Monday, March 11, 2013


Do you take your kids to things where they’re supposed to sit still and quiet for two hours? Last night we did, seeing a Beijing performance of the famous Swan Lake by the very special American Ballet Theatre.

We were wondering if it was too soon, or the right thing to do, as it would keep the children up way past Sunday night bedtime.

But thank God we did. At least with a seven-year-old girl on my lap I had some idea what was going on.

I had vowed not to write a “dumb bloke watches ballet” review. I like to think that despite a prominent ridge of bone along my eyebrow line, I’m not really like that. Heck, I might even describe myself as “post-modern” or “reconstructed”, had I ever really nailed down what those things mean.

But really … Swan Lake … what the hell was going on?

To prevent the kids asking too many questions, my wife Stef had gone through the whole story beforehand to the point where the girls could recite it backwards. I wish I’d paid more attention.

I thought I was ready. I’d watched Black Swan and loved its insight into the beautiful and graceful world of ballet. I mean who doesn't like seeing emaciated women snapping their legs in two all over the place? Bring it on, I said.

Black Swan is the Oscar winning film in which Natalie
Portman plays a dancer who scratches holes in herself,
whose fingers break and legs snap, until, in the final act
of ignominy her face cracks. Despite all this, my
favourite part was when our dodgy Chinese DVD
put up the title as an altogether different-sounding
movie called Black Sean.

Basically Swan Lake went like this:

Kick off.

It’s the hero Prince Siegfried’s 21st birthday party. The Queen Mother, gaw bless ‘er, arrives to quite some song and dance. Or just dance really.

I was enjoying the beautiful score by one of my favourites, Tchaikovsky, or as we know him in Chinese, Chai Ke Fu Si Ji. (These are the characters that sound the most like ‘Tchaikovsky’. Unfortunately the name means Firewood May Husband This Base).

Amidst all this lovely music Lani says: “Daddy – you hear the castanets? Da-dada-da-da da-dada-da-da da-dada-da-da da …” until I have to ask her to stop.

A few minutes later she makes another observation.

“Daddy – it’s weird,” she said.

“What is?” I whisper back.

“It’s weird that the men aren’t wearing any pants”.

I have to agree their stockings leave only a little part to the imagination. Thank heavens their codpieces make everyone look like a Ken doll.

It also didn’t help that the female swans would soon be out in some white mini skirts. Perhaps they were badly starched at the troupe’s hotel, but they failed miserably in what is surely the primary function of clothes - to cover up one’s undies.

So, the Queen Mum tells her boy it’s time to stop his messin’ around, better think of his future, et cetera. By this I think she means he should put some pants on. As a birthday present she gives him a crossbow and tells him to get a wife. We think he’s not really going to use the crossbow to get a wife, but then we’re not so sure.

Siegfried, in the absence of Roy, is partying with a new best friend, Ben, who's so well-liked everyone just calls him Benno. In time, Siegfried gets separated from the main group, wanders into the forest, thinks he sees a swan flying overhead but it turns out to be a woman. I’m not sure what he and Benno were on at the party.

The woman’s called Odette. She falls in love, a little too quickly for my liking, with this pantless crossbow-wielder, and they do something that’s called a pas de deux, but which actually isn’t dirty at all.

In minutes she’s threatening that if he doesn’t swear fidelity to her, all hell will break loose. Now this really is too quick for my liking. She probably made him meet her parents in the intermission.

This is who we saw. It's ABT principals Paloma Herrera
and Cory Stearns. They seemed pretty good, but to be
fair, there was nobody trying to stop them doing
their thing, unlike in football.

This swan's for you!
Here's a swan getting some real air.

This one, however, has got herself a bit tangled up,
possibly in one of those awful long-line tuna fishing things. 

In the second half there’s another ball, where Siegfried hopes to get with Odette again. But the poor fool either lost her number or forgot to invite her. Worse, a wicked sorcerer called von Rothbart has made his own daughter Odile look like Odette, and sends her to the ball where she throws herself at Siegfried like a trollop.

There’s other dancing at the ball which looks OK to my eye, though my only real experience comes from So You Think You Can Dance. There’s a couple of solos, a quartet, and a piece with a guy and two girls which this married father believes is a ménage à trois.

I keep expecting a chirpy Englishman to pop up and yell “YOU’RE ALL GOING TO VEGAS!” But instead two men do a dance Lani sees as another expression of love.

“Daddy,” she whispers, “how can two men get married?”

Halfway through Act III wasn’t quite the time to get into an explanation of gay marriage to a seven-year-old. But at times Swan Lake was useful.

“Daddy,” Lani said, “how can Siegfried keep dancing like this for two hours?”

“It’s because he eats his vegetables.”

It’s true, these people are supremely fit. I have the utmost respect for these guys and what they do. I can say, hand on heart, that I couldn’t do it. Not with a gammy leg. Not at 46.

And they make it all look so effortless. Maybe that’s a problem. As an amateur musician I was always told the essence of playing a musical instrument was to make what you're doing look as hard as possible, which would lead to pulling more women, which is the essence of playing a musical instrument.

