Credit: Sydney Opera House

Last weekend, my girlfriend, Helena, bought me tickets to see the Australian Ballet’s performance of ‘New York Dialects’ at the Sydney Opera House. And it was bloody good.

I was sceptical about the ballet. While I appreciate dance, I don’t really know anything about it. How do I do I know if it’s any good? Is it just if I enjoy it, does that make it good? Is that enough? I like the movie Independence Day but that doesn’t make it good. Do I need to know what certain moves are called? What moves are difficult to pull off? I was completely clueless. It made the whole process a little daunting at first.

The music I had no issue with. Classical music has always been something I enjoy so getting to listen to the Opera Australia Orchestra was at least one aspect of the performance that I was looking forward to. I listen to it when I’m working or stressed out, but would it be the same?

Dancing, for whatever reason, isn’t something that I ever really picture when listening to classical music. But then I remembered Swan Lake. That was composed as a ballet. It wasn’t supposed to be just music but an accompaniment to dance. So that actually made me a little excited to find out how it all works together. If the music is good, surely seeing the whole thing together is even better? But the dancing and story are usually lyrical, a story told through dance, interpretive. And if there isn’t a story then it would be themes and emotions told through dance. I didn’t even know what that might look like.

Why did I get tickets then if I was so uncertain whether or not I’d like it? Well, like many men in relationships, my girlfriend bought me a ticket, so she would have someone to go with. Now that meant I had no excuse for not going. But it’s not like she dragged me there by any means. I was excited to dress up, drink overpriced wine, and see the show. It sounded like a great night and luckily that’s exactly what it ended up being.

The show is called ‘New York Dialects’ which Helena told me would be like a tasting platter of the ballet. The first one is quite a classically styled ballet called Serenade. The second, Watermark, was a brand-new ballet with elements of contemporary dance added, and the third, The Four Temperaments, was something in between. So they each had something different that would help me decide if I liked all ballet, some ballet, or no ballet.

The scenic walk to the Sydney Opera House from Circular Quay really puts you in the mood for it too. You’re all dressed up walking along the beautiful harbour with a beautiful partner on your arm. Salt in the air, revelry coming from the nearby Opera Bar, the brisk night air causing you to huddle together. Pretty as a picture.

A lot of people in Sydney see the Opera House every day and it’s easy to take it for granted.  But walking up towards the Opera House you’re instantly reminded just how beautiful and unique the building really is. I don’t know how many people have actually been inside, but the interior is no different. They replicate the texture of the sails on the walls inside and there’s red carpet, a bar, and a coffee shop, all very dimly and romantically lit. It has a luxurious, premium feel to it.

The Joan Sutherland Theatre itself is smaller than I anticipated but that also means that I don’t think there are any outright terrible seats. Our seats were, however, brilliant. Situated on the balcony in the second row, right in the middle of the stage. I couldn’t ask for better. Though be prepared for a lot of stairs. A lot. First you have to climb into the Opera House itself and then climb many more to get into the theatre itself. Sensible heels might be a good idea as Helena found out.

The Joan Sutherland Theatre | Credit: Sydney Opera House

Once the lights went down, we saw the conductor come into the orchestra pit and take a bow. The music started, Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C, and the curtain was raised. Ballerinas in long ice-blue tutus, moving in complete unison on a blue background. How to describe the effect in words? Ethereal? Or simply beautiful? The lighting produced a beautiful effect that was surreal to see right in front of me. It’s one thing to see lighting effects in movies but it’s another thing to see them at play right in front of your eyes in real time.

Serenade was my favourite of the three ballets. I found out later that it’s considered one of the best ballets of the 20thcentury and I can see why because it immediately gave me an appreciation for the art form. I still didn’t know what the dancers were doing or how they were doing it, but I didn’t care, I was just completely enthralled. It was one of those things that just clicked.

The opening of Serenade | Credit: Broadsheet

The intermission came and I was very excited about the next one, Watermark. After getting another round of drinks we made our way back to our seats as the lights went out and the curtain was raised.

A stark black background with minimal white lighting appeared as the male dancers hit the stage in white jumpsuits. It was very different to Serenade. It was, uh, interesting. I don’t know if it’s just me being ignorant, but the dancing seemed clumsy and the music unfortunately sparse. I’m no stranger to minimalistic approaches to art but it just didn’t seem to work here. I honestly wasn’t sure if it was me but when the dancers walked along the front of the stage like sleepy sloths, I wasn’t the only one unimpressed. The woman next to me began snickering and as I overheard her conversation afterwards, she seemed to know what she was talking about. It was, indeed, a silly dance, she said.

A moment from Watermark | Credit: Sydney Opera House

I was worried about the final ballet after that. Helena reassured me by saying that Watermark was a new and more avant-garde work that isn’t representative of ballet as a whole. So when The Four Temperaments started I had my fingers crossed that it was more like Serenade.  

The Four Temperaments wasn’t like Serenade. But it was beautiful, nonetheless. The production was completely stripped back in comparison to the others. The lighting was just standard; no colour, no dramatic contrasts, just functional light in order to see the dancers clearly. The costumes were also minimal with just black and white tights and tops. As it turned out The Four Temperaments was just straight up dancing to music. And I was really impressed by it. Without the distraction of the entire spectacle, you really got to appreciate the dancing on its own merits. Some of the solos were bloody brilliant too and even though I know nothing about dance, I knew that this was good.

Even though it was stripped back in terms of lighting effects and costumes, the black and white outfits provided some interesting visuals. A lot of this came from the men wearing white tops and black bottoms while the women wore the reverse. When they danced in pairs and groups, it looked like a chequered flag waving in the wind.

From The Four Temperaments | Credit: Dance Australia

When it was all over, Helena and I headed down to Opera Bar to discuss what we thought about the show over drinks and snacks. What we ended up doing was looking up the date of the next ballet we could go to. We both agreed that Watermark wasn’t the ballet for us but that the other two were brilliant. Her favourite was The Four Temperaments while mine, as mentioned previously, was Serenade.

All in all, I really rate my first experience at the ballet. If you’re curious, give it a go. Even if you don’t think it’s for you, at the very least it’s a nice night out for you and your partner. Make a night of it and go out afterwards. Enjoy a night in the city.