Emperor’s new clothes

Photo: Jim Lamberson, 2008, Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Jim Lamberson, 2008, Wikimedia Commons

This week I saw a live ballet for the first time. An arts experience for me yet to connect with, I had anticipated ballet for some time, wondering what made some people speak fondly, and others snivelling, about the artform. From my provincial, tomboy beginnings, I was not one of those girls in a tutu, dreaming to be the next ballarina. As a child, I used to quite enjoy snippets the xmas televising of the Royal Danish Ballet’s Nut Cracker – but that was in the 70s and 80s when daytime tv in Denmark was at a premium (so an attraction in and of itself), yet during the xmas break where time was filled with family visitors, food and goodies, card games and board games. So snippets at best.

My first live ballet was a well-known story, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, a story I have engaged with – and enjoyed – in many different iterations over the years, in writing, on the screen and on stage (though it does not feature in the Danish high school curriculum).

As I sat in front of the draped stage in the deep seats, subdued conversation all around me, I enjoyed the curtain’s artwork; ochre and blue colours in the image of hills with two fortresses, complete with ramparts and spears, signalling a different time with different ways of expressing the deep and enduring distinction between ‘them’ and ‘us’. The art was a kind of naive art style that indicated playfulness. I waited in anticipation as the lights dimmed and curtain was raised (to an unseemly clunk!) to uncover an imagined 16th century Italian town square.

Ballet is a form without words. The performance is full of graceful movement and colour to well-performed classical music; I could see that attention and inventfulness had gone into the set and costumes, full of velvety reds and brown hues. And, actually, I felt some envy of those shoes the female dancers wore. The dancers are exceptionally fit, young people, able to use their bodies with grace and precision. The girls paper thin and tiny, fluttering across the stage like butterflies in their flowing costumes; the boys bulky in all the right places and with tights that sit right up the backside, so when the tights are flesh coloured it looks like the emperor’s new clothes.

And I felt a little bit like all the adults in Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale watching the emperor walking proud, but stark naked, under his marquis through his marvelling subjects. I felt like all of those adults, who saw nothing but naked skin, but dared not say anything because, they had been tricked into thinking they would expose themselves as stupid if they did: that the emperor’s new clothes was so fine and magical that only clever people could see them.

Unlike the fairy tale, no innocent little child spoke up. Around me was excited clapping in all the right places. The reviews proclaimed this the best performance ever by the company. And that may very well be so. But it still did not speak to me. I did not connect. I was not enraptured, not transformed. Even the playfulness promised by the naive art on the curtain only shone through in awkward in-jokes on the stage, delivered unmistakably in mime.

I respect that other people are fond of ballet – including a large number of little girls with ballarina dreams – but I hope you will forgive me for not understanding why. Some might suggest I lack culture, to which I say that I have plenty of culture, just not of that type.

I don’t think I have the patience to learn the language of ballet to ever appreciate it: there is so much else happening on stage which is more enjoyable and challenges my thinking in new ways. Perhaps this emperor’s new clothes is so magical that it is visible only to some, of particular social status and education, leaving the rest of us forever wondering what this European heritage art form is all about.

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