Come December each year, and ballet troupes across this country stage performances of the holiday favorite, Nutcracker. For many Americans, this is their first, and possibly only, encounter with ballet. I think that is a great pity. The Nutcracker, dare I say, is one of the worst examples of this exquisite dance form. I have seen it performed by Chicago’s Joffrey and Moscow’s Kirov — some of the best dancers in the world — and failed to be impressed.
I have loved the ballet since the age of 4. That is when the Royal Bolshoi Ballet came from Russia to Calcutta, and my father stood in line all night long to purchase tickets to the Swan Lake. I remember being mesmerized by the slender forms, dressed like the fairies of my imagination, floating with ethereal grace across the stage. That feeling never quite left me. To this day, Swan Lake remains my favorite classical ballet.
I suspect that a lot of Calcuttans’ obsession with ballet date from that week. Indeed, I did not have another opportunity to go to the ballet for the next 16 years.
There have been times when I have gone to the ballet while in the throes of depression. Times that I struggled to find joy in anything at all. Yet, for an evening, the magic of ballet would take me out of myself. I have read about the hours of practice and pain that must go into becoming a professional ballet dancer. The stress on the body, the bleeding toes, the careful diets. But when these dancers get on stage, I remember none of that. When they get on stage, they are not of this earth. As I watch, I detach from the earth too, and float into the sky.
I find myself more attracted to the slow, sad, unworldly ballets, but I have also enjoyed opulent ones like the Golden Cockerel. The Nutcracker is certainly one with joie de vivre. But perhaps it is a little too grand to be staged effectively? No matter how large the stage, it always seems overcrowded. No matter how brilliant the individual performances, and despite the fact that it is a fairytale, it seems to drag the art down from the clouds to earth.
I watched two performances of note this fall, and enjoyed both tremendously. The first was Romeo and Juliet, something I had seen staged as theater before, but never as ballet. My favorite parts were the fight sequences — it was so interesting to see the raw violence translated into the elegance of this dance form. The other one was Balanchine’s Three Jewels. I have always loved classical ballets, the ones based on fairy stories, more than modern ones. The Three Jewels seemed to bridge the gap between the two. It does not have a story line. Instead, it features three acts — Emeralds, Rubies, and Diamonds. In each, the dancers are dressed in the sumptuous colors of the jewels. The group pieces, with their perfectly geometric arrangements, are just as gratifying as the intricately difficult but seemingly effortless solos.
I enjoy many dance forms — the rebellion of modern dance, from Pilobolus to Mamata Shankar; the raw passion of tango or flamenco, straight from Argentina and Spain. But the ballet will always be first in my heart. If and when you get a chance, do consider going to the ballet. The magic will touch you too.