Someone who considered himself very wise once told me that it was unfair to criticize anything without experiencing it. Shortly thereafter, he dropped dead. To this day, I am still waiting to hear his take on that experience. Although I don’t really believe that “fair” criticism necessitates direct experience, it does, nevertheless, validate certain opinions – especially when it comes to ballerina movies. I am not a big fan of ballet. It is a beautiful art form. It requires discipline, dedication, and immense physical effort. Nevertheless, the thought of watching someone balancing, leaping and spinning only on their toes for several hours has always seemed rather gothic to me. However, I don’t feel guilty about it because I have personally experienced ballet. Yes, it’s true.
When I was in the sixth or seventh grade, my parents decided that it was time for me to receive some formal education in music. I welcomed the news. I had an interest in the guitar. My parents, however, concluded that my real interest was the piano. When I argued that, as an instrument, the guitar was far more portable, they simply reaffirmed that the piano was my instrument of choice. I think it’s because we already owned a piano. So, somewhat reluctantly I accepted their generous gift of an enrollment at the Peabody Conservatory of Music’s Preparatory program.
I never practiced my lessons. It was no wonder, then, that every Saturday morning at 11 AM, I spent the greater part of a 45-minute piano lesson, skillfully demonstrating to my instructor that I had not practiced a thing on the piano within the previous six days before the lesson. Since I had come unprepared the only recourse was to have me play piano scales over and over again, while he just sat there in his hard chair, glumly staring at the taupe studio walls, sighing. It must have been torturous for him. However, to my glee, the sessions began to let out earlier and earlier, as the time went on.
In an attempt to develop my musical erudition, Peabody Prep required me to complete two of three mandatory mini courses: Musicianship, Chorus or Basic Ballet. Musicianship had a two month waiting list. It was doubtful whether my career would last that long. I chose Chorus, but my tenure there was short-lived. At the second session, as we sang the final phrases of an inspirational song which we were to showcase before the entire musical faculty in less than twenty-minutes, at that moment when the entire chorus blissfully blended on that final note, I threw in a “Pah-Bummm!” as a post script. I thought it was hysterical. So, did the kid next to me. The choir director, however, did not share my opinion. Clearly on the verge of going “ballistic”, she icily maintained self-control, and rather than employing physical violence, chose to verbally and publically flay me down to the level of a cringing newt. I had not charmed her. It was time to resign from Chorus and hop into Basic Ballet.
Ballet dancers are a specific physical type. The males are all pumas. The women are all flamingos. There is no arguing the point. It’s just the way it is. The tights and the costumes demand it. Here, I was, walking into a large, mirrored studio, over two weeks late, in my brand new, stiff dance belt, snugly enclosed by a pair of itchy, black tights; all of it draped by a floppy gray cotton sweater, and barefoot – Huckleberry Finn among the “leotard-ed”, the “leg warmer-ed” and the “dance shoe-d”. I felt dread seeping in. However, I did enjoy the exercises at the “barre”.
In every dance studio there is a handrail that is mounted to and supported by a wall that runs the length of the studio. It’s called the “barre”. It’s where the pumas and the flamingos stretch and practice basic ballet stuff prior to the floor routines. I was big for my age, so I deliberately chose a place at the very end of the barre, just near the point where it hit the corner wall. I was totally out of the way, something that I noticed that ballet instructor really didn’t seem to mind. Neither did I. Ahead of me stood an entire line of gorgeous flamingos. I was at that awakening age. To watch them bend, stretch, and gently fling their flamingo limbs in all directions to the accompaniment of lilting piano music hinted at the promise of really interesting possibilities. But, alas, Eden ended. It was the third, week. We moved right into the individual floor routine.
The individual floor routine required each student dancer to perform a simple series of dance steps across the full length of the floor to the rhythm of the music. The instructor demonstrated what she meant by simple – it was a leaping-in thing, followed by two-steps into a one-spin-thing, then two more steps ending up with a leaping-out thing, accompanied by a polonaise. I decided to go last.
The pumas did their flying puma thing. The flamingos defied gravity. Then, it was my turn. I swallowed, took a breath and gave it an honest go. Half way through the routine, as I came out of the spin-thing, I saw a reflection in the mirror.
It was not a puma. Not even a flamingo. It was a bear – a bear in a dance belt.
