How to Watch Ballet…with a Ballet Dancer

Patricia Tisak

Jared Angle is a living embodiment of discipline and hard work, having started his ballet training at the tender age of 6. But behind the hardwired devotion to technique is an artist who's equally passionate about seeing honesty emanate from the performer—and from the audience. The 32-year-old Pennsylvania native joined New York City Ballet in 1998 and was promoted to the highest rank of principal dancer in 2005. “With maturity, I found that the more comfortable I became on stage, or in my own skin, or even in life, I was able to bring more of that into the pieces,” Angle says. “When I was younger, I was more concerned with—probably rightfully so—absorbing what everyone told me, and trying to do everything exactly perfectly and applying all the corrections, and it felt less like it was me on stage, whereas now I'm more comfortable with myself and technique in the ballets.” Below is a conversation with the dancer in which he shares his tips about how audiences can best enjoy a ballet performance.

How would you prepare someone who is seeing a New York City Ballet performance for the first time? Jared Angle: Most of our ballets are plotless, and people might get intimidated because they don't go in knowing what they're going to experience. Maybe people should approach it like they're going to look at a painting. I don't think people are necessarily intimidated by or nervous about that. Sitting down in a theater and watching ballet is the same thing. You don't need to know anything—you can just sit down and like it or not, essentially…. If you want to be really well informed, it's good to look up composers, download the music or look up the choreographer, but I think it's more fun to get those moments when something happens, it speaks to you and you explore it afterward.

Are there any performances to watch out for this season for those that aren't well versed in ballet? JA: Swan Lake is accessible because it's one story for the whole night and you can follow characters, which is sometimes easier for people. And it's the most fantastic music for ballet that Tchaikovsky wrote, so even if you're not into the story, you can't helped but be moved by the music because it's so transformative. We're also presenting a lot of the Balanchine “black and white” ballets, like The Four Temperaments and Duo Concertant, which are more about the leotards and the music.

Tell me how people can engage themselves more with the music in a ballet. JA: What's great about the Balanchine work, and the history and philosophy that our company is based on, is that the choreographers illuminate the music. What you’re watching on stage tells you about the music. There are moments in Balanchine ballet where suddenly he plays with rhythm in the music, and the score is brought to life in front of you.

Can you expand more on this conversation between dancer and music? JA: When I walk out on stage, I'm not just doing things by rote; I'm trying to respond to the music and react to it honestly. The best show is when everyone’s on the same page—you can feel the energy from the audience, and I try to give that back. We're all experiencing it at the same time. When it's really good, it gets deep inside of you and moves you. When it all just comes together—those are goose-bump moments for the audience.

So would it be OK to clap if you're really moved by something a dancer has done or would that be distracting? JA: Like clapping etiquette? [Laughs] There are certain pieces where you know that some effect is really tricky and virtuosic, and they're doing it to get applause. For instance, in Swan Lake, the Swan Queen does 32 turns in a row on one leg, called fouetté. But there are other ballets where maybe it's not so much about showcasing, but it's more about creating a mood—and you wouldn't want to break the mood.

What's your favorite ballet to watch versus your favorite to perform? JA: When I was a student, my favorite piece to watch was Dances at a Gathering by Jerome Robbins, which we're performing this season. It's a masterpiece. When it came time for me to perform it myself, I was nervous that it wouldn't be the same experience because I loved it so much I didn't want to ruin it. But it was just as rewarding to be in it as it was to be in the audience.

What stands out to you in a performance? JA: I like people that are honest on stage. You can tell when someone is faking it or going through the motions, or if it's a genuine expression of something. If you find something that you like on stage or something that moves you, keep on seeking that out, because ballet is such a rich world once you start exploring it.

The New York City Ballet’s 2013–2014 repertory season has begun. For a schedule of performances and how to purchase tickets, visit