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  1. The Nutcracker on stage
    Photograph: Jeff Busby
  2. A dancer in a long blue tutu leaping in the air
    Photograph: Supplied/Pierre Toussaint
  3. Ako Kondo and Chengwu Gu as star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet
    Photograph: Supplied/Pierre Toussaint

A first-timer's guide to going to the ballet

Silk gloves or sandals? Clicks or claps? Here are some point(é)rs.

Written by
Divya Venkataraman
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Figure out what kind of ballet you want to see

Would you rather sink into a novel and unravel a long, winding story or flip through two or three bite-sized ripping yarns? As it turns out, the world of dance is not all that different from that of literature. While Swan Lake pirouettes through the tragic tale of star-cross'd lovers over two-and-a-half hours, abstract and non-narrative pieces, like Balachine's Serenade, focus only on the beauty of the form and the striking, visual impact of an entirely in-sync corps (aka the chorus) of dancers. If you're a first-timer, try a double or triple-bill performance to ease yourself in. While there won't be any story to follow, it moves through a range of shorter, self-contained pieces. Not only does it have variation for the easily distracted, you'll also get an interval between each piece to maximise people-watching time. 

Do your research

In this age of information, the ins and outs of the entire recorded history of ballet are at your keyboard-clacking fingertips. Particularly if you're seeing a canonical piece that has been performed all over the world, it's worth heading online to read up on the story and its meaning – if only so you have something to impress your cultural compadres with at interval. See that arc of the prima's leg and her keening stretch? It's an expression of her longing for the prince. That final tableau, the corps aligned and their arms outstretched? It represents communal mourning. If the show is contemporary or a newly commissioned work, you might find less information, but you should still be able to get the gist of its underlying themes or learn more about the choreographers who created it. 

Leave time to spare

You've been looking forward to the evening since you clicked 'order' on that booking link – and now, you're refreshing your Uber app, wondering how your driver could possibly be further away than he was five minutes ago. Plan to arrive earlier than the call time written on your ticket – not only will you be unruffled and perfectly coiffed, but you'll also have time to grab a drink beforehand. Take in the views at Opera Bar if you're seeing an Australian Ballet show at the Opera House, or stop by the Bar at the End of the Wharf if it's a performance by the Sydney Dance Company at the gorgeous Roslyn Packer Theatre across the street. 

Dress to impress

That silky number that's been hiding in the mothball-ridden corner of your closet, having not seen the outside world since the time that going more than five kilometres from home seemed outlandish, let alone walking into a packed theatre at the Opera House? Whip it out, because it'll fit right in at the ballet. Behold: suits and tuxedos, high heels and voluminous sleeves, and every jewel tone you'd find in a buried treasure chest. Dressing up isn't a prerequisite – you'll still be totally welcome if you're dashing in post-work, or you've got jeans on – but why not make the most of a chance to peacock?

Buy tickets in advance

This might be a no-brainer in the post-virus world but remember to pre-book. No door sales, usually. 

Clap, stomp, show your appreciation

You'd think that ballet would attract the audiences on the more buttoned-up end of the spectrum, but not so: be prepared for hooting, whooping and yells of 'bravo!' after a performance. If you're watching a symphony or an opera, you wouldn't usually clap or cheer in the middle of a performance – but not here. Ballet dancers are gluttons for praise, apparently, and showing your appreciation whenever you're in awe of a pirouette or a particularly dazzling plié takes centre stage is encouraged. Just save some of that energy for the final curtain call – it's a theatrical, choreographed affair, just like the performance.

Tune in

The dancers get all the credit, but make sure you peek under the stage to the orchestra pit where you'll spot a crowd of violins and bows, harps being plucked and the repetiteur (main pianist) setting the tone for the performance. The music informs each dance move, and in turn, is tailored to tell the story. Let your eyes flutter closed to take in the sounds around you – not for too long, though. You don't want to miss the spectacle. 

Excited to experience more new things? Here are the 50 things to do in Sydney before you die

And check out Aus Ballet's 2021 season here

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