The remaining sessions of Basic Ballet were spent between visits to Walter’s Art Gallery where I indulged myself on the exhibits, and the Mt. Vernon Pharmacy, across the street from the Walter’s, where there was a bountiful magazine section and a decent chocolate malted served at an old fashioned, gray marble counter.
A month or so later, my student assessment arrived at home. I was summoned into the dinning room to account for myself. Hard-earned money was spent. I had not completed a single Peabody Prep requirement. In crisis, truth is the only recourse. So, I decided to be perfectly honest, to reason with them, and then to throw myself at their mercy. I related in detail, the entire “Pah-Bummm!” incident in Chorus, quoting as accurately as I could the choir mistress’ verbal whips, and reinforcing, of course, that she was perfectly justified. My parents betrayed not a single emotion. I then transitioned into my experience in Basic Ballet. When I got to the part about the “bear in the dance belt”, my mother leaned into the chair’s backrest, clutched her heart and laughed so hard that she ended up gasping for air. My father, howling, leaned against the wall and wiped the tears from his eyes. Luckily, they saw my point. In the days that followed, nothing more was mentioned about my truancy; although, for the rest of the year, my mother did, in her special way, make me feel devastatingly guilty about my behavior, as only a mother can.
That was my experience with ballet. I, therefore, feel perfectly comfortable offering some “fair” comments regarding ballerina movies.
The use of the label “ballerina movies” is deliberate. The Cinema is richly endowed with dance films. Beginning with Busby Berkeley, and continuing beyond Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, the movement of the camera and the movement of the dancer have been engaged in a love affair. The dance film became a staple of the movie industry. Only a fraction of these films deal directly with ballet, and more specifically, with the ballerina. The ballerina movie has its own special flavor.
All ballerina movies contain the following elements:
– The ballerina herself – she is always pretty, vulnerable and impressionable. She lives only to dance. Because of her emotional naïveté, she inevitably finds herself “caught in between”. She is usually completely distraught. Nevertheless, she dances, and dances, and dances until she either attains success or drops dead trying. In most cases, it’s both.
– The “Svengali-type” – a major character who selfishly manipulates the ballerina for his/her own personal gratification, usually portrayed as the all-powerful impresario who secretly desires the ballerina, or the controlling mother who vicariously lives out her own unrealized ambitions through her daughter.
– The aging prima ballerina – a former shining star who is unwillingly being escorted into retirement to make room for the new star. She appears as a constant reminder to the young ballerina that no matter how brightly a star may shine, time will eventually seize the final chuckle.
– The bitchy choreographer/dance director (not to be confused with the Svengali-type) – a venomous egotist who is of the opinion that the ballerina hasn’t the talent to perform to his brilliantly difficult choreography. When the ballerina far surpasses his expectations, he wallows in his own genius.
– Tchaikovsky’s SwanLake – every ballerina movie that I have ever seen always features SwanLake. It makes me wonder whether filmmakers think it’s the only ballet that’s ever written. Ironically, SwanLake is also soundtrack of the 1930s horror classic Dracula, a film where pretty, vulnerable and impressionable young women have the life sucked out of them.
– Somewhere in the ballerina movie, there is always that short scene where the ballerina grieves over her damaged feet.
– And finally, – the “caught in between” scenario– the major plot device which propels the ballerina toward her destiny.
For the novice of ballerina movies, three films are recommended: The Red Shoes (1948) – Michael Powell and Emeric Pressbruger, co-directors; The Turning Point (1977) – Herbert Ross, director; and The Black Swan (2010) – Darren Arnofsky, director. Each is well plotted, well acted, and visually stimulating; each received recognition at the Academy Awards; and, each reflects the social and cultural awareness of its time.
The Red Shoes was released during an era just prior to the dawn of television, when people still devotedly read the classics, attended the concert halls, and visited museums. The film unfolds on parallel levels – the story of Victoria Paige (Moira Shearer), a ballerina who declares that she lives “only to dance”, and the story of the girl in the ballet The Red Shoes, a Hans Christian Andersen tale about a young girl who receives a pair of magic red toe shoes from the devil. When she puts then on, she is unable to stop dancing, and ultimately dances herself to death. She perishes; the red shoes slip off and dance away.
