My parents have had subscription tickets to the New York City Ballet for over thirty years, dating back to when the company performed at The City Center.  They moved up and up as better seats became available and settled in the exact two center seats of the eighth row.  Until the recent renovation, courtesy of David Koch, one ticket read “enter from left,” the other “enter from right.”

My parents’ favorite dancer was Suzanne Farrell, the preeminent ballerina of the New York City Ballet throughout the 1970’s, and in 1982 when I was born they named me Rebecca Suzanne Schiffman (Becky-Sue, to some.)

As far back as I can remember I often accompanied one of my parents to the ballet if the other had to work late.  It was always a treat but I do not remember exactly why.  I almost always had trouble keeping my eyes open.  One perk was those sucking candies that come in the round tin and which as far as I knew were only available at Lincoln Center.

As I got older my parents would donate their tickets to me and a date more and more often.  Eventually, they felt they had seen every ballet so many times that they passed their seats on to me, provided I invited them to some of their favorites. (Dad: Symphony in C, The Four Temperaments, Mom: Agon)

So, much like a child learns to speak their parents’ language by constant exposure, at some point, probably during college, I miraculously “got” ballet.  I knew which dancers and which ballets I loved and had an idea of why I loved them.  I remember when I developed the ability to judge movies.  The first movie I disliked was “Betsy’s Wedding.”  But, perhaps because I was older, the ability to love or dislike ballet was a revelation I could consciously enjoy, and it felt like a language I could suddenly understand.

I immediately made a decision to avoid reading any ballet reviews, criticism, or theory.  I did not want to cloud my way of looking at ballet the same way my philosophy of life was clouded when in middle school, after I had made some nihilistic comment, my parents suggested I read Nietzsche.

I have still not read anything about ballet to this day, knowing I would try my hand at it sooner or later. I have been nervous to dip my toe in for several years, having no idea if what I want to say is completely obvious or totally off the mark.  But several factors, including having seen one of my favorite ballets, “Jewels,” yesterday, and being home on this Friday night watching back to back episodes of Dateline, make now feel like the right time to start.

Being a most-of-the-time relativist and always a little insecure about my expertise I have never felt comfortable asserting value judgments.  Whenever I hear someone announce their opinion as fact, even though they might later argue that it is assumed I realize they are giving their opinion, if they do not include an explicit version of “in my humble opinion,” then they come off to me as a pompous asshole.

I found a way I like to read and write about art in “The Renaissance” (1873) by Walter Pater, which was required reading in one of my classes with David Weir at Cooper Union, and which was the first book on art I remember not boring me or turning me off.  With Pater’s then-revolutionary subjective approach to art criticism, the critic includes his/her personal predispositions toward the art about which they are writing and any other relevant information, generously offering the reader insight into what colors that critic’s perception.  The reader may then subtract whatever he/she feels is appropriate in order to obtain a clearer understanding of the art for him/herself.  I find this personal style of writing about art more honest, humble, and entertaining, providing more room for anecdotes and tangents than the cut-and-dry review or academic analysis.  And, I do like any excuse to share some personal information.

My subscription season just ended, but I will be back soon with some thoughts on ballet in general, Thursday night’s performance of “Jewels,” audience behavior and more.

(Friday, June 3)


Suzanne Farrell, my middle namesake:

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REBECCA SCHIFFMAN is a jewelry designer, musician, painter and writer from New York. She attended The Cooper Union School of Art. Her jewelry line IMK is carried in stores throughout the United States. As a singer-songwriter she released her first solo-album on Some Records in 2003 and self-released her second album "To Be Good for a Day" in 2009 which was named "Best Album of the Month" by Vice Magazine, Feb 2009. She lives with her parents on the Upper East Side and maintains a jewelry studio behind the bike room.

6 responses to “Ballet: Starting to Write About It”

  1. I have never, ever, ever seen ballet.

    And I don’t know which side of the line to come down upon between ‘Well, obviously it’s inherently only your opinion because you’re the person saying it and therefore what I have to say is equally valid unless we’re discussing objective facts’ and ‘Well, that’s, just, like, your opinion, man.’

    I do know Jean-Claude van Damme used to do ballet as a workout.

    He’d probably know about the opinon thing.

    • Hi Simon. Last night I went to a beginner ballet class I sometimes attend. Next time I will imagine Jean-Claude van Damme next to me at the bar.

      I think it’s the way opinions are delivered. Some people sound like jerks (to me!)

  2. Aunt Brenda says:

    What a lovely telling of your evolving love of ballet. Thanks for sharing Rebecca. And you are one lucky young woman to have those 2 great seats, a great gift from your mom and dad. As for Suzanne, her company performs each year at The Kennedy Center, so you might want to schedule a visit next time around. And your cousin Nora has a pair of Suzanne’s ballet shoes, which were sold back then as a fundraiser. Lots of memories.

  3. dwoz says:

    Say what you will about Balanchine…he did know how to block out a stage. And while we sometimes chafe at the pressure put on young girls to conform to the Balanchine body type, all-in-all he was all that his hype said he was. Boston still has a total hard-on for Balanchine.

    I am tangentially involved in the Boston Ballet, and your comment about “finally getting it” brought to mind a scene from a year ago, in one of the rehearsal studios…The dance master was gesturing angrily and screaming out to the dancers, “stop MUMBLING! YOU’RE MUMBLING!!!!” He was, of course, complaining about the lack of execution of the dance moves, the lazy angles, the slow pirouettes, the “herd of thundering elephants on pointe.”

  4. You were so lucky to have had this great experience handed over to you. I have faith that you can intelligently criticize it!

  5. Oh, and, The New York City ballet used to come to Santa Barbara every summer when I was a kid (I don’t know why, can’t explain it). We used to go to several performances in the smallish UCSB theater. My sister was a ballerina and so we were taken backstage one night after a performance where we met Suzanne Farrell who signed the shoe she danced in that night and handed it to my sister. My sister still has it–it’s one of her favorite possessions.