Ballet would be more impressive if the men made it look difficult. Before picking up the girl they should at least wince. Better still they should give a bit of a grunt, a “Hnnnnt!” or a “Here we … GO!”

Otherwise how do we know it’s hard? The women look like they’d weigh about 30kg, stepping out of the shower, with ugg boots on.

Back on the ball, it turns out Odile is no imbecile when it comes to dancing either. Love’s young dream is alive and well, with Siegfried keen to take her out the back for another ballet move, the quick knee-trembler.

Some call Siegfried a divisive character in ballet history. I found I had a lot of sympathy for him, for a bit like myself he had no idea what was going on. In the end von Rothbart makes him declare his undying love for the woman he’d just danced with by raising his right arm in the air, like they used to do for Hitler.

Then through the doorway we see Odette. She’s not happy.

Next came the moment we’d been all waiting for – the swan dies. I’d seen this last time I went. Kind of.

Stef and I saw Swan Lake by a Russian mob in Sydney in 2003. But just as that swan was a’dyin’, she fell in a heap and couldn’t move. With my sports journalist’s eye I could tell she’d ruptured her anterior cruciate ligament and would be out for the season. The ending had to be anti-climactically changed. A boat was retrieved, she was bundled into it and sailed away, not dying.

This time I was ready. But I watched Odette and Siegfried dancing around for a while under von Rothbart’s gaze, before they ran towards the back and jumped, disappearing off set. It didn’t seem like much of a thing. I thought they’d just fled to plan a fightback in the third half, and that then she would die.

But then their faces appeared in what was meant to be a sun with rays, but which looked - unfortunately since this is China - like the World War II Japanese flag.

And that was it. Apparently I'd missed the whole dying thing. Unfortunately it had moved my wife to tears.

"I can't believe you missed it!" she said in the car.

"Well …” I said, “she didn't look like she was dying to me. She looked as fit as a fiddle."

"Well, she wasn't dying of tuberculosis or anything. She jumped off a cliff, into the lake, and killed herself."

"But she was a swan! Couldn't she swim? Come to think of it, couldn’t she fly?"

"She was a woman at that time of day."

"Still. Didn't look like a life threatening jump."

"She jumped off a cliff!"

"Didn't look like a cliff. ‘Jumped off the shore’ would be a better way of putting it. She pretty much just jumped off the beach and into the water.”

“It was a cliff. You’ve got no imagination.”

“I do so! But you don’t really get cliffs with lakes. They should’ve called it Swan Gorge, or Swan Fjord.”


“I was just expecting to see this long, drawn out, dying swan. It's where we get the term ‘dying swan’ after all. Maybe they should change it to ‘tormented but otherwise healthy swan’. Or 'suicidal swan'.”

Stef says it’s great that these dancers express themselves with their bodies instead of with speech. As I often say to my children, I think they should use their words. A few of them at least. Or maybe subtitles?

God, imagine being married to one of them. It’s hard enough to work out what’s wrong with normal women, whether they’re angry or just hungry. How are we supposed to react if our wife starts spinning round the loungeroom?

Ballet’s not bad once in a decade but it is a bit strange. As Sid Snot once said: “Everyone getting about on their tippy toes ... I dunno why they don’t just get taller people in the first place?”

Several swans adopt a classic formation called "the flying
wedge", pioneered by rugby sides in the 1970s.

Several more swans in another wedge.

These are the swans I'm more used to watching.
It's the Aussie Rules football team, the Sydney Swans.
In fact, they won the title last year. Unlike their ballet
dancing poor cousins, they have 18 big boofy blokes
crashing into them to try to stop them scoring goals.
Ballet could do with a bit more of that.
Their name sounds very normal to most Australians. But
here in Beijing I always have a hard time explaining it to
non-Australian friends who think "Swans" is about as
fearsome a nickname for a football team as "the Daisies"
or "the Powderpuffs". But they are so named because
their home ground used to be by a swan-filled lake.
They're pretty hard.

Harder than this bloke anyway. He's a
ballet dancer.


  1. Ha! Loved this, was laughing out loud! Have never been to the ballet, but now I kind of want to see Swan Lake... Found you via With Some Grace FLBF :)

  2. Great review - of the show and the experience! I haven't dared take my daughters to the ballet yet fearing the embarrassing questions asked loudly in the quietest lull of the performance. I don't think you've changed my mind, although it sounds like you handled it well! Found you via FYBF :)

  3. My daughter is a ballet dancer (her choice not mine) and so I have been to see a few ballets. If I don't know what's going on I just sit back and admire the strength and athleticism. I was given tickets once for seats in the very front row.... at that distance you can see how hard they are working!!!

  4. It would be fun to take the whole family to a ballet show. We haven't done that yet but i hope it happens in the future. I enjoyed your blog by the way.

  5. I don't know how the kids and my husband will react if i will take them to a ballet show. I would love to watch a live performance, i've seen some shows but haven't had the chance of watching with the whole family.