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Ballet Basics


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Ballet isn't just reams of tulle and tutus, elaborate set designs and graceful dance sequences set to music that's composed by men with French, Italian or Russian names that most people can't pronounce.

And its audiences aren't stuffy, elitist professionals dressed in ball gowns and tuxedos. Well ... at least not all of them.

If these are the stereotypes that have been holding you back from attending the ballet, it's time to put them to rest.

From top to bottom, Grace Phelps, Alexandra Jones, Allison Shi. They are in the Aquarium scene of "Carnival of the Animals" as performed by Indy Ballet. - ROBERTA WONG
  • Roberta Wong
  • From top to bottom, Grace Phelps, Alexandra Jones, Allison Shi. They are in the Aquarium scene of "Carnival of the Animals" as performed by Indy Ballet.

Since its beginning in Italy during the 15th century as court dances, ballet has evolved from those beautifully classic yet tragic stories such as Giselle, Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake.

Today, the art form features a variety of styles, from classical to neoclassical to contemporary. And it incorporates influences of modern dance, pulsating music and asymmetrical moves performed in everything from pointe shoes to bare feet by dancers from all walks of life.

"Ballet is so precise and disciplined that people think that it's just too hard and unapproachable, but ballet was derived from court dances, and it needs to be approached in that way," says Victoria Lyras, artistic director of the Indianapolis School of Ballet, a pre-professional ballet company in Indianapolis.

"Yes, there's the language and structure, but ballet is so complete," she says. "It's mathematical, it's musical, it's artistic -- we create pictures with our body."

Like the court dances of its origin, ballet can also be fun and comical.

This weekend, the Indianapolis School of Ballet's Carnival of the Animals and the Indiana Ballet Conservatory's La Fille mal Gardee (The Wayward Daughter) are two very different ballets that will show the lighter more relaxed side of the art form. Both are expected to draw laughs from the audience and are great options for first-time ballet-goers of all ages.

Still not convinced that ballet is for you? We asked the experts to dispel a few ballet myths and offer tips to help newbies enjoy the show.

Ball gowns and tuxedos required?

Despite what you might think, ballet does not require a fancy dress code.

"We welcome people to wear anything," says Missy Rust, director of marketing and outreach at the Indiana Ballet Conservatory, a pre-professional company in Carmel. "The average patron is in tan pants and button-down oxfords, what I call country clubattire."

Lyras, a master teacher and former professional ballerina who performed with the Pennsylvania Ballet and the Indianapolis Ballet Theatre, contends that the way people dress for the ballet "isn't as stiff as it was."  But she still likes to see people get gussied up from time to time.

"When I take my students to the ballet, it's delightful to see them in their dresses," she says. "There's a sense of history and etiquette and decorum, and it's nice to pass it on. There's a certain respect for the performer [that's displayed] through the audience's attire."

However, times have changed and people attend the ballet in a variety of attire -- from khakis to dresses to jeans.

Even famed choreographer George Balanchine, who's credited with changing the face of ballet in America, "was notorious for being in jeans, a shirt and blazer," said Lyras, who received her training at the School of American Ballet, which was founded by Balanchine.

Seven dancers performing in "Sur les Pointes" a production by Boris Volkoff's Canadian Ballet. - FRANK ROYAL
  • Frank Royal
  • Seven dancers performing in "Sur les Pointes" a production by Boris Volkoff's Canadian Ballet.

What's the story?

Some classical ballets, such as Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker, have definite story lines, while many neoclassical and contemporary ballets do not. The story, however, isn't the most important aspect of a ballet.

Both Lyras and Rust believe the way the ballet makes you feel is what audiences should focus on.

"Let the ballet take you where it's supposed to take you, and for each person that can be different," says Rust. "It isn't for us to tell you what you should see during a ballet, because each person will see something different."

Lyras advises audiences to allow "yourself to experience the journey, to be transported," she says. "Sit back, relax and soak up the experience."     

Rise to the occasion

It's not over the top to give dancers a standing ovation. They're still allowed and welcomed.

"Absolutely, you should give a standing ovation at the end of the ballet," says Lyras. "If something propels you or moves you during the ballet, then by all means do it. If you want to laugh, laugh. If you want to cry, cry. You go through the motions and emotions with the dancers."

Sometimes audiences don't know how to act or what to do during a performance, which happened during an Indiana Ballet Conservatory performance.

Rust said there was a group of Girl Scouts in the audience who weren't reacting to the performers on stage, so Alyona Yakovleva-Randall, founding artistic director of the conservatory, came out during intermission to let them know that they could clap whenever they wanted during the ballet.

"The way the audience reacts means a lot to dancers," says Rust, "because dancers feed off of the reaction from the audience." 

La Sylphide Ballet with Rebecca Brenner.  - WILL BRENNER
  • Will Brenner
  • La Sylphide Ballet with Rebecca Brenner.

Tossing the Bouquet

Throwing flowers onto the stage is a centuries-old tradition.

"It's tradition in Russia to throw carnations (or flowers) to the dancers when they come out (at the end of a performance)," says Rust. To keep the tradition alive, the conservatory sells carnations during all of its performances.

Throwing flowers -- whether roses or carnations -- is a joy for dancers, as well, according to Lyras.

"I can't tell you as a performing artist how meaningful that is," she says. "I remember during one of my performances, the chorus and orchestra threw roses onto the stage. You're so overcome with emotion. It's magical and humbling when you touch somebody."

Shouting Praise

Saying "bravo" during curtain calls is still an appropriate way to express how much you liked a performance, but it's not the only word you can use.

Lyras explains that "bravo," "bravi" and "brava" are all acceptable, depending on who you say it to, of course. Bravo is masculine. Brava is feminine. Bravi is plural.

"But, as performers, we'll take bravos," adds Lyras, laughing.

Stick around after the show

Leave early and you're sure to miss something.

Rust suggests sticking around after the ballet is over to meet some of the cast or workers.

"Feel free to go up to people who work with the ballet to ask questions or offer feedback," she says. "If you see one of the dancers after the ballet, let them know how much you enjoyed the show or their performance."

  • Greg Gamble

Not sure which ballet to see first?

Of course, Lyras and Rust would suggest one of their company's performances, but they also have other suggestions for your first ballet.

Lyras suggests The Nutcracker, Coppelia, The Magic Flute and MidSummer Night's Dream.

Rust also recommends The Nutcracker.

"I think everyone should see the classical Nutcracker," says Rust. "I've seen over 70 to 80 Nutcrackers in the last six years, and I see something new in the performances each year -- something I didn't see before -- because each one is so different."

Different styles and types

There's more than one style and type of ballet. So how do you know what you're watching? Here's a quick look at the differences, according to the Pittsburg Ballet Theatre.

Story Ballets tell a story. They include narrative action, characters and a beginning and an end. Some of the well-known story ballets include SleepingBeauty and The Nutcracker.

Plotless Ballets don't have a story line. Instead, they use the movement of the body and theatrical elements to interpret music, create an image or to express or provoke emotion. Famed choreographer George Balanchine was a prolific creator of plotless ballets.

Classical Ballet is the style that people generally think about when they think about ballet. Classical ballet reached its height in 19th-century Russia and is characterized by graceful, flowing movements; classical movements and pointe work; balance and symmetry; an emphasis on story ballets and narrative; and elaborate sets and costumes.

Neoclassical Ballet was introduced in the 20th century by choreographers such as George Balanchine. It generally includes increased speed; energy and attack of movements; manipulation of the classical form of ballet; asymmetry; non-narrative, often one-act ballets; and a paired-down aesthetic featuring simple sets and costumes.  

Contemporary Ballet is influenced by modern dance. Renowned contemporary ballet choreographers include Twyla Tharp, Paul Taylor and Dwight Rhoden. Contemporary Ballet is characterized by floor work; turn-in of the legs; greater range of motion and body line; pointe shoes but also bare feet.

Indianapolis' style

Indianapolis has been without a full-time professional ballet company since Ballet Internationale folded in 2005. But that hasn't stifled the ballet scene in central Indiana.

Victoria Lyras, artistic director of Indianapolis School of Ballet, is an accomplished performer who also designs dance and figure skating costumes and headpieces for her Lyrical Designs business.  - COURTESY OF INDIANAPOLIS SCHOOL OF BALLET
  • Courtesy of Indianapolis School of Ballet
  • Victoria Lyras, artistic director of Indianapolis School of Ballet, is an accomplished performer who also designs dance and figure skating costumes and headpieces for her Lyrical Designs business.

The area features a mix of classical, contemporary and modern ballet from local professional and pre-professional companies, as well as touring companies.

"Classical ballet is the root of what we do," says Lyras, who contends that she brought "the American classicism of Balanchine" [which is based on the Russian method with added musicality and speed] to Indianapolis and changed the landscape of ballet in the city.

"Now we're seeing diversity and opportunity," Lyras explains. "One of the lifelong lessons of my Balanchine background is that you don't hold back. You take risks to explore experiences and opportunity."

Rust says there's a great mix of styles in central Indiana because, "We get to see any type of ballet we want to see, if we seek it out."

The conservatory teaches the Vaganova method, which is a Russian-based technique. Rust says the conservatory does two full ballets each year and one full contemporary and modern ballet "as a way for the faculty to show off their artistic side."

Ballets to attend this weekend in Indianapolis

Carnival of the Animals

When: 3 p.m. May 17 and 3 p.m. May 18

Where: Scottish Rite Cathedral Theatre, 650 N. Meridian St.

Tickets: $20, $22 and $25


Carnival of the Animals is a whimsical story about a school-aged boy named Francis who desperately wants to become a dancer. But in his overzealousness, he spins out of control during class and falls, sending him into a dream sequence where his classmates turn into zoo animals.

The ballet was created by Lyras and is set to French Romantic composer Camille Saint-Saens' score of the same name.

"(The music) was originally composed in 1886 and considered a grand zoological fantasy," Lyras explains. "(Camille Saint-Saens) wrote it simply as entertainment for his friends during Carnival time, and requested that it not be published until after his death."

La Fille mal Gardee (The Wayward Daughter)

When: 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. May 17

Where: The Toby Theatre, Indianapolis Museum of Art, 4000 Michigan Road

Tickets: $15-$25


La Fille mal Gardee is a "boy meets girl" tale of a young villager named Lise and a young farmer named Colas who want to marry. But Lise's mother has different plans that include arranging her daughter's hand to a rich but dim-witted countryman.

La Fille malGardee is a popular ballet among modern ballet companies.


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