Over the centuries, “ballet” as classical genre of dance has expanded from romantic story ballets to include neoclassical abstract works and contemporary movement pieces. Story ballets remain the style closest to other forms of popular art (literature, films, music, theater), as they incorporate an easily understood narrative. Dance, however, also uses movement as its language, which leaves plenty of room for interpretation. The more abstract the movement, the less identifiable the intent.
In story ballets, gestures are assigned a familiar intent, to communicate feelings like “I love you” that take shape in our minds as emotions—and as words. Those words help articulate a story, which we can easily discuss with others. This is why story ballets like Swan Lake have such mass appeal. They meet the mainstream in its comfort zone.
But when ballet choreography uses more abstract gestures, we’re left to interpret the dance’s meaning for ourselves. Several key features of ballet, however, can bring the lens of abstraction into more focus. One key feature of ballet, as a classical dance form, is line. A ballet dancer creates line through the outward rotation of their legs, by stretching their feet with the heels arching forward, by keeping their head well balanced on top of their spine, and through a harmonious proportion of limbs in relation to the body in space.
Yet, the essence of classical dance is more than shapes made in space. The qualities of movement are equally important and reflect the tone, timbre, rhythms and melodies in classical music. Whether alighting in a piqué arabesque or gradually extending a leg upward in a developé, leaping through the air in an arcing trajectory or darting more directly in a sissonne élancé, dancers imbue their steps with a sense of harmony. Classical ballet choreography was created, and is performed, to demonstrate a natural, easeful relationship to gravity, space and time.
In neoclassical or contemporary ballet, choreographers deliberately break the rules of classical dance. The lines of the body, the qualities of classical movement and vocabulary of steps may be manipulated, deconstructed, and/or distorted to the point where the classical form is unidentifiable. The choreographer may incorporate jazz, modern, improvisation or post-modern techniques as a way of taking ballet into a new realm. Drawing from classical ballet technique but not limited to it, choreographers of neoclassical or contemporary ballets express an individualized, contemporary aesthetic.
Before creating a new ballet, most choreographers decide on a theme they’d like to explore, and the clarity of that intention is vital to the integrity of the piece. Audience members may not know the details of the choreographer’s motivation, but they can usually feel whether or not the piece is focused and complete, which gives them a basis from which to develop a subjective interpretation.
Watching ballet, however, is about more than discovering a choreographer’s intention, which isn’t a riddle to decipher. It’s about understanding the work on the level of our own experience, even if that understanding is a kinesthetic experience that only exists for the duration of the dance. So approach ballet with an open mind, and with respect for its most traditional forms, its present iterations and its future innovations. Sit back, allow for these variations and take them all in.