The ballet film has become a decidedly more challenging proposition for filmmakers in the post-studio era, since producers can no longer call on a stable of salaried dancers, set designers, musicians, composers, costumiers, and choreographers that enabled Hollywood studios to produce musical after musical, from the advent of the talkie until the 1950s. Ballet films are also notably a women's genre, both because they are typically marketed towards women (the assumption, in the United States anyway, being that ballet is too feminine for men) and because they usually star women, putting the ballerina, often a tragic figure torn by the choice between a career and the domestic life of marriage and motherhood, front and center. It is no great wonder, given that Hollywood has progressively devalued genres typically marketed towards women, whether melodramas, romantic comedies, or ballet films, that these movies often receive little critical attention and languish in obscurity, to be, hopefully, rescued by feminist critics.
All of the films on this list feature ballet in some form of another, from the classical choreography of Petipa through the modernism and neoclassicism of Nijinsky and Fokine to the avant-garde dances of Pina Bausch. It is a frustrating fact that the avant-garde ballet, even old avant-garde works like Bronislava Nijinska's Les noces, surely one of the greatest twentieth century ballets, rarely finds a home within cinema, while the classic ballets of the nineteenth century, especially Swan Lake, as well as Sleeping Beauty and Giselle, continue to define the art form within film, but such is the case. Though some of these films feature other styles of dancing, I have only included films that have at least one significant ballet sequence.
An American in Paris (1951)
Vincente Minnelli and Gene Kelly's musical extravaganza broke new ground for ballet in Hollywood films. Though ballet sequences had been done, Hollywood producers were generally leery of ballet, especially in long sequences without dialogue or sung accompaniment, but they were convinced in this case to permit a seventeen minute ballet, entirely without dialogue, and it paid off in spades: of eight Oscar nominations, the film won six. Kelly's choreography is playful, sexy, and whimsically intellectual, pulling poses and gestures from the paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec, Dufy, Van Gogh, Utrillo, Renoir, and Rousseau, the most striking example being "Chocolat dansant dans un bar," an appropriate set of motifs given that Kelly's character is a young American painter. The object of his affections is played by Leslie Caron, a favorite film star of mine, in her motion picture debut at age twenty, while the ever grouchy Oscar Levant, Nina Foch, and Georges Guétary round out the cast.
Black Swan (2010)
While many ballet films have used Swan Lake both as a central musical and choreographic motif and to amplify the significance of the central dancer's internal struggles, none have done so with such depth and complexity as Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan. Nina (Natalie Portman) is a fragile, repressed perfectionist, seemingly easy prey for the misogynistic director (Vincent Cassel, who has said he based his performance on Balanchine), who urges her to masturbate in order to prepare for the dual Odette/Odile role. Her anxiety to be as perfect as the black swan as she is as the white blossoms into extreme paranoia, as her fingernails begin to bleed, a rival (Mila Kunis) seems to romance her, and her memories increasingly diverge from what those around her seem to remember. As stylish a psychological thriller as one could wish for, Black Swan also shows a rare empathy for the actual back-breaking work that goes into dancing at the most advanced levels.
This gorgeous Soviet ballet film with the Bolshoi Ballet stars the brilliant and underrated Raisa Struchkova as Cinderella, giving an exuberant, joyful, poignant performance without the tiniest whiff of ego, though she would have been justified in feeling pleased with herself. The prince is played by Gennadi Lediakh, whose dancing is both athletically masculine and elegantly buoyant; he's excellent, but I've found very little information about his career in English. Another standout is Elena Vanke, who is deliciously funny as the odious stepmother while doing some very impressive footwork. Cinderella has a freshness that many of the other major fairy tale ballets lack and this film, made less than two decades after the premiere, has an ethereal quality that sets it apart. Prokofiev's exquisite score is conducted by Yuri Feier, who also conducted the premiere.
The Glass Slipper (1955)
This gem of a fairy tale film is a masterpiece, undeservedly forgotten. The Cinderella of this film, played by Leslie Caron, is rebellious, angry and hurt at the abuse she receives, desperate to love and desperate to spare herself further pain - in other words, this obscure musical, with one simple change, gives us a Cinderella without the willing martyrdom of Patient Griselda. There are two ballets, choreographed by Roland Petit, and while the dances are not especially technically challenging, they are quite innovative in terms of story-telling and design (by Daniel B. Cathcart and Cedric Gibbons, who evoke the designs of Bakst and Benois for the Ballets Russes) and the second one in particular is heart-breaking, a devastating tragedy in less than ten minutes. Prince Charles is played by Michael Wilding, out of his element in the dances but otherwise excellent, while the whimsical Estelle Winwood is Ella's kleptomaniac godmother, Elsa Lanchester is her vicious stepmother, and Keenan Wynn is the prince's sophisticated and slightly debauched best friend.
Invitation to the Dance (1956)
This all-dance anthology film, director and star Gene Kelly's dream project, was an utter disaster at the box office upon its release, scuttling further possibilities for even such relatively tame avant-garde fare receiving significant (and necessary) studio funding. There is no dialogue in the movie, the stories being told exclusively through dance, and it brought together some of the finest dancers, including Igor Youskevitch and Tamara Toumanova, and composers, including Jacques Ibert and André Previn, of the era, uniting their talents with the wealth of the MGM studio. The first sequence, "Circus," is a tragedy, a more sentimental I pagliacci or Petroushka, about the romantic entanglements of a clown, circus ballerina, and aerialist. The second, "Ring Around the Rosy," is a modern version of Max Ophüls's The Earrings of Madame de... (though this debt goes unacknowledged), with a gold bracelet taking the place of the diamond earrings; the dancing in this sequence is especially inventive, playing with jazz, ballroom, and tap influences. The last sequence is a technical tour-de-force accompanied by arrangements of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade in which Kelly leaps, cavorts, twirls, and stamps his way through an animated Arabian casbah, the animation provided by Hanna-Barbera. The film is deeply flawed, but it is nonetheless one of the most significant dance films ever made.
The Nutcracker (1977)
Though it's hard to believe now, The Nutcracker was not always a yearly Christmas tradition, becoming the December behemoth we all know and love/hate only after Balanchine's new production at the New York City Ballet, which premiered in 1954, became an annual, zealously observed ritual. To put this in perspective, in Fantasia, Deems Taylor says of The Nutcracker ballet, "nobody performs it nowadays" - Fantasia came out in 1940. This 1977 version, originally broadcast on television, features the American Ballet Theatre in Mikhail