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Add Some Culture to Your Life with Swan Lake

If you play your cards right, the beautiful production from Pittsburgh Ballet Theater will dazzle even novices.

Photo by Rich Sofranko

Last week, I attended Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s production of “Swan Lake,” presented with accompaniment from the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. It was the first ballet I had seen since ... I do not know the last time I saw a ballet.

I’m sure I have, at some point. Definitely in high school. Theoretically, some other time.

We all have a few corners of arts and culture that we follow, or at least periodically attend — the symphony, or musicals, or local theater. (If all you’ve got is stand-up and the occasional ’80s throwback concert, that’s okay, too.) And I think we all share a wary skepticism that we will be able to “get” a performance in a form we’re not familiar with. If you don’t go to the opera, it can seem like a bridge too far. Same for Shakespeare, or modern dance, or fringe theater, or even improv comedy.

This apprehension forms a sort of de facto barrier for entry for these forms — “I’m not going to be able to appreciate it, so I’m probably not going to try.”

But every now and then, you need a jolt of culture, dammit. You need to see world-class artists doing a thing that you don’t necessarily understand but can easily recognize as immensely skillful. You need to put on reasonably fancy attire and go to a great civic hall of culture and let an experience wash over you.

So I went to see “Swan Lake.” And, of course, it was excellent.

My primary reaction was similar to the response I’ve had when I’ve turned on the Olympics during the past few weeks — in short, “Holy crap, that looks difficult.” The precision, athleticism and grace these dancers possess is astounding. Even if you have no comprehension of the plot, no ability to recognize the choreography and what they’re doing with it, if you’re just looking at the astounding physical movement at work, it’s more than enough to appreciate.

Moreover, new scenery for this production is grand and evocative. The music, too, is perfect; even the utter neophyte will recognize portions of Tchaikovsky’s lovely and ominous work. It is, all in all, a beautiful experience, even if (like me, definitely like me,) you don’t have any proper understanding of what you’re looking at.

I’d recommend the experience, and this production (which continues through Sunday) is a good one for the uninitiated. I have some tips, though, for the Person Trying to Enjoy a Ballet Who Does Not Quite Know How That Works, and they are as follows:

  • Splurge. That bit I said about appreciating the physicality and grace of the dancers will be a lot easier if you can, y’know, clearly see the dancers. The Benedum is a grand space, and you should be able to enjoy the show from anywhere, but if you’re in the first few rows you’ll get a much more complete experience.

  • Read the one-page plot summary in the program before the show (arrive in a timely enough fashion to do so). Through the first act, I was distracted by trying to deduce what precisely was going on. “Captain Fancy over there is having a forest party,” I thought, “and everyone is dancing because this is a really sweet party. Oh, now Queen Fashion is here, with her loyal dog, and she’s giving Captain Fancy the best crossbow in the kingdom. And now Captain Fancy and the Bros are going to kill swans, because this Kingdom hates swans.” That worked okay, but I probably would’ve been a bit more relaxed if I had just checked what was going on beforehand. (Captain Fancy’s real name was Prince Siegfried. I wasn’t too far off with Queen Fashion, who is simply called the Queen Mother.)

  • Watch the footwork. We as humans tend to look people in the eyes; resist that urge and watch what they’re doing. You’ll have a lot of moments of stunned confusion as you consider that feet simply aren’t supposed to work the way they’re working up there.

  • Maybe watch “Black Swan,” with Natalie Portman, beforehand. Context!

With that, even a person who is reasonably sure they’ve seen a ballet before but has no distinct memories of that incident will have a fine time.

And a special note for Pittsburghers: While it is not traditional to tailgate before the ballet, who am I to stop you?


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