I consider myself to be a pretty good representative of the tastes and proclivities of my generation. Sadly, my experience with culture seems to be relegated to memes and image macros online, the occasional book here and there discovered through an excerpt on a blog post, so on and so forth. My experience with the finer forms of culture — say for example, a rousing orchestral piece by Tchaikovsky or a beautifully choreographed dance by the Mariinsky Ballet — is not only sorely lacking, but more than likely permanently absent. I don’t have an existing passion to indulge in these classical endeavors.
Among my 20-something generation, there seems to exist a growing apathy towards classical forms of art that can be attributed to a number of various sociological factors. There could be a slowly diminishing interest towards attending a recital because that very same performance is available at any time and place given the massive archive of information that is the Internet. Perhaps classical forms of art evoke a sense of classism in the minds of the younger generation, the theater assumed to be a venue simply for hoity-toity types. We can even entertain the possibility that there is an assumption that classical arts are outdated, superseded in terms of relevance by more modern forms of expression.
Regardless of the reason, people I know who are around my age, myself included, aren’t typically jumping up and down about spending the night watching a ballet. But despite myself, I recently had the pleasure of enjoying the Mariinsky Ballet’s excellent rendition of the timeless Swan Lake at Segerstrom Center for the Arts on its October 2 opening night (running through October 7) — an experience that completely turned me around on the subject.
The Mariinsky Ballet of Russia is one of the most revered ballet companies in the world, with a rich history stretching as far back as 1738. To see a performance is to not only witness the history of ballet, but its possible evolution as well.
For someone like me who is a complete layman to classical culture, I am rendered almost speechless at how entranced I was with the ballet’s sweeping narrative. A cadre of violins set down jaunty lines of vibrato as the curtains opened to reveal a deliriously cheery scene, with stunningly beautiful men and women sauntering about the stage. I was struck by the vivid hues and lighting of the set production, the carefully crafted painted backdrops setting an ambiance for the audience to escape in. The orchestra, conducted by the venerable Mikhail Agrest, astounded as well, with the swelling sounds of masterful instrumentalists causing tremors in the crowd. The ambiance created served to enrich the very heart of the narrative itself.
This was my first live ballet. My only experience with the form has been through TV or online, watching disinterestedly at the suggestion of a friend. However, as much as it is a cliché to admit, to experience a ballet — especially one at such a highly esteemed standard as this — is both an auditory and visceral experience unlike the projections we are used to.
The London Evening Standard has described the lakeside scene in Swan Lake as sublime, the perfect word for the feelings that welled up inside me as I watched in awe. The grace of a sweep and flourish in time with a rousing bass line, the rhythmic jumps adding another layer of depth to the percussion, the swan-like arch of Odette’s movement implicating a subtle difference between her and the human prince are just a few of the many parts of the ballet that floored me.
The dancers themselves were extensions of the music around them, hauntingly beautiful instruments that expressed music with the movements of their bodies. Even in absolute stillness they were full of expression, the small and subtle gestures by those on the sidelines a testament to the Mariinsky Ballet’s fine eye for detail.
To witness Swan Lake is to indulge oneself in a richly frenetic study of the beauty of movement itself, and to miss this event on the lines of a slowly eroding sense of classical culture would be a shame, really.