I grew up in a small city called Canberra. Once a year the Royal Australian Ballet would visit. Mum always wore a long dress and a mink stole. I wore whichever was my best dress at the time.
The foyer of the Canberra Theatre would be heavy with men in suits and women in slow-moving dresses. The shushed noise of hundreds of adults was low registered and calm. The excitement took place entirely behind my belly-button, crept down a little into my legs and up to my heart.
I was often prepared to be bored in the Canberra Theatre, which I didn’t mind. It was part of the specialness. Any ballet sequence involving a slowly-waking village morning with chorus members accidentally tipping inoffensive refuse out of windows onto others’ heads (the one below shakes a fist, the other above slams a shutter), girls cradling baskets of flowers smiling shyly at boys, children misbehaving and being kicked by a fat adult with an obvious profession (the blacksmith, the butcher) was intensely boring. Floral. Dull. Did the grown-ups in the audience really think this was interesting? When they laughed at the mischievous little boy in the flat cap I thought it was to encourage the little boy playing the little boy. Not many little boys dance. Polite adults can be very encouraging.
These sequences would progress to a moment in which the chorus would recede tidily for the Handsome Young Man to appear to the delight of even the bad-tempered blacksmith (or schoolmaster). The Handsome Young Man in turn would be struck by the best-dressed, most modest of the flirty girls who turns out to be the leading ballerina (her cheeks are redder, her hair is higher) – and it got even more boring. They would dance in turns and there would be a bit of low-key lifting and eventually the village would join in, in rows, using the chains of flowers which had earlier been basket decoration.
The boredom was relaxing and comfortable.
The good bits came later – when people (or swans) died.
Now that was what you would go to the ballet for. Death.
She’s dying. He doesn’t realise – he carries on dancing and showing her how after all these years he still loves her and he is sorry he had to go to war (or travel or nearly marry his social equal) but, look, he is here now and they must marry. But she is dying. Dying before him. She smiles weakly and droops a little. He misunderstands. Is she not pleased to see him? Is she not revived by his love?
Yes, yes she is, she is… how happy they might be, might be… but… he has left it too long, how long she has waited and now…
She is dead.
He dances wildly. The orchestra thunders in despair. He spins and bounces as high as he can to bring her back to life. He places his strong arms under hers and pulls her thin body, as relaxed as a cat now she is dead, up to his chest. He tries to dance with her, but she is just a cat in a dress and she can only drag around. He caresses her face, her bun. Come back, he says. Don’t leave me. How can I live without you? She is wearing the nicest dress now it is the last Act, because she is ill and possibly also penniless, so her dresses no longer stick out, they are simple and show her body normally. She may even have bare feet. He is distraught. He rests his head on her still chest. Or he looks to the sky and you can see the lean muscles drawn from his ribs to his neck as he gestures angrily at heaven. He will never, never leave her. He will die here with her.
Or he will unsheath his sword and go in search of the fiend who did this to his love, in which case it goes on a bit longer and there will be a fight. The fiend will lose. But so will the Beautiful Man because he has lost his love and his life is nothing without her.
I wish the audience did not clap. I wish the dancers would not come out to collect flowers and curtsy for ages. I wish we were allowed to just sit in our seats in the dark and cry quietly until we fell asleep.