Lots of dancer origin stories begin with a captivating performance of Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, or another quintessentially balletic ballet. I personally slept through my first exposure to ballet, which was George Balanchine's The Nutcracker. Luckily, that was not a foreshadowing for the rest of my life.
It wasn't too much later that I did get bitten by the ballet bug, and soon i was growing up in the world of Balanchine, absolutely sold on the satisfying, uplifting, thrilling way of carving through space with speed, precision, energy, and life that his technique breeds. Almost immediately, I even got to dance his very choreography-- although even class combinations at The School of American Ballet were often as complex and nuanced as Balanchine variations-- and to me, the so-called "classics" (the Swan Lakes, Sleeping Beauties, Giselles, Don Quixotes) never held much interest in comparison to the riches of the New York City Ballet repertoire.
My ballet education was, I admit, not well rounded. I did learn some Petipa variations in school, but to be perfectly honest, I did not like them. They seemed much less fun, musical, free-flowing than Balanchine's, which we (my classmates and I were all of the same mind) relished. Our teachers taught us every variation from Balanchine's Divertimento #15 and Raymonda Variations, plus more unusual ones like solos from Agon, bits of Valse Fantasie, Apollo, and many more.
My love of and appreciation for the 19th century ballet repertoire didn't develop until I became a professional dancer. In fact, the very first thing I danced as a young corps member of Pacific Northwest Ballet was Swan Lake! That might have been the first time I wore a tutu. I learned the choreography of the Swan corps from Francia Russell, who is the epitome of a keeper of the Balanchine flame if there ever is one. Being in PNB was a life of dual allegiances to Balanchine (for a long time, it was recognized as 'the' Balanchine company outside of New York) and full length classics. Both types of ballets were equally important in that company, equally well staged, rehearsed, and performed with integrity and love.
Another very early experience was being in the corps of Paquita, a ballet I'd only heard of before joining PNB. It had been staged by Petipa experts from Russia the season before I joined, and I was drilled in the ruthless specificity of that choreography-- the exact angle of every head, arm, hand, wrist, foot is so precise that you do, I must say, feel like you're wearing a corset when you do it right. But once I got the hang of it, I did sort of learn to like having the mastery of those shapes. They did start to feel good on my body, and being so incredibly in line and in sync with the other dancers in my section was very powerful indeed.
This very long lead-up is to bring your attention to a recent article on the classical music website, Bachtrack, about why we still need classical ballet. I will always prefer Balanchine over Petipa (and yes, over the 20th and 21st century choreographers, too), but I will also always champion the masterpieces that are Swan Lake and its brethren. The astounding technique of their choreography, the composition of their story lines-- whatever gripes you may have about those tales themselves--- and the many ways you can read underneath and between their lines, so to speak, to find your own interpretation and meaning. This goes for all of ballet history, to varying degrees and in varying ways (read my last newsletter for Frank Andersen's argument about why Bournonville still matters).
It's sure interesting to see classics remade, updated, adapted and outright co-opted. But what does that matter if we don't have an original to compare them to?
In this article, three dance luminaries-- Darcey Bussell, Cynthia Harvey, and Aaron Watkin-- speak frankly with logic and reason about why we still need classical ballet, why it is the foundation for all contemporary dance forms, and why people continue to feel its pull. I encourage you to take a quick read-- and it is a quick read-- and you'll hear their rationale loud and clear.
And now I go to refresh my memory of Giselle, which I will help stage for my school's end of year production.