As a kind of catch-all Christmas-and-several-birthdays treat we go as a family to the Royal Ballet’s performance of The Nutcracker. It is a spellbinding piece of theatre, with production feats that dazzle as the Christmas tree, the dolls’ house and the toys all grow to giant proportions before your eyes, and the young girl Clara is transformed to the same scale as her nutcracker doll who comes to life, for he is really a prince under an enchantment. Battles between his soldiers and the Mouse King and his bewhiskered company follow.
Christmas angels, full-size versions of the one that was once atop the Christmas tree, appear to glide across the stage in their robes of red and gold as they dance on pointe. The corps de ballet in flowing white, whose diaphanous silks make intricate snowflake patterns which kaleidoscope as they move to the music and snow begins to fall. A sledge whisks Clara and her prince to the Kingdom of the Sweets for some wonderful set-piece dances. On their return, we find that love has freed the dashing prince from his enchantment.
It is a powerful, visual feast of beauty because of the blend of sight, sound and movement. But I find ballet is always more than the sum of its parts. It has a spiritual quality which is something to do with the way the beauty and dignity of the human body emerge when disciplined so highly and when wholly sublimated to their art. In an age obsessed with the body as an object, in ballet the phenomenal strength and grace of the body are means not ends; the end is the artistic expression of the sense of the music and the narrative.
This time I was particularly struck by the way in which, if the body makes visible the human spirit, classical ballet also dramatises something about the order, complementarity and beauty of masculinity and femininity. It is theoretically possible, I suppose, that a heavily built Sugar Plum Fairy could lift a gamine Cavalier over her head. But the moment she did, it would become pantomime and not the sublime thing it is.
By assigning distinct roles to the sexes in the way that classical ballet does it manifests each in its proper dignity. Likewise, the sheer physicality of the art means that it would not be possible to sustain for long the illusion that through surgery a man can somehow become a woman, or vice versa. It would be all too visibly not true.
It seems obvious, but there is all the difference in the world between experiencing a live performance and watching it on a screen. Ballet is one of those things you have to see in the flesh, because it is the flesh communicating. To see things live, to look with an inner eye, is what allows “that primordial and basic mental grasping of reality which constitutes the essence of man as a spiritual being”, according to the German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper.
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