Register Thursday | December 13 | 2018

Life Lessons at the Ballet

Reflections on <I>The Sleeping Beauty</I>

Since my daughter was born, well-meaning souls will occasionally ask me when I am going to enroll her in ballet class. The question is a natural one: I had danced a bit and now write about dance, and ballet and little girls supposedly go together like sugar and spice.

The truth is, because I trained seriously as a dancer for most of my childhood, I don't see ballet through rose-coloured glasses. While Mattel sells a cheaply glamourous version of the art, the ballerina's reality is less about tulle and tiaras and more about blistered feet, pulled muscles and bruised egos-even if you are genetically blessed with a body that not only fits the ballet aesthetic but can handle the tough years training it to do what is unnatural for much of the human race.

Over and over, the day before our first mother-daughter foray into the ballet, Vivienne and I rehearsed what would be expected. Good behaviour would permit passage to a world where the fairy-ballerinas in her ballet books have come to life.

Still, should Vivienne decide that she would like dance lessons, I will happily oblige. More than anything, though, I hope she will come to love not just ballet but all kinds of dance as much as I do. The most important question for me was not whether my daughter would dance but when I would finally be able to take her to a performance. Since she is only three, I didn't have any immediate plans to do so until maybe The Nutcracker came around again, but thanks to a positive preview, I chose Ballet Ouest's production of The Sleeping Beauty, the crème de la crème of classical ballet, to be Vivie's first show. Like The Nutcracker and Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty was masterminded by choreographer Marius Petipa and scored with the glorious music of Tchaikovsky. More importantly for a little girl, it has a princess and a prince, good versus evil and tons of fairies.

Over and over, the day before our first mother-daughter foray into the ballet, Vivienne and I rehearsed what would be expected. Good behaviour would permit passage to a world where the fairy-ballerinas in her ballet books have come to life. Once we had made our way into the auditorium, I set up her booster chair in an aisle seat (chosen in case of the need for a quick escape) and hoped for the best. The matinée was during nap-time, after all.

I shouldn't have been so worried. After the curtain rose to reveal a castle, Vivienne was transfixed-until intermission. Every number prompted wild applause. "It's like a movie, except it's on a stage," she said, proud of her new knowledge of the theatre.

It had been ages since I last saw The Sleeping Beauty, and it was the first time since becoming a mother. The curse laid on Aurora and the horror of the princess's parents took on a whole new meaning. Later, my eyes filled with tears as I witnessed the "Rose Adagio" of the radiant sixteen-year-old beauty. For don't all parents hope their daughters will turn out to be as gracious and loving as Aurora? Don't we all hope, whatever our feminist beliefs, that our daughters will be beautiful too, or at least attractive? (Too much beauty can be a curse, as poet W. B. Yeats wrote in "A Prayer for my Daughter.") Do we not wish for our children, girls or boys, partners who will-like the prince-do whatever it takes to prove themselves worthy of our precious offspring?

Perhaps, then, we all do have some life lessons to learn. For all the glamour of fairy dust and pink satin, courtesy still lives in this world of ballet.

At intermission, Vivie chatted excitedly about the fairies and waited patiently for the second half. At the beginning of the third act, when the court was assembled for the prince and Aurora's wedding, she applauded heartily, loudly exclaiming, "Thank you, thank you very much!" No doubt those around us thought she mistook the rest of the audience's applause for herself, but I knew she was expressing her appreciation for the pleasure the dancers were giving her. Still, by the time the new couple's "Grand Pas de Deux" came along, she had fallen asleep, and I was left alone to contemplate this central moment in every classical ballet.

The pas de deux, you could say, is the spiritual embodiment of all that ballet means. It is the idealization of the aristocratic and courtly manners that gave birth to the art form. That term "grace," which we use now to describe someone's noble actions or behaviour, once denoted a perceptible, inner, spiritual goodness. In other words, it's what's on the inside-virtue-and how it affects others that truly counts. Such a definition of grace is still very much a part of ballet and nowhere more evident than in the pas.

Since the last century, the pas de deux has taken the occasional beating. From a feminist perspective, it is just another patriarchal hold-over from when women were put on a pedestal. Yet, many of those lucky enough to dance the leads in the great classics will tell you differently: the pas de deux embodies the height of their careers and is worth every strained tendon they ever suffered.

I've never believed fully in this perspective; only with this performance did I finally understand why the pas de deux speaks to me. It is surely beautiful, full of outward grace, but it is those mannerisms I had taken for granted, that had for years struck me as antiquated bores-the courtesies, the acknowledgments between the ballerina and her danseur, between the dancers and the audience-that, today, suddenly seemed relevant. In fact, this time around, watching the "Grand Pas de Deux" made me sad.

Why? Because, as parents, most of us want our children to grow up treating others with courtesy. The graciousness, appreciation, and consideration for others that nineteenth century classical ballet shows on stage and demands of its audience are qualities that most of us believe are still worthy. Indeed, these are the very lessons I try to teach to my daughter on a daily basis. Yet, I cannot help but see myself and other adults in her life failing to demonstrate these qualities in our treatment of others-our partners, our family, our friends and our colleagues.

Perhaps, then, we all do have some life lessons to learn. For all the glamour of fairy dust and pink satin, courtesy still lives in this world of ballet. It is a place where a ballerina and her prince must make their way, in step, with a little give-and-take and a lot of grace (in the deepest sense of the word), however demanding the pace.

Kena Herod is the dance critic for Maisonneuve Magazine. The Dance Scene appears every other Tuesday.