I went to the opening night of the National Ballet of Canada’s current production of Romeo and Juliet. First time going to see a live ballet, and, eo ipso my first time seeing the National Ballet. They’ve made me a convert and I already like them more than the Canadian Opera Company (which, although putting on some of the finest singing you’ll hear, has shown a tendency to make some – silly – artistic choices).
It’s a cliche to say that it’s always better to see it live, but it is true that the sheer bodily feat on display in a topnotch production didn’t viscerally hit home until that night. The effect is perhaps somewhat similar to what David Foster Wallace described when writing about his experience watching Roger Federer:The specific thesis here is that if you’ve never seen the young man play live, and then do, in person, on the sacred grass of Wimbledon, through the literally withering heat and then wind and rain of the ’06 fortnight, then you are apt to have what one of the tournament’s press bus drivers describes as a “bloody near-religious experience.” It may be tempting, at first, to hear a phrase like this as just one more of the overheated tropes that people resort to to describe the feeling of Federer Moments. But the driver’s phrase turns out to be true — literally, for an instant ecstatically — though it takes some time and serious watching to see this truth emerge.
A top athlete’s beauty is next to impossible to describe directly. Or to evoke. Federer’s forehand is a great liquid whip, his backhand a one-hander that he can drive flat, load with topspin, or slice — the slice with such snap that the ball turns shapes in the air and skids on the grass to maybe ankle height. His serve has world-class pace and a degree of placement and variety no one else comes close to; the service motion is lithe and uneccentric, distinctive (on TV) only in a certain eel-like all-body snap at the moment of impact. His anticipation and court sense are otherworldly, and his footwork is the best in the game — as a child, he was also a soccer prodigy. All this is true, and yet none of it really explains anything or evokes the experience of watching this man play. Of witnessing, firsthand, the beauty and genius of his game. You more have to come at the aesthetic stuff obliquely, to talk around it, or — as Aquinas did with his own ineffable subject — to try to define it in terms of what it is not.
I wouldn’t go so far as to describe Tuesday night as a religious experience. But the actual experience is, in an odd way, slightly more ineffable than music because music is more abstract. It’s one thing to say that the ballet corps danced lithely to intricate choreography at extremely high speeds (and they did), and it’s another thing to experience the shock of seeing actual human beings pull it off in front of you.
(the one unpleasant element: you’d think that ballet patrons would be classy enough to not chatter amongst themselves when the curtain is up)