How to watch dance

A recent thread on Quora addressed the question: Is there a secret (a “how to”) to listening to classical music?

I have started listening to classical music, I really like it, and I am at a stage where I have a few pieces that I love. But because it is seen (or I see it) as an activity for sophisticated people (which I am not) I can not help but think that there must be a secret to it, in order to ‘get’ the full joy from it…

A brilliant response came from opera singer David Leigh:

There are a bunch of secrets to listening to classical music. For me the big turning point was recognizing the chronology of the music, so you can actually get in a composer’s head.

When Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony was premiered, for example, its sheer scale was so immense as to baffle listeners of the time. Never had a sonata development been nearly so long. But how can you, as a modern listener who’s heard Wagner (and, for that matter, The Velvet Underground), possibly conceive of how shocking that must have been to a listener of the time? Only by actively putting yourself in the position of being shocked.

Most modern listeners are single-issue voters: it’s all about the melody. The problem is that in pieces like the Eroica (and in most Beethoven), the melody is barely the point on any level. The Eroica melody is just an arpeggio and an unexpected harmonic shift. What would have been engaging to an audience at the time, though, was the way Beethoven plays with form. There are moments where he stretches long, exciting sections of music, or fakes you out, etc. If you learn to hear the way an audience at the time heard, you’ll find all of this stuff incredibly exciting.

And the good news here is that audiences at the time didn’t (for the most part) take music classes or go out of their way to educate themselves on the subject. What they did do was only listen to music of one era at a time. There wasn’t really a sense of “canon” yet, so if you lived in the 1820s, you were pretty much listening only to music of that time.

Challenge yourself to do the same. Spend a week listening only to Handel; I’d be willing to bet that, without doing any extra research, a Haydn or Mozart Symphony would blow your mind after that week. Rinse, repeat with Beethoven. Rinse, repeat with Brahms. Rinse, repeat with Wagner. Rinse, repeat with Stravinsky. Rinse, repeat with Cage. Rinse, repeat with Adams.

Approaching the music this way will give you a real sense of context for everything. There’s nothing more fun than listening to a piece of music and “getting all the jokes.” And especially if you’re into good modern composers, this is the way to get into them. What makes these guys special is the rules they chose to break, and you can only really know that viscerally if you’re acclimated to those rules when you listen.



Ballet to the People thinks you should do the same with dance!

While it’s more challenging to track down films of dance than recordings of music, they can be found on YouTube and other online sites, and also in the DVD section of good public libraries. Skip the 60-second clips on YouTube – watch the complete pieces wherever possible: there are many out there, though you may have to do some digging. Watch excerpts only when the full-length work is not available. And don’t bother with excerpts if the score has been tampered with – many ballet geeks have fun laying new audio over video, but watching Giselle descend into madness to the strains of Van Halen will just mess with your brain.

A couple of different ways to immerse yourself:

1. Work chronologically through history – start with the older choreographers, so you can see their influence on the later generations. Even when those later choreographers purposely try to avoid imitating their forebears, it is still interesting to see how they rebel.

Expect different companies to perform the same work a little differently. So watch Balanchine performed not just by the home team (New York City Ballet) but also by Miami City Ballet and Paris Opera Ballet. Or Jiří Kylián performed not just by Nederlands Dans Theater but also by Boston Ballet and Alvin Ailey.

2. Pick one major classic story ballet (e.g., Swan Lake, Firebird, La Sylphide, Romeo and Juliet, Le Spectre de la Rose), or piece of music which has attracted choreographers over the years (Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Ravel’s Bolero), and watch as many versions of the dance as you can find.

When going to see dance live…

If you can afford to see the same program more than once, do it. There will be details that you miss the first time around. And a new cast can make you see things differently.  Choose seats in a different part of the theatre each time – watching La Bayadère from the 4th ring will give you a different visual thrill than from the orchestra.

Read the program notes

Many dance companies make them available online these days. A good piece of dance shouldn’t require any prior knowledge or homework, but if you want to get the most out of the experience, and especially if the ballet is a full-length story ballet with a long history of reinvention, a little background could be illuminating – read up on the choreographer, on the composer and the score, on the set / costume / lighting designers, on the inspiration behind the piece. Go to pre-show / post-show talks; most companies offer these for free.

Read reviews

Read more than one review of a performance, because critics bring widely varying perspectives to their work. One reviewer’s idol may well be another’s ‘Euro-trash’! Don’t confine your reading to reviews that the choreographer or company post on their sites – those tend to be only the most flattering ones. Though some gutsy artists are scrupulous about posting the full gamut of criticism.

And don’t confine your reading to reviews of the piece you are going to see. Check out the reviews of a choreographer’s output more broadly to give you a sense of how her work has developed over the years.

Choose your dates wisely

I love to go to the ballet with people who are coming at the experience from different angles. Visual artists. Musicians. Engineers. Fashion mavens. DJ’s. Football players. Young children. The conversation at intermission is often more entertaining and illuminating than it is when my date is like-minded.

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