A few people have told me that they've not been to the ballet but watching a ballet is on their bucket list. What ballets would you recommend as a good first for the ballet first-timer?
^ The Swans – inspired by Swan Lake (oil on linen, 2021)
I recall picking a comedy ballet as a first for a high school boyfriend, thinking he'd enjoy the humour even if he wasn't that into dancing. Alas, he snoozed through most of it and only managed a polite "the music was good" comment on the way out the auditorium. Luckily, I have made better first choices for my new-to-ballet friends over the years.
If you're thinking of ticking a ballet off your bucket list (or helping someone else with theirs), here are the classics that I'd recommend, in no particular order.
Anything by Matthew Bourne
Matthew Bourne is the living genius of the ballet world. His imaginative, themed interpretations of well-known ballet classics and screen masterpieces are absolutely phenomenal. For me, Bourne's New Adventures productions present the perfect combination of theatricality with the rawness of life and being human, regardless of the genre. If you're a balletomane whose not yet seen a Bourne ballet, go. If you're a ballet virgin, you might find a Bourne ballet more accessible and relatable than a traditional classical repertoire stalwart.
^ Lac des Cygnes – inspired by the iconic dance of the little swans from Swan Lake (oil on linen, 2021) – please enquire
If someone is really only buying tickets to check 'The Ballet' off their list, chances are they'd like to be able to say they've seen Swan Lake. It is the ballet performed most often world-wide, after all. It's a safe bet to choose, as Tchaikovsky's magnificent score is well-known and loved. And it is the definitive classical ballet with iconic pas de deux and variations. But, be warned, it's also a long one – four acts. And few life-long ballet fans like to sit next to (or behind) someone who is fidgeting throughout a performance.
^ The Willis – inspired by Giselle's magical ballet blanc second act (acrylic on linen, 2021)
Giselle is, in contrast, only two acts. It's the definite romantic ballet and has a timeless appeal. It's tragic story and characters are compelling and relatable. The first act is full of narrative charm. The second act is magical and ethereal. Both Giselle and Swan Lake have distinct "ballet blanc" white acts, which show off the corps de ballet as much as the principals. These white acts create wonderful formations on stage that are a joy to recreate in paint (see last year's blog).
Romeo and Juliet
A good choice since you don't need to worry about whether a ballet newbie can follow the storyline with this one. Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers have had plenty of screen and stage time. Some of the music has been used as telly theme tunes and for adverts, so even if you've missed all the films, you should recognise bits of the score. Plus it has sword fights! It's a really well-paced ballet with lots of variety and the choreography is sublime. A really good ballet to start with, if you're not sure if ballet's going to be your thing.
^ Kitri – inspired by the fan variation in Don Quixote which is one of my favourite ballet solos (and has some fantastic harp play in it) (oil on canvas board, 2020) – please enquire
Don Q is just such good fun, I can't imagine anyone not enjoying it. I'm listening to the score as I write this blog, it's definitely full of that feel-good factor. The ultimate romantic comedy ballet (but not the same comedy ballet my ex snoozed through). Wonderful characters, lots of narrative interest and vibrant dancing. And it concludes with one of the most fabulous grande pas de deux in the classical repertoire, so you get a real showpiece at the end.
This is my favourite ballet (and the one that made me fall in love with ballet when I was a very young extra in some crowd scenes) so I'm totally biased in recommending this one. Stylistically, some of the Spartacus productions I have seen have a more modern edge to the movement (and sets and lighting) that might hold a different sort of aesthetic appeal to the more 'fluid' storybook classics listed above. But if you like a compelling drama and something darker, Spartacus is absolutely engrossing. It's full of virtuoso dancing and has way more sword play than Romeo and Juliet (and in some productions other forms of gladitorial combat feature too like the fabulous net and pitchfork duel in Veronica Paeper's version). Different productions have varying interpretations of plot and character dynamics but regardless Spartacus has wonderfully complex characters. I'm torn between the heroic Spartacus and the villainous Crassus as the character I most want to come back in my next lifetime as a professional danseur to perform. Unfortunately, my attempts to translate Spartacus into paint don't live up to the magnificence of the ballet so I've tended to paint over them.
If you're still hesitant about trying a full length ballet, you could always try a mixed programme. There are some wonderful short ballets too, but let's save those for another post.
I'd love to hear your ballet favourites and recommendations. Share yours in the comments.