I can still remember my first encounter with ballet. I was five years old and it was a warm summer evening when I went with my mother to go see the Ohio Ballet’s summer ensemble at our local park. I can still remember watching the Russian classic, Swan Lake, for the very first time. I watched the ballerina playing the lead role of Odette move on stage with grace and beauty. Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s music filled the summer air as she elegantly mirrored the image of the music’s melody. I immediately fell in love; something within me longed to dance that way. The perfection of the ballerinas, the complexity of movements and depth of the classic story was absolutely breathtaking. From then on ballet consumed my life, I was a dancer and strived to become what I saw on stage that night. It was something beautiful; representing more than the art itself, something divine, mysterious, and fairy-tale like. I could not define at such a young age what made me fall in love with dance, but I did and I committed myself to it without regret.
As I grew up, I began to realize that few people valued ballet as I did. Just a few years after I saw my first ballet, the Ohio Ballet closed its doors due to lack of funding and professional ballet in Ohio became quite scarce. America went from absolute adoration for ballet when the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo first performed in America over 75 years ago, to now regarding ballet as an outdated art with no excitement to offer. Today, dance forms such as hip-hop seem to have stolen center stage. Shows such as “Dancing with the Stars” and “So You Think You Can Dance?” are now popular shows on television, however, very few ballerinas or classical pieces are ever presented on these shows. The classic ballets are now replaced by rustic, abstract pieces, often leaving the audience empty and not invoking any kind of deep thought or reflection. Ballet is slowly diminishing in the midst of our ever-changing and fast-paced culture.
Theatres were once completely filled with enthusiastic audiences eager to be enlightened with a lovely evening of a classical ballet. These places are growing scarce, and ballet has lost its prominence in both the performing arts realm and in our culture. What has happened in the past few decades to cause this decline? The only answer I can find lies in the sad realization that people simply find ballet to be boring. When asked to explain these sentiments, most people are speechless and just repeat their feeling that ballet is dull and antiquated. Whenever I receive this answer from peers, I am both discouraged and bewildered. Americans enjoy other forms of entertainment which could be deemed boring. A prime example of this would be the classic American sport: baseball. Baseball is an American tradition, yet is slow moving. Some games can drag on into extra innings, causing the whole game to add up to four hours or more. Ballet is not rejected because it is too feminine, too lengthy, or even because it is simply “old.” Rather, ballet is rejected because at some point in our past, people began to view it as boring; something triggered this indifference toward fine art.
During the many cultural shifts of the 1960s, the emergence of the rock-and-roll obsession began to the fill the souls of young Americans. Audiences which once would have been drawn to ballet as a result of a longing to experience beauty became satisfied instead with the “fulfillment” rock-androll had to offer. Americans were robbed of their appetite for ballet, and instead replaced it with music which had the undeniable appeal of sexual rhythm and beat. This music combined with the cultural influences it produced, began to change the hearts of Americans; meanwhile, the curtain of obscurity steadily closed upon classical ballet.
In places such as Russia, ballet thrives. It is a tradition which remains deeply embedded in their culture, the love of this art is so deeply ingrained into the souls of Russians that ballet continues, even to this day to be widely popular. Americans are different. Ballet is not part of our culture, but rather considered a part of “high culture,” something almost too refined for the common individual. The history of ballet, and the dances themselves, often tell the tales of royals and aristocrats. After all, ballet was born in European royal courts and matured in the concert halls of aristocracies. Ballet’s aristocratic nature and graceful features cause it to be viewed as an art for the wealthy and privileged. This assumption is simply not true. I fell in love with ballet as a little girl and had no prior knowledge of the art when I saw my first performance. My parents were not dance instructors, nor were they wealthy art connoisseurs; in fact no one in my family had any background with ballet whatsoever. I came to love ballet not because it was “fancy” or “high culture,” but simply because its grace and beauty captivated me beyond words. Ballet has changed me, not simply in terms of discipline of body, but rather it has changed how I view life, love, and humanity. I will always love ballet, it has caused me to strive to be the best I can be, and like anything else significant in life, it has changed me for the better.
Ballet is designed to appeal to everyone, to reach out and influence every soul who experiences it. A solo by a lead ballerina is not complete if it does not move at least one audience member to tears. Ballet is not just for entertainment as we understand it today. Ballet is meant to stir up emotion and passion. The ballerina’s goal is to cause the audience to feel what the character she is portraying is feeling. A prime example of this would be a ballerina dancing the role of Odette from Swan Lake. The ballerina takes
it upon herself to convey so much passion with reckless abandon during the Dying Swan finale that she causes the audience to feel the pain of her death and the deepest despair because of her beloved’s betrayal. I am always moved by the finality of this solo not simply because it is sad, but because the ballerina so elegantly portrays the feeling of despair, something we must all face in life, and assures me that it is something that everyone experiences, that I am not alone. Ballet is emotion, it is passion, and it conveys some of the most important aspects of humanity such as love, grace, and vision. Ballet appeals to the part of the soul which longs for beauty, and this fulfillment cannot come from a rock song or a hip-hop dance. True fulfillment and enlightenment comes from art which causes us to reflect on the masterpiece itself and its connection with the past, but also to look inside of ourselves, to consider our own thoughts and passions, and if an art is something we truly love, we allow it to change us.
Despite the fact that ballet is declining in America, there is still hope. Americans may have little interest in ballet, but that does not change the fact that they once did. While it is true that our culture changes, human nature does not. Classical ballets, such as Romeo and Juliet, Don Quixote, La Bayadere, and others, deal with the subjects of love, family, and the purpose of the human existence. The capacities portrayed in ballet lie within each and every one of us, ballet is not simply for the wealthy, the privileged, or the scholarly, but rather the message that ballet delivers can appeal to everyone. I believe that ballet yet has hope because this art has the incredible ability to captivate any one from aristocrats in 17th century Europe to a five-year-old girl in 21st century America. I believe ballet will survive because it is timeless, it is inspiring, and within each and every human being lies a longing to experience something as beautiful as classical ballet.