TW: mentions of death and suicide
The theater is dark. It seems to hold its breath, impatient. Suddenly, one single reflector turns on, and the music begins. The swift violin and soft piano produce a melancholic tune. There is only one person on stage; she is wearing a white ballet tutu, and feathers adorn her hair. When she moves through the stage en pointe, she seems to be floating. Her arms are as graceful as a bird’s wings. Her face shows pain and despair. She is trembling, longing for something that has long been out of reach. It is mesmerizing to watch, but it’s also flooded with sadness. She is dying.
“To dance Swan Lake is one of the biggest challenges for every ballerina (...), but I always feel that, because the story is so beautiful, it kind of helps you to deal with the most difficult steps.” - Marianela Nuñez, principal dancer with the Royal Opera House.
In the first paragraph, you read a description of “The Dying Swan”, a ballet variation that is extremely hard to accomplish. It might not have as many surprising turns and jumps, but it is a piece that requires the dancer to pour her heart into the stage. Achieving the elegance of the arms and the desperate facial expressions is no easy task - by this point, the ballerina has been dancing for hours and is totally exhausted.
Some of the best-known ballet repertoires are tragedies. Swan Lake, Giselle, La Bayadère, and Romeo and Juliet. What happens in the theater is a reflection of hard work in a variety of art forms. Put together, they can bring the audience to tears.
To begin with, music. Many of Tchaikovsky’s scores are recorded on humanity’s subconscious. Complex pieces that succeed in evoking people’s stronger emotions and depicting the character’s downfall. Take Romeo and Juliet as an example. The same piece of music that plays during the Balcony Scene — which is filled with joy and the prospect of young love — plays when Romeo finds Juliet dead. However, this time, the orchestra makes variations. The music no longer represents hope. It is dismal. Almost a death march.
Next up, stage and costume design play an important role. The cast needs hundreds of costumes, and the different set designs must build the ballet’s ambiance. La Bayadère is set in Royal India, so the stage is designed to look like elaborate temples and busy streets. But as the characters meet their tragic fate, they transition into the Kingdom of the Shades, where dancers have ghost-like makeup and costumes.
Acting is a tricky part, too. Some dancers like to memorize facial expressions that go with the choreography, others do whatever their emotions tell them to. During the ballet Giselle, the principal dancer plays the role of a girl who is driven crazy once she finds that her lover was supposed to marry someone else. During the Mad Scene, Giselle’s denial eventually leads to her death. She goes from an innocent, cheerful peasant to a ghost that feels pain and remorse.
And of course, ballet itself. It is no secret that it takes years of training, rehearsing and repeating to achieve outstanding technique levels. But there is so, so much more than that. The essence of ballet is conveying emotions through movements. Dancers don’t need to speak to tell a story. We call this artistry. When artistry and technique join, the audience is not only impressed, but moved. For example, Swan Lake is challenging in both ways. During the ballet, the same dancer has to play two roles: the black swan, who is evil and requires 32 fouettés (turns in one leg) in a row; and the white swan, whose hard variations must also showcase deep despair.
Every ballet mentioned above has an impactful story, which must be transformed into intricate choreographies, music pieces, and costumes. Good performances bring literature to life.
The theater is dark, but the audience is standing and clapping. Their eyes are glassy and their hearts, wrenched. They were impressed by jumps that defy gravity, and they saw fifty people dance completely coordinated. The orchestra receives an ovation. The dancers come to the stage once again, tired but beaming. Months of blood, tears, and sweat became a beautiful presentation.
And you have no idea how, but a set of steps has just touched your soul.
is a young planster with too much passion and too little time on a day. She has been telling stories for as long as she can remember, whether they are thoroughly researched flash fiction pieces or improvised bedtime stories.