Three Movies about the World of Ballet

Ludwig Minkus (1826 - 1917)

Some beautiful music is composed for ballet. Oddly, as Eliza Gaynor Minden writes in her book The Ballet Companion, “ballet music” was once a pejorative term. The implication, in the minds of some, was that the composer wasn’t good enough to write music that could stand on its own as a work of art, so he had to settle for something that the real artists could choreograph for and dance to!

Yet surely composers such as Léo Délibes, Alexander Glazunov, and Igor Stravinsky have long since laid such notions to rest.

In the 20th century, ballet drew the attention of movie makers. Some fine directors have wanted, not simply to put a ballet on film (you can do that, after all, just by parking a camera in one of the seats instead of an audience member) — they have wanted to use a movie to portray the distinctive world of ballet. There is intrinsic cinematic drama in the world of dancers who will torture themselves for years on end to stay in the rare physical condition their art demands.

The Red Shoes

Red shoes movie poster (1948)

It is likely (though I confess that my research has hardly been in depth) that the first feature film built around the world of ballet was a British movie co-directed in 1948 by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, The Red Shoes. The Powell/Pressburger partnership was renowned. They were together responsible by this time for The Thief of Bagdad (1940), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), and Black Narcissus (1947) – all acclaimed.

Almost inevitably, movies about ballet have a show-within-a-show structure. The Red Shoes follows a ballet company as it develops a new production based upon the Hans Christian Anderson story of the same name. In that rather grisly story, a young girl falls prey to a demonic shoemaker who sells her the fatal crimson footwear.

In the movie, Moira Shearer plays the dancer, Vicky, who in turn plays the part of Karen in the Hans Christian Anderson story. The film’s music is by Brian Easdale and Sir Thomas Beecham, its choreography by Robert Helpmann and Léonide Massine.

Two characters engage in the following exchange, which focuses the appeal of both ballet itself and of stories about it:

“That is all very pure and fine, but you can’t alter human nature.”
“No? I think you can do even better than that. You can ignore it.”

The Turning Point

The Turning Point Poster (1977)

Almost 30 years later, director Herbert Ross came out with The Turning Point (1977), in which actresses Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine get to do a lot of emoting, and indeed get into a full-bore catfight, while Leslie Brown and Mikhail Baryshnikov, no less, get to do some dancing.

In that clip, Baryshnikov, in character as “Yuri Kopeikne,” is dancing and leaping to music composed by Ludwig Minkus for Le Corsaire.

Who? Minkus might strike some today as an obscure name, but the score of Le Corsaire (a ballet from the grand early-romantic period) is a pastiche, including the work of at least ten composers, Minkus among them.

The plot of The Turning Point is simple. DeeDee (played by MacLaine) left ballet years before, got married and has raised a family. Her daughter Emilia (Browne) aspires to a career as a ballerina. In the intervening years, DeeDee’s old friend Emma (Bancroft) has had a career as a star of her company, but she is getting too old for the rigors of that life. The movie opens when Bancroft’s company arrives in Oklahoma City, where MacLaine’s character now lives, and the two old friends get together, in a reunion of the mutually envious.

“Turning Point” was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, but didn’t receive any. One might find significance in that – its aspirations far exceeded its grasp. The dancing though was of course superb. Baryshnikov was everything that you’ve heard that he was. (He was a talented actor in the non-dancing scenes, too.)

Black Swan

Black Swan (2011)

More than another 30 years passed until the 2010 movie Black Swan, produced by Fox Searchlight Pictures, directed by Darren Aronofsky. Natalie Portman plays Nina, a ballet dancer who must play both the innocent white swan Odette and her Doppelgänger, the black swan Odile, in a production of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.

Portman – a fine actress with no dancing experience – is said to have undergone a year of training for the role. But of course (since it takes more than one year to make a ballerina) the more difficult moves were performed by one of two body doubles, Sarah Lane or Kimberly Prosa.

The movie was, in some respects, quite controversial – some critics objected to director Darren Aronofsky’s implicit view of the world of ballet, where the characters all seem skinnier replicas of the professional pseudo-athletes in Aronofsky’s 2008 hit movie, The Wrestler. Some thought the screenplay by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin was a botched attempt to mingle ballet with soap opera. Dennis Lim, in SLATE, wrote that “while Portman is obliged to play it straight, the supporting actors make a feast of their hammy roles.” Yet other critics objected in particular to the movie’s depiction of Swan Lake itself, and the relationship between the Black and White Swans.

To help you make up your own mind about that third ground for critique, if you so choose, here is a real ballet star, Julia Makhalina of the Kirov Ballet and her take on Odile.

But what is unquestionable is that the movie produced a new burst of interest in ballet, and in Swan Lake in particular. This, for the art of ballet, and for the purposes of those who admire the great composers who have contributed to that art, is an unmixed blessing.

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