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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Paris Opera

Ballet Without a Programme
Eric D. Lehman

Some would argue that ballet and opera are no longer living arts. That is, they do not affect the cultural landscape in the same way films or other media do. To be sure, a new and excellent ballet can and does affect a number of people and change them, but not society as a whole. It does not seem to be something that the modern mind connects with. Nevertheless, on my honeymoon I went to see a ballet in the amazing 1875 Paris Opera House, the Palais Garnier.

My wife had given me these tickets during the previous Christmas and we were both excited. Neither of us had ever seen a live ballet before. Unfortunately, it turned out that the two seats she was able to score for that night were not adjoining, or even in the same "box." We split up inside the beautiful old opera house, promising to meet at intermission. I was immediately struck by the enormous six-ton chandelier, ornate gold facings, and plush red seats. This was what I expected from a ballet in Paris, an ancient ritual in a domain of flamboyant riches.

The ceiling, painted more recently by Mark Chagall, took my breath away. Yellows, reds, blues, and greens swirled around scenes of Dionysian revelry. Couples embraced and I thought of my wife, and vainly tried to peer down and around to where I thought her box might be. Meanwhile, a French family entered the box, and their young daughter complained that she couldn’t see. So, being the polite gentleman I like to think of myself as, I let the small girl take my seat. Immediately, I knew I made a mistake. My view of stage left became partially blocked by a pillar, though if I leaned out over her I could see more clearly.

The ballet of the day was Paquita, apparently a typical 19th century production. As the music struck up, I realized that I did not have a programme, and even if I did, it would be in French. I certainly had not read up on the ballet, did not know the libretto, and as the dancers appeared I realized that I was going to have no earthly idea what was happening.

I could appreciate a few things immediately, of course. The costumes were bright and colorful, made with care and extravagance. The dancers themselves performed athletic spins and twirls and jumps that put pro basketballers to shame. A barbarian like me could wonder at these marvelous skills, even while remaining in the dark about the story.
Rather than let myself be swept away by the music and dance moves, I decided to try to fight my confusion and figure it out. Gypsies, bullfighters, and soldiers mixed on the stage, all seeming to fight over one Bohemian girl. The company stood on the edges watching the performance like the chorus in Greek theater. Groups of children ran across the stage in several scenes and I wondered how much they understood of what they were doing. I had always enjoyed the symphony, but here it seemed tangential rather than the primary attraction. Having attended operas and musicals, I kept expecting the dancers to burst into song, and their silence baffled me.

The girl in my assigned seat blew her nose loudly and the mother hit her on the shoulder. Nevertheless, she did it again, louder. I tried to ignore her and concentrate on the plot. The gypsy girl has a falling out with a gypsy man. A soldier is much nicer to her and seems like the hero. The gypsy steals a locket from her. A bald guy in red hangs around the background, and I surmise he is the devil. The second act is easier to understand. The gypsy goes to kill someone in a bar. The bald guy, who appears masked and certainly must be the devil, encourages him. They invite the soldier in to the table and are going to get him wasted, and then stab him.

Of course, the girl who loves the soldier isn’t going to let this happen. They set the table for pasta and meatballs, which I find to be an odd choice in what I thought was Spain. The gypsy and soldier eat, and the girl sticks around, even though the gypsy doesn’t want her to. She switches the glasses, and breaks the bottle "accidentally" so no one can drink more. The gypsy king drinks while the girl dances around, providing entertainment. The gypsy keels over, and drops the locket. The girl and soldier grab it and escape through a magical passage in the chimney.

At intermission I share my interpretation of the events with my wife, who looks a bit confused herself. She has been focusing on the technique, the beauty in the dance, and the music. She mentions the dozens of movements happening at once, the nearly mechanical wonder of the performance. I shrug. "I still wish I had the libretto."

After intermission I can’t locate the right box and only by peeking in through various curtains to look for the little girl in my old seat do I find it. A ballroom scene full of soldiers follows. I use my powers of literary analysis and peg this as "the hero’s return to his world." The girl accuses the bald guy in red, who is not the devil, but some rival or other lord of the solider. He is dragged off, looking quite put out. The parents of the hero accept the gypsy girl, and this has something to do with the locket stolen earlier by the other gypsy. Perhaps she is not a gypsy after all, and by some 19th century logic is acceptable in their polite society.

The story is over but the dances continue, all fairly similar. The music spins like a carousel, round and round. The last few dances lose narrative coherence and seem completely extraneous. At this point I realize that the entire story was only an excuse for spectacle, that Paquita did not strive for emotions like opera, but rather worked as a feast for the eyes and ears. Was it only this piece? Or do all ballets work this way? Does that make it better or worse?

Regardless, I had been entertained trying to figure out the plot, even if it wasn’t important. The performance also challenged my ideas of what to expect. Don’t those two characteristics combine to make the "living art" that society needs? Maybe I wasn’t such a barbarian after all. Maybe there was a place for ballet in the modern mind. However, as I got up to leave, I noticed the parents of the little girl in my former seat shaking her. She had fallen asleep.

© Eric D Lehman Feb 2009
Elehman at bridgeport.edu

Eric D. Lehman is a Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut and has previously published reviews, essays, fiction, and poetry in various journals, such as Hackwriters, Umbrella, Artistry of Life, Red River Review, Identity Theory, Entelechy, Switchback, and Nexus: The International Henry Miller Journal. His book
Tales From the Park City is forthcoming from The History Press.


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