Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Dance, Drama, and Death: Ballet in Film

From my oldest memory I have loved ballet.  I remember being three years old and making my dad put my hair in sponge rollers so that when I took them out I could dance like Shirley Temple. I especially loved the ballet part in The Little Princess.  I had posters of ballerinas, scores from ballets, and then there were the movies.

These movies make me think of the ballet studio that is one of my comfort places in memories from my childhood.  The smell of the sweaty satin on the toe shoes, the resin box in the corner, freshly washed pink tights, all the pretty girls standing at the barre, arms in arabesque, the record player hissing as the needle bumped and skipped over the grooves.  It would be daylight when I went into the lobby with the other girls, their hair in soft buns, giggling softly waiting for the little ones to come out of the studio.  We would talk about school, getting our driver's licenses, what we were dressing up for on Halloween.  But our hearts were always on pause, and they remained that way until the studio door opened and it was our turn.  Freedom, dreams, hopes, grace, and beauty.  We would emerge from the bright flourescent lights of the studio to the darkness of the world outside that had kept turning, unnoticed, while we danced.

I will always have a soft spot for ballet in movies and below are my top 5, in honor of Black Swan, which I am very anxious to see.

1.  The Turning Point (1977)-  Directed by Herbert Ross, this movie stars Shirley MacLaine as a former ballerina who gave up dancing to marry and have a family.  When her daughter, played by ballerina Leslie Browne, decides to persue a ballet career, her mother must face the life she left behind and the jealousy she feels when her daughter is taken into the studio of a former friend who gave up the option of a family to stay in ballet.  The part of the daughter was auditioned for by Gelsey Kirkland, who was in the same company with Leslie at the time, and in a short-term relationship with Mikhail Baryishnikov, who portrays the Russian defecting danseur who woos Leslie Browne's character (and also did in real life, according to Gelsey Kirkland's autobiography).  The music is beautiful, Shirley MacLaine who was a dancer in her own right was magnificent, and the ballet (the focal point of the movie) is entrancing.

I saw this when I was a young teen and dreamed of being a ballerina myself.  Several of the dancers from my studio got together and drooled over it on many occassions.  This will remain in my heart as my number one ballet movie because of the mirror of real events in Baryshnikov's life at the time, and the whirlwind of Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine together.

2.  Red Shoes (1948)-Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger, The Red Shoes is loosely based on the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale of the same name.  In the movie, which uses beautiful sets and camera effects to stunning results, Moira Shearer plays a ballerina who gets her break when the studio owner is forced to put her in the limelight as replacement dancer.  He creates the ballet The Red Shoes just for her and begins to force her to choose between ballet and her lover, who is trying to force her to make the same decision.  A true tragic romance.

The classical ballet in this movie is lovely.  There are some very ethereal effects for the time.  Costumes are breathtaking.  I feel that some of the issues that plague the dancers in this movie are less timely than the ones in The Turning Point, which is one reason that this movie is 2nd on the list. 

3.  Suspiria (1977)- Directed by Dario Argento, Suspiria is a true ballet horror.  Dario Argento.  Joan Bennett, Udo Kier, blood, knives, nooses, witches and ballet.  What more do you need? I was about six or seven years old when I saw this movie and even this could not keep me from longing to dance!

4.  Ballet Shoes (2007)-Directed for TV by Sandra Goldbacher, Ballet Shoes stars Emma Watson, better known as Hermoine Granger.  Three orphans are adopted by an eccentric explorer.  Their only worldly possessions were ballet shoes.  With these shaping their destinies, the girls enroll in dance in London in the 1930s.  This movie has a beautiful, holiday feel to it, as lives are shaped for the good, families are created, and dreams are realized.  Made from the young adult novel by Noel Streatfeild, Ballet Shoes is one that I think will become a new Christmas tradition for my family.

5. The Company (2003)-Directed by Robert Altmas, The Company is a rather light-material film centered around a ballet company.  There are some scenes that will look familiar to dancers, like the ones showing the dancers all crashing together in one person's apartment, the injuries, and the jealousies.  Overall, it is not a great film, but my favorite Altman.  Part of the reason I don't rate it higher is Neve Campbell.  At any rate, the dancing is nice, it is just more modern than I usually prefer in a ballet.  I do love the dancing in the rain sequence that is just marvelous.  That scene keeps this one on my top 5 list of ballet films.  There are also great performances by an ensamble cast including Malcolm McDowell, James Franco, and William Dick.

These last two are honorable mentions simply because number 6 is a short film that isn't entirely about ballet, and number 7 is...something indescribable and not recommended but included because they should be applauded for whatever it was they attempted to do there.

6.  Box  -Directed by Takashi Miike, this short film is one of 3 in the Three Extremes.  The surreal story of twin ballerina/acrobats who are raised by their step-father, choreographer, boss, and lover (?), Box is one of the most beautiful films I've ever seen.  With magnificent use of color, metaphore, horror, and suspense, the tale goes from something quite simple (sibling rivalry) to ghost story to WHAT THE HECK?? in the span of only 40 minutes.

7.  Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary (2002)-Directed by Guy Madden, this is, painful, comically serious rendition of Dracula made to look like a 1920s silent film.  Mostly in black and white, and with horrendous effects, the movie takes itself entirely too seriously, attempting to be a high art film, or a cult film like the Call of Cthulhu that made much better use of this style of film-making.  I did not get through the entire thing, regrettably, and the movie was not mine, thank goodness, so I will not subject myself to it again, but a glimpse is all one really needs of it.  But if you can watch the first 20 or 30 minutes, it is good for a big laugh.  The dancers are good, to their credit, and the lovely Asian Dracula dances his little heart out!


  1. Nice post! I love the outdoor dance in The Company. I *like* the film well enough, but that scene is marvelous.

    Other picks for me would include A Chorus Line (not specifically ballet, but my favorite song is about it!) and, believe it or not, Center Stage. It's a lighter movie but is actually quite respectful of dancing and somehow succeeds despite its cheese. I STILL haven't seen The Red Shoes, though it's been on my queue for ages.

  2. You should see the Red Shoes. It is a beautiful movie. I have heard that Center Stage is very good. I am gonna have to check it out very soon! Thanks for the comment!