The dance content in narrative ballets can sometimes be seen as purely divertive. While this sometimes holds true, choreography can be used to advance the storyline in several, limited ways.
Before we go any further, there are some dance elements in the narrative classical ballets that are purely decorative: The Bluebird pas de deux from Sleeping Beauty for example, comes from out of nowhere and says nothing, but it is a beautiful piece of dancing. These are widely acknowledged as being dance-for-dance’s-sake and are known, appropriately, as divertissements.
The work of the corps de ballet, by virtue of its attractive presentation and its secondary position on the stage, could be perceived as being filler. There is a certain impact to be made by merely filling the space with identical dancers, but the corps de ballet is integral in the storyline of the ballets that employ them: the shades in La Bayadere are multiple visions of Nikiya in Solor’s dreams and underline the importance of her character as the object of his affections.
The solos that we see performed time and again in galas and competitions are generally delivered as acts of pure virtuosity. Taken out of context they are little more than academic exercises performed with bravado. In its original setting, the ballet solo is important in establishing the mood and personality of the character: a beautiful illustration of this is in Swan Lake – Prince Seigfried’s languid, introspective soliloquy which conveys his quiet grief. Apart from telling us what kind of disposition the character is of, there is very little a solo can do to actively drive the narrative forward.
The pas de deux is always the show-piece in classical ballet. It is a dialogue between the two dancers and establishes their relationship; the male usually dominant and the female, submissive. Consisting of lifts and supported movements with the ballerina en pointe, it can seem formulaic, but the combination of steps and their execution can go a long way in displaying the dynamic between the two dancers.
One barrier in the way of the flow of the narrative is that of the “call” after a solo or duet, when the dancer(s) acknowledge the audience and receive their plaudits: this is common practice, but erases any dramatic environment or sense of character that has been created. To break down the fourth wall – that invisible barrier between what is happening on stage and the audience – is to cut the story off, only to start again when the applause stops. This is a foible of the classical story ballets that thankfully hasn’t carried over to most of the work since.
The story in a classical ballet is mainly told through mime and acting. It is through the choreography that the characters personalities and relationships are elucidated. What might just look like a combination of classroom steps, is actually be a strong statement of self-expression which tells the audience who exactly they’re dealing with.