Two lots of ballet within a few days last week might have been overdoing it. But as a writer I know how important it is to keep the creative well topped up with new ideas, sensations and memories and two such completely different aspects of ballet so close together touched chords and left me with much to think about.
John’s inspired gift to celebrate our wedding anniversary was tickets to the Western Australian Ballet performance of Giselle, with music played by the Western Australian Symphony Orchestra.
I don’t often go to professional ballet performances, although I love it when I do. I’m certainly not in a position to judge a production. But I do know that John and I were spellbound from the second the curtain went up on Giselle, and we enjoyed every movement on stage until the end of many well-deserved curtain-calls.
According to a review in the Sydney Morning Herald following opening night, the production at His Majesty’s Theatre in Perth was very close to perfect. That is certainly how it felt for us.
Act I of this beautiful ballet is set in a village in Germany. A peasant girl, Giselle, falls in love with the disguised Prince Albrecht, who is engaged to a woman from his own social situation. Hilarion, a local lad who loves Giselle, is suspicious of the prince from the start. When he reveals Albrecht’s deception during the peasants’ celebration of the harvest, Giselle goes mad and dies of a broken heart.
Act II takes place at her graveside in the forest.
The Wilis (the spirits of women who have died after being rejected by faithless lovers) chase Hilarion away from the grave. The Wilis dance in the moonlight, dressed in their wedding dresses. Out of revenge, they force any men who come into the forest to dance all night until they collapse and die.
Prince Albrecht, in remorse, brings lilies to Giselle’s grave, and Giselle’s spirit appears to him and forgives him his wrong-doing. However, the Wilis force both men to dance until they reach exhaustion. Hilarion dies, but Giselle’s love helps Albrecht to survive the night. The Wilis fade away as daylight breaks, the lovers make their peace and Giselle returns to her grave in tranquillity, leaving Albrecht alone in his sorrow.
While attending professional ballet may have been outside my usual circle of activities, I am certainly no stranger to other ballet classes and productions.
As a five-year-old over forty years ago, one of my sons insisted on attending ballet classes with a neighbour’s little girl. Many years later, he said that he thought his experience with ballet had been helpful in the development of his considerable skills as an Australian Rules football player.
These days we know that ballet lessons can be useful for football players. Ballet can help to improve their strength, increase flexibility and make them more agile, while providing a mind-body connection and reducing their risk of injury.
While our children attended their classes, my neighbour and I also went to jazz ballet lessons, even though we were in our forties. To the tunes of ABBA, and in particular their ‘Dancing Queen’, a group of mums stretched and flexed our muscles and pushed our bodies beyond what we thought we were capable of. Over a year, we got very fit, even if we weren’t particularly skilful dancers.
My jazz ballet days awoke the latent role of dancer deep inside me, and went some way to fulfil one of my thwarted childhood dreams. I was convinced that my mother, for some reason I never fathomed, did not want me to be a ballerina. As a child, I also longed to write. But that is another story.
Five of my granddaughters have learned ballet, beginning when they were little more than babies and continuing into their high-school years. One of my granddaughters, Amelia, still ‘does ballet’ and I look forward her end-of-the-year performance.
I’ve loved watching my grandchildren and their classmates in performances when they were tiny tots dancing ballet steps dressed as flowers, gumnut babies, elves, rabbits and little, often chubby, fairies. It has been a privilege to see these same girls as they grew into graceful ballerinas in a variety of roles.
Now a new cycle has begun. My great-granddaughter, Elizabeth, who has just turned three, became fascinated by ballet after she was taken to a production in which her aunt, Amelia (12) performed.
‘I liked the pink ones,’ Elizabeth told me seriously afterwards.
She, too, is now enrolled in ballet classes.
John and I walked to the Scarborough Recreation Centre on Saturday morning, and met up in the audience with Elizabeth’s parents, Claire-Helen and Bhen Linton.
It’s fascinating to watch a class of three-year-olds in pink tutus learning the basic ballet positions and attempting their first simple ballet movements. For some, these are a real challenge, especially when they try to balance on one leg and keep the foot on the floor in the proper position. Some of the children are shy at the beginning, but they all seem to improve each week. Progress from term one to term two has been remarkable as the little girls have gained strength, skills and confidence.
As part of the class, the young teacher blows bubbles to encourage the children to stretch high and catch them; she provides fairy wands and bunches of tinsel that wave like trees or turn into horses’ tails as the girls move across the hall to ‘gallop’ music. She manages with aplomb when baby brothers and sisters crawl across the floor.
Mothers and fathers, younger siblings and an occasional grandparent sit in a row of plastic chairs at the back of the hall. From time to time, one of the dancers breaks ranks and runs back for a reassuring cuddle before returning to the class. Sometimes they stop mid-step to hug each other. They all turn around to make sure their parents are still watching.
I imagine that the cast of the WA Ballet Company’s production of Giselle must have begun their careers in a ballet school similar to this one, somewhere in the world. Perhaps one day, one of these tiny, aspiring ballerinas will take her place in the cast of Giselle, too.