Victoria is discovered in the chorus of Swan Lake by Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), a powerful charismatic impresario. Lermontov falls secretly in love with Victoria, makes her his protégé, and begins to impose rigorous demands on her time and attention. He creates for Victoria a stellar career, only to hear her confess that she is leaving the company to join her true love, the young composer, Julian Crastner (Max Goering). “Caught in between” the guilt she feels toward Lermontov, her desire to dance to forever and her love for Julian, Victoria, eventually in a fit of despair, dances onto a balcony and, ala Tosca, flings herself off onto the front of an incoming train, ala Anna Karenina, wearing a pair of red toe shoes. As she dies in the arms of her lover, she pleads with him to take the red shoes off her damaged feet. Although somewhat melodramatic, the film is visually stunning, saturated with Technicolor, and beautifully orchestrated. The Red Shoes ballet sequences, alone, are an impressive marriage of dance and cinematography. It is 133 minutes of astonishingly artistic cinema.
The Turning Point was released at the height of the Disco era. The Vietnam War had ended. Social conventions were being redefined. Television was a 24-hour medium. Audiences demanded films that were less artistic and more situational. The ballerina of the The Turning Point is Emilia (portrayed by Leslie Browne, herself a star in the American Ballet Theatre). During a performance of Swan Lake, Emilia realizes her ambition to become a ballerina. With the help of the famous aging prima ballerina Emma Jacklin (Anne Bancroft) she lands an audition for the chorus of a major ballet company and gets the job. Jacklin is also a friend and a former ballet rival of Emilia’s mother Dee Dee (Shirley McLaine). Both at one time danced in the same company where they constantly competed for the same roles. Just as both of their careers were on the verge of launching, Dee Dee left the company, pregnant with Emilia. Jacklin stayed on to become the prima ballerina. Now, both engage in an open warfare for Emilia’s attention and affection. Emilia is “caught in between” her mother’s jealously of Jacklin’s career, and Jacklin’s insistence that Emilia become her protégé and ward. Emilia copes with it all by re-taping her damaged feet, slipping on her toe shoes and dancing away. Within a short time, she dances herself out of the chorus into a starring role in a new ballet created by the one of company’s bitchy, egotistical choreographers. She, of course surpasses his expectations. He wallows. She reaches for her star. Happily, in this movie, the ballerina does not leap off a balcony onto the front of an incoming train Instead she dances herself into the arms and the bed of Mikhail Baryshnikov, leaving the two Svengali-types, mom and the aging prima, to “duke it out” over her on their own. The film is interspersed with conventionally staged ballet sequences; however, the plot is amusing. It culminates in a really terrific slapping sequence between Bancroft and McLaine, who are my opinion, the real stars of the film. As a ballerina movie, it’s fun.
The Black Swan is an unsettling film. Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a tortured ballerina, fanatically dedicated to success, drowning in self-doubt. Much to her surprise she wins the starring role of the Swan Queen in the loathsome dance director’s (Vincent Cassel) new version of Swan Lake, a role originally slated for Beth McIntyre (Winona Ryder) an aging prima who is ungraciously being forced into retirement. Already fragile to the point of breaking, Nina is “caught in between” her inability to master the Swan Queen’s Black Swan nature, the subterfuge she suspects from the mysterious new dancer Lily (Mila Kunis), her unhealthy emulation of Beth McIntyre, and the rigid control that is imposed on her by her mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), a seemingly caring woman who administers her love with a salted cruelty. Despite episodes of severe depression, hallucination, and self-mutilation, Nina releases her dark nature, dances an astounding performance as the Swan Queen, and at the close of the ballet falls onto her back backstage bleeding profusely from her abdomen. The screen fades to black. (This betrayal of the ending is not meant as a movie spoiler. This ballerina movie is not about the tragic ending but about the horrific journey on the way there) The Black Swan is a very good film. It is impressively performed, and masterfully edited. The dance sequences are both mesmerizing and macabre. It is a fitting allegory for modern times. Portman deserved her Oscar.
Given the choice between watching a live ballet and a ballerina movie, I will always opt for the latter. There are many other ballerina movies, but the three I have mentioned seem to satisfy my appetite for the genre. I am fond of these three films. They remind me of my very brief time, a long time ago, among the pumas and the flamingos. Of course, as always, this is only my opinion. Watch the films, take a Basic Ballet class, and judge for yourselves.