Every year, a dance “expert” announces the demise of classical ballet by referring to television trends that idolize competition dance styles, very few of which involve pointe shoes. As convincing as these arguments may be, they often ignore what is happening in the traditional settings for dance productions, the theaters.
Swan Lake is one of the oldest of the classical story ballets. Set to the music of Tchaikovsky, it is a love story between Prince Siegfried and Odette. Odette is the victim of a spell that transforms her into a swan by day and a woman by night. Only real love can free her from the curse. Each choreographer who takes on the ballet tells the story from a different point of view, and this month, two different viewpoints will grace Philadelphia’s theaters.
Pennsylvania Ballet’s Swan Lake runs from March 5 to March 15 at the Academy of Music. Choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon in 2014, the production updates the plot, set, and choreography for current audiences. On March 19, a film version of the Royal Ballet’s production will air in a King of Prussia movie theater. This interpretation by Sir Anthony Dowell pays homage to the original Ivanov and Petipa vision.
The process of seeing both versions is essentially the same. Tell the person behind the counter that you’d like to see Swan Lake, hand over your money, and take your ticket. Then, depending on your venue choice, you can make your way to the theater, or you can go get popcorn. While the Royal Ballet took a more traditional choreographic approach, their medium — chosen in an effort to keep ballet relevant — isn’t.
Reaching a worldwide audience
In 2012, the Royal Ballet began its Live Cinema Season, a feature of its regular season that aired nine recorded performances in movie theaters across the world. These productions have reached over 700,000 people. To gain that level of viewership, the Pennsylvania Ballet would have to perform sold-out performances of Swan Lake every day for about nine months.
Each production costs at least $1 million — an awfully high price tag for an allegedly dying art. The difference is in the number of seats filled, and thus, the price per ticket. The cheapest seats for Pennsylvania Ballet’s production cost about $40. While student rush tickets are available, they require a hopeful audience member to arrive an hour before the performance — which the student may or may not get into. This policy, and these prices, limit the experience to those who can afford tickets. It excludes, for instance, the many dancers who work for dance companies for free or for small sums for irregularly scheduled performances.
A sure thing
As a woman with this sort of income, if I am going to spend $40 on an event, I need to be sure of it. I need to love the choreographer, the interpretation, and the dancers. I can, however, afford to be a bit less discriminating with the $15 price of a movie ticket. With the artistic salary in mind, lowering admission costs does not speak to the quality or appreciation of the ballet. It is a gift to the people who populate the field. For the dance company, it provides an opportunity to gain and diversify its supporters.
One only needs to see a ballet to realize that it is narratively and physically about overcoming difficulties. With that in mind, I will find a way to see both productions. Maybe I will eat less, pick up an extra gig, or work by candlelight to avoid having to turn on the lights. Why? Because contrary to what the “experts” say, ballet is neither dead nor dying. It is merely under the sort of spell that can only be broken by love for it.