Arts and Culture

An unashamed neophyte's ten observations on Swan Lake and the ballet

The Colorado Ballet is going for grandeur and maybe a little Hollywood flash this season with Swan Lake, the opening production of the 2011-2012 season. Most apparent is the promotional material for the ballet, which seems to pay homage to posters for Black Swan, the film that earned Natalie Portman a Best Actress Oscar and shoved the 134-year-old ballet back into the spotlight.

Full disclosure: I've not once been to the ballet, I openly disdain musicals (I grew up with them, as my father was a conductor), and I'm wildly influenced by modern advertising. So, yes, I decided to check out Swan Lake Sunday at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House. A few observations from a ballet neophyte:

1. Throughout the performance, I only heard one phone ring, one child squeal and two people fall asleep (yes, I heard your steady, rhythmic breathing behind me, and it didn't help my staying awake in the perfectly controlled climate one bit).

2. The Colorado Ballet has some money. The set designs were beautiful, as were the costumes. Though I was in the highest balcony to view from, it didn't appear that one inch of felt was used.

3. The Colorado Ballet has some talent. Looking through the program, there were many Russian names, which impressed a hayseed like myself quite a bit. Maria Mosina, who played the lead for the matinee production, was fantastic. There is nothing more beautiful than watching a ballerina as her feet stutter in place, everything above the waist holding perfectly still, as her arms fluidly wave up and down as a swan's wings would upon departing its lake.

I realized quickly that ballet is about precision, and therefore doesn't have the freedom of improvisation that dances like salsa or swing afford. I only counted two instances of a dancer having to steady themselves after landing a turn or move. Maybe you think I'm being too nice, but, hey, this isn't New York, and I'm from Kansas, where the best dancers you can hope to see are more akin to drunken daddy longlegs (myself included).

4. There is some real imagination at work here. The fourth act of the performance was by far the most engaging, as one might guess, since it consists of most of the climactic action. But nothing prepared me for the opening scene of this act, as the curtain rose upon the lake. A gauzy black screen was down over the stage during these lake scenes, but here, too, was fog, covering the entire stage, with the magnificent Bird of Prey in the center. Slowly, from the fog, first one swan ballerina rose, then three more, then three more. The sight of it was breathtaking, and I do mean that literally. Even the sleepers were awake at this point.

5. Talk about fantastic people watching. The couple sitting next to my boyfriend and me provided ample speculation during the intermission as we tried to determine what number date they were on. She was clearly fidgeting and a little tipsy, and he sat in a more dominant stance and asked most of the questions. She was also the first person I noticed that nodded off during Act I, a clear indicator of the duel role alcohol can have when calming nerves. My guess was date two. I mean, who brings a girl to the ballet on date one?

6. Holy crap! There's a little screen that tells me what's happening! This I found annoying at first, because I didn't understand its purpose, but on the back of the seat in front of you is a little LED screen that tells you what's happening during the performance. Though it's distracting to have them all blip on and ruin your concentration, it helps if you're like me and don't realize that there is something called a synopsis that can be reviewed prior to the lights going down. The only complaint I have is that the letters appear in a sharp blue, when a soft yellow, like that of the guiding lights that remain on throughout the performance, would be less abrasive.

7. Floors present a problem, don't they? An editor here at Westword commented that she remembered the disaster that was "the floor situation" prior to the renovation of the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, wherein every dancer landed with a disturbing thump. Unfortunately, just hearing that comment in my head ensured my sensitivity to the phenomenon while I watched, but it wasn't that bad. The only times I noticed it were during moments of particular silence in the orchestra pit, and they were more like the padded footsteps of a bear then the falling of an elephant.

8. While nifty technologically, the seating here presents a few problems. I realize that I bought the cheapest tickets and therefore was relegated to the less-fancy amenities afforded to others, but damn, are you guys trying to kill me? God help you if you're a lady wearing heels, because the dizziness I suffered getting to my seat damn near made me cross myself and repent for my sins. The chairs are so steeply inclined, over a theater so large and geometrically intricate, that when standing, one feels that toppling to one's death is a very near possibility. Add to that the surprisingly tiny, uncomfortable chairs, and the fact that I couldn't not hear my neighbor's tipsy dreams and desires (and sleeping repose) is hardly surprising.

9. Did I mention that the cheap seats suck? Because they do. There were four separate instances wherein I couldn't see what was happening upstage -- only a part of the shadow of what was happening upstage. Whenever someone appeared in the window area, aloft in the scenery, it was a complete miss for me. It's not like it ruined the performance, but it was frustrating for those of us who want to see everything that's happening, all the time.

10. Turns out there is room for humor in ballet. That's right: There were two instances of swan flinching to manly advances that provoked a quiet giggle from the crowd -- something I was astonished by. But it's supposed to be so serious! But it's for cultured rich people! But Natalie Portman died for it! No, as it turns out, ballet can have a little fun. And that's important to kids from Kansas, because the whole reason we leave the damn state is to seek out the fun we hear so much about in other states. And while it's no New York, Denver, happily, meets my requirements. And I wouldn't put it past myself to say that I'll likely be going to the ballet again this year.

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Stephanie DeCamp
Contact: Stephanie DeCamp