Elaine Forrestal

The Language of Ballet

Ballerina Sarah Hepburn in The Clearest Light.

Most people would agree that ballet tells a story. How accessible that story is to different audiences depends a great deal on the choreography of the work. Prose, like ballet, is as much about rhythm and body language as it is about the actual words. We have all read sentences that have danced across the page. Skilful writers can create moving pictures of incredible grace and beauty in our minds, just as skilful choreographers do on stage. But how do choreographers communicate the story they have in their minds to dancers who will recreate it on stage? It is something I have often wondered about, but never really understood until last night, when I saw Ballet 101 performed at the Quarry Amphitheatre. Now I know that a numerical code exists for classical ballet, just as it does for computing. Every classical dancer learns the 100 classical dance positions by heart in order to read the story the choreographer is telling.

What about the one hundred and first position, though? In the solo dance, Ballet 101, each of the 100 classical dance positions is performed in sequence with a voiceover calling out the numbers and the dancer responding by adopting the positions. But where is the story? Then it was revealed that that was just the Prologue. The dance continued with the voiceover/narrator calling out the numbers in random order – so he said – but what he was actually doing was developing his plot. He directed the dancer to perform more and more complicated sequences at a faster and faster pace, preparing his audience for the surprise ending that was to come. Finally the dancer lay exhausted on the stage. The narrator paused, as every good storyteller does, and congratulated the dancer on his performance. The audience applauded. The dancer stood up. But he did not take a bow. Instead the narrator asked the question that was on everyone’s mind. ‘What about position 101?’ The stage lights went down for three seconds, then came up again. There was an almost audible gasp from the audience. Our dancer was lying on the stage in bits and piece – totally destroyed. A leg here, an arm and shoulder there, a torso with head attached. It all looked so realistic that it took me a few seconds to actually see that, of course, these were parts of a dummy disguised as our dancer.

Everyone laughed. The story was complete. Cleverly conceived and wonderfully delivered with all the elements of character, setting and plot present in the narrative. As an audience we had completely suspended our disbelief and become absorbed in the story being told in dance.

Bravo WA Ballet for bringing such a challenging performance to us.