understand and appreciate the finesse of the performance. Sadly, I - a known chatterbox - feel a little too disconnected from the metaphor; from the wordless, physical interpretation of a story, and I never included ballet attendance in my list of - admittedly arbitrary - future-life glamour pursuits. And then I was offered tickets to the ballet.
Not being the kind of guy who says no to a free lunch, I accepted, swearing to myself that I'd do the favour justice by watching as closely as I could. This was my big chance, right? This was the opportunity for an unexpected addition to my roster of impressive intellectual interests. This was like, future self levelling up - I could be more refined than I'd even best-case-scenario planned for.
I've come out the other side. Not even in my most smug moments can I pretend to be a ballet connoisseur, so I won't even try to recommend it to you, but I will say that if you're feeling intimidated about attending a ballet, read my experience, and try it out for yourself - and hopefully together we can curate that ballet interest I so now crave for my future glamorous self.
The ballet, Giselle, is a tragic love story about a peasant girl who dies of a broken heart when she discovers her love is engaged to someone else. That ain't a spoiler, don't worry - Giselle dies at the end of the first act, and the whole second half of the ballet is her and a troupe of eerie ghostlike sprites - the spirits of young women jilted by lovers - tormenting her boy by forcing him to dance all night to near-exhaustion with them. It's a timeless story that's unique for the fact that it's been performed more-or-less continuously since its debut in 1841, and during that time has been subject to several different choreographic iterations, depending on the particular strengths of the dancer playing Giselle. The ballet's writer, Theophile Gautier, was inspired to write the story after reading about the spirits of girls who were engaged to be married but had died before their wedding days. They would rise at midnight from their graves, clad in their bridal gowns, and dance passionately until dawn, forcing any young man they encountered to dance with them, until he died of exhaustion. That supernatural aspect fit with the style of ballet at the time - a symbol for romantic love, the ballet was the perfect vehicle for a tale of passion, anguish, mystery, torment, regret, beauty, and lost love.
It was brought to Perth by the St Petersburg Ballet Theatre, which even I'd heard of as a pretty decent ballet company. That was actually my one attempt at sounding knowledgeable pre-show - I name-dropped the company, so that people would know I knew what I was talking about. "It's by St Petersburg, so it should be good," I said, with an extremely in-the-know half-smile playing elegantly on my lips (that's exactly what it looked like, ok?).
And it was good - at least, to me it was. Elements of it were so foreign as to be absurd to my uneducated eye - the over-the-top facial expressions and hand gestures; the strange, flat-footed way of walking, where the dancers had their feet stretched out at an almost 180 degree angle with the heels together; knowing that there was a narrative unfolding before me but not understanding exactly what was going on. But I didn't mind that: at times it was definitely unusual enough to pull me out of the magic of the dance, but I loved it for the way it forced me to watch everything, to try and understand, to try and learn the story. Because I wanted to. The ballet was inspired by poetry - Victor Hugo's Fantomes, to be precise - and I think I could see that in Giselle's manic spinning; in her shy, restrained steps on pointe during the courtship that opened the show; in her love Loys's optimistic, sweeping arm movements and the way he held her so tenderly. For someone who usually uses more words than necessary to communicate, I found myself immersed in this story that had exactly zero.
And the setting helped a lot - it was the first time I'd been to a show at His Majesty's, and wow - note to future self: please go to this theatre more often. You'll feel terribly glamorous and important and you'll be overwhelmed by its intricate Baroque architecture and the beauty of that inlaid ceiling. You love the modern State Theatre Centre but really, do you feel as fancy in those jute seats as you did that night in His Majesty's grand red ones?
That's a point I'd love to explore more, having watched the beautiful, restrained athleticism of the dancers. They made the choreography seem so easy but I've done enough one-foot-balancing yoga poses to know just how hard it is to remain upright for even a few seconds, and that's ignoring the stretching and bloody pointe shoes entirely - plus those twirls and lifts and leaps and knowing where you are and not hitting someone else. But I'd love to just watch that impressive athletic beauty in isolation - I'd love to see a modern ballet; something raw and tough and sweaty, with no fake trees or lipstick or red seats or velvet curtains, and I'd crowdfund the crap out of an rnb score.
That's not to discredit Giselle's production team - it was a beautifully staged show, and in particular those ethereal white gowns worn by the spirit girls were incredible. I read that the corps - oh sorry, that's a word us ballet people use to describe the backup dancers - in this show, far from being just a supporting piece, make or break that second act, and I'd muster all of my courage to suggest that they absolutely nailed it. Their precision and dynamic, fluid energy across the act absolutely captivated me, in the exact way the comical, sassy, dramatic, at-times-over-the-top drama of the first act didn't. It was exhilarating to watch.
I left the theatre feeling puzzled, intrigued and searching - I wanted to know more. I want to talk to regular ballet-attenders, so I can understand what about shows like that make people cry, because I suspect if I'm exposed for long enough I'll absolutely get all Julia-Roberts-at-the-opera. I'm grateful for the opportunity I had and I want to explore it further. I want to understand the ballet and now, after seeing this show, I think I want to add it to my reportiore of glamorous future-self interests.
Giselle has finished, but St Petersburg Ballet Theatre is still in Perth, performing Swan Lake until Sunday June 14. Tickets are from Ticketek.