Shushed At The Ballet

11 Sep Shushed At The Ballet

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 12.9.22


A couple of weeks ago, we were shushed at the ballet. I say “we”, but really it was me rather than my daughter and granddaughter who was asked to tone it down by the pre-teen sitting beside us.

It took a long moment for me to register that a child really was telling a nana (not her nana) to calm down at a Saturday afternoon matinee. The upside-down-ness of this (was she going to send me to my room?) felt so bizarre it had, if anything, the opposite effect. Did I dial down my applause at the end of the next truly fabulous pas de deux? Sit mutely with hands folded neatly in my lap? Did I heck. There was additional whooping.

We don’t really talk about how to be an audience. People train for years to be on the stage, but there are no classes about how to sit and watch what happens on it.

We know we love sharing these experiences of watching something together rather than alone – a movie is more fun in a cinema than on our couch at home. But the rules? Mostly we wait till someone violates our unwritten code of decent audience conduct and let them know with a look or a shush that they’ve gone too far.

Though sometimes the code is written. That afternoon, for example, we’d noted signs at the doors of the Kiri Te Kanawa Theatre asking people to open their ice creams before taking their seats so the rustle of wrappers en masse didn’t drive everyone crazy.

At the Village Vanguard in New York, patrons are explicitly informed when they buy their ticket that there is to be no finger-clicking, clapping or even swaying to the jazz performed each night. It is a still and serious room, a very different experience from jazz in New Orleans, where your whole body is invited to respond.

Modern tradition is that you don’t applaud between movements at the symphony. This can be desperately embarrassing for a novice. “Look! Here I am! I’ve never been here before!” Though how lovely to have people discovering live classical music, right? It’d be great if the response, instead of dagger-eyes, was, “Welcome! We will all clap soon, too! We’ll show you in a minute!”

We have agreed to no phone calls or texts at movies and live shows – people break those rules, but we know we have some. We don’t seem to have agreed on the manners involved in filming stadium-sized music gigs but we do have regulations about not recording most other live events. At Chris Rock’s recent show, this was strictly enforced – they took everyone’s phone off them at the doors and locked them away.

My rules go like this: If you’re going to talk, it must be about what’s on stage, but if someone is talking on stage, don’t talk at all. Laughing and applauding, however, are what a performer lives for, so please do that. I’ve been in a comedy show when someone has shushed someone for laughing “too much”, and that’s just weird. Honestly, I got out of bed that day to hear that laugh.

And if people are dancing and there’s a live orchestra, and you’re not going to bother any of them by explaining a bit to your 8-year-old or whooping at a particularly magnificent moment, then please, express your joy. No one should get into trouble for having fun at the ballet.