Un Soire a la Ballet

Trip Start Sep 13, 2012
Trip End Dec 21, 2013

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Flag of France  , Île-de-France,
Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Two weeks ago, (11/7/12), we all went to a ballet at the Opera Garnier. Many of us in the program had been excited about the prospect of seeing a real ballet in a legendary opera house from the moment it had been announced. A ballet in a opera house, how very Parisian and sophisticated. The moment we were able to sign up for the tickets, we made sure to save our place. The night of the ballet came, and we all arrived dressed to the nines. Sean even put on a different corduroy blazer for the occasion. 
I, as always, was late, so, when took the elevator to the very top floor where an usher had instructed me to go, no one was around; everyone was already in their seats. As i was trying to figure out the correct entrance to find my seat and the rest of the group, another usher pulled me into the theater and made me sit in the first empty seat she saw because apparently, in France, you can't come into performances late; they make you sit outside till intermission. I found out later that I was in the correct section, just the exact opposite side of the section from everyone else and my actual seat. Jane had bought us seats five or six rows from the very last, top row in the theater. Even though we truly were in the nosebleed section, we had a wonderful view of the theater. The theater is a huge room extending up four stories, with red velvet chairs and carpeting everywhere; the details are all gold and painted, so it appears to that audience members that they are back in the 19th century when the opera house was first built.  

The opera house was built under Napoleon III as part of the great Paris restoration project headed by Baron Haussmann in order to restore all of the buildings and roads destroyed in the revolution. The architect of the O.H. was an unknown architect, Charles Garnier, who won a contest to build the house for the emperor, (the full story is in the Driving Tour of Paris entry from September). 
In the 19th century, people did not go to the opera to see the show; they went to be seen. When women arrived in their carriages, maids were there, ready to make them look pretty for their appearance at the opera. The Persian women of society trained with pet turtles so they could match the walking pace of the slowest animal on earth as they ascended the grand staircase of the Opera house, that way, everyone could get a good look at them on their way up. When everyone made it to their seats and the show had begun, the lights (the candles) remained lit because no one actually concentrated on the stage; the show was in the audience. In the boxes and balconies, business deals were made, women socialized, men had their "lady friends" entertain them behind a curtain. The only people watching the show were paid university students in the standing area directly in front of the stage who were instructed to clap and cheer at certain moments to keep the ambiance of the theater alive. The next day, the newspapers would report that a certain actor or dancer was so great the night before because the crowd cheered for them so much. But, in reality, that actor/dancer/singer would have been the one to pay the crowd to cheer for him/her. The performance on stage mattered so little, that the rehearsal room for the dancers/actors/singers, was about half the size of the stage, and not anywhere near substantial enough for rehearsal. With the invention of electricity, everything changed. Tech crews were able to put lights on the stage to illuminate the performers and put the audience in the dark. Now, the audience was forced to watch where the light was: the stage. Performances became more important, actors became known for their actual talent, the rehearsal room was moved to a bigger space, and the social aspect of the theater died down. 

During the performance we saw, however, I wished the lights were up and I had some back ally business deal to attend to like back in the 1800s. The first half of the performance can only be explained as "strange". There was a lot of sliding across the floor, (which is slanted 3 very large degrees), wearing skin color spandex under felt costumes of trees or berries, or bugs, (i think that's what they were; they looked like those felt balls you use with pipe cleaners in arts and crafts). Then there was some sort of exchange over a bolder...i'm not sure what was happening. The "dancers" (if you could call it dancing), were sliding across the floor in slow motion; all of their movements were sloth-like, as if they were moving against the wind or under water. Their costumes were like those worn by the models in the Lady Gaga perfume advertisement, the models placed all over Gaga's naked body on the perfume bottle, (Google it if you don't know what i'm talking about). The men wore back leather pants, it seemed like, and then a leather police hat...if that makes sense. There were felt trees that came out at some point, then the costumes became colorful, and then a wall with door shapes cut out of it slid slowly across the stage and the "dancers" used it as a prop. There was no identifiable story or meaning to anything happening on the stage; it was like the choreographer was high when he or she came up with the ballet. Granted, it was a modern ballet, but this was just ridiculous. The music was by far the most interesting part. There was a chorus of singers and a whole orchestra. For a lot of the performance before the intermission, the orchestra created a sense of anticipation with hteir music. It was like they were saying: "Something's coming, wait for it, wait for it...", and it never came. It put me on edge the whole time. The only part which i truly enjoyed was when the dancers did a whole five minute segment on sliding across the freshly waxed stage like children in their socks across a hard wood kitchen. The music was pretty fun, and for a full five minutes i watched professional dancers act like children; i was thoroughly amused. The girls would get a running start in their point shoes, and as they slid across the stage, the muscular male dancers, spread out in a line a cross the stage, would propel the girls as they slid past them, so they would make it to the other end of the stage without stopping. 

Intermission came sooner than i expected, which was a relief, and i was finally able to join the rest of my group. Some of us went to the theater bar for drinks. Haley bought a glass of champagne and they charged her 12 euros: unbelievable.  

When the lights flashed we headed back to our seats, and i found my seat among the AIFS kids. Turns out, my actual seat was in a cheaper section, (somehow), than where i had been sitting for first half. Or perhaps the usher had put me in a handicap seat when I arrived. Either way, this new seat was damn uncomfortable; it had no back to it; it was basically just a velvet bench. When I'm at a performance with my mom back home, we usually whisper things to each other during the performance, like opinions or judgements about what we are watching, so on this night at the Opera house I couldn't help but whisper to Melanie (Montoya), who was sitting next to me, and ask her if she thought it was as bad as i thought it was. We would giggle quietly, but then Andrew would keep shushing us from his seat behind me. Boy, there is nothing to hear; there is no music, singing, or talking happening on the stage, so stop freaking shushing us! Seriously, though, there really was no sound coming from the stage or the orchestra pit other than the sound of point shoes hitting the stage. All of the performers wore grey-ish/white leotards, and danced in pairs. That, combined with the lack of music and completely naked stage was like watching a black and white, silent film. Every so often, the bongo players would tap their bongo quietly once or twice, but with no discernible rhythm or time set; it was just once or twice, and then not again for another five minutes. With the chorus gone, and the orchestra almost all in disuse, the only sound for a solid hour was the pitter patter of the point ballet shoes on hard wood. I don't know how it is possible, but the choreography got a whole lot worse in the second half than the first. The performers danced in pairs, but their was no symmetry to what anyone was doing; it seemed like each pair moved individually from everyone else. Also, since their was no music, the dancers did not seem to be keeping any time. I would bet money that the instructions of the director to the dancers before they went out for the second half was, "Hey guys, so why don't you guys just go out there and dance like no one's watching. Yeah, just pretend you're in rehearsal for another performance you did back in college or something...Oh yeah, and don't even try to be graceful. Grace isn't important here; it's the fact that you're moving at all that these people want to see." It was the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen. I have no shame in saying that I actually fell a sleep, several times. I tried to stay awake out of respect for the performance, but then about 15 minutes into it, i lost that respect, and my only goal was to not fall over as I slept in my seat. I found out later that I was not the only one of our group to doze off. Every time I woke up I prayed for it to the over; if i had not had plans with some of the girls after the performance, i would have left before the ending, it was that bad. 

If you are in the market for a method of torture, I've found it for you. Now, I understand it was a modern ballet, (though i would have very much enjoyed the tutus), and i give props to the dancers for their athletic ability and dedication, but what we saw that night was just wrong: terrible, boring, uninteresting, and just wrong. It does not have the right to call itself a ballet.
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