If you’re a reader or a writer or a watcher of theater or of television, or even if you like music, then you like stories. And, you know that stories can take many forms. As a writer (see The Travelers), obviously I like the written word. But I can fully appreciate that a story doesn’t need to be made of up letters on paper, which is one of the reasons I like all types of art forms, including the ballet. And, yesterday, my best friend took my daughter and I to see one of the best in the country – the San Francisco ballet.
First, it’s impossible to talk about the San Francisco ballet without discussing the beautiful Opera House where the ballet performs. The first thing you see is the regal stage complete with tall, silky drapes and surrounded by golden ornamentation. The ceiling then arches up to a chandelier that is like a blue eye looking down on you (but not in a creepy way.) It feels like you’ve just walked into a luscious golden palace.
Of course, The Travelers was there too. This blog post is Traveling with the Travelers. (Plus, it really likes the ballet.)
Dance is actually more similar to writing than you may realize. Ballet is the convergence of movement, storytelling, metaphor and music. The dance world even talks about ballet like it’s a book. They use phrases like “dance vocabulary” in reference to the different types of ballet styles and movements. Countless literary works have been turned into ballets, including Cinderella, Swan Lake and numerous Shakespeare plays.
In fact, when we were at the ballet we got a backstage tour and they were already preparing for the next ballet – Frankenstein.
The Story Within the Story
Life is often about sharing stories. In fact, aren’t most of our lives just a series of stories. When you get together with friends, you tell stories of your day or something funny or interesting that happened to you. Ballets are no exception. The ballet itself usually tells a story. But, it also provides stories behind the stories.
In the notes for the ballet, you can read about the inspiration for the ballet. Or you can read the story of the dancers or the choreographers, artistic directors or even the musicians and the journey they took.
Our 3 Stories
We were lucky enough to get to see 3 distinct stories that, of course as a writer, I had to liken to books.
The Classic Novel
The first of the ballets is called Haffner Symphony. The story here was a simple garden party. The set felt like it was molded from a Monet waterlilies painting. The dancers looked like they’d emerged from the scenery in their blues and greens, while the principal dancer wore coral, like the reefs.
In this first dance, the women wore tutus so straight they could have doubled as round tables at a dinner party. Their heads glistened with tiaras. Their movements were crisp, precise and perfect. This was classical ballet. To me, it reminded me of a Jane Austen novel. Let’s say Emma. That seems to most appropriate, a little whimsical but it still stuck close to tradition, ensuring the proper etiquette and poise with every tiptoe, every pirouette.
The Romance Novel
In the second ballet, called Fragile vessels, story moved into more modern realm. It reminded me of a modern romance full of flowing movements evoking change, passion and conflict. The set here was very different, a monochromatic tan. The dancers costumes looked like if the Bodies art exhibit were made into clothes, with subtle stripes and brushes of color that seemed to mimic sinewy muscles. This dance was about relationships, love and struggle.
If this were a book it would be some sort of modern-day love triangle, like an update to Wuthering Heights
The Modern Ground-Breaking Novel
The first two ballets were set to classical music, while this was composed by Sufjan Stevens. The ballet was called In the Countenance of Kings and is based on a work he did inspired by the BQE (that’s the Bronx-Queens Expressway.) It certainly has a New York feel to it. It had a lot of energy and a looser feel than the other two ballets. The dancers had a simple black background sometimes accented with Broadway lights. The set and costumes were secondary. This was all about the enjoyment of life and dance. It reminded me of those books where young people go to New York and their worlds collide. A book full of excitement and adventure, like a Broadway show turned into a ballet. This is Bright Lights, Big City or Ragtime.
The story for us didn’t end when the ballet was over. Afterwards, we got to go backstage. You can’t really understand the enormity of the Opera House or the intricacies of a performance until you’ve gone back stage. Perfect end to a perfect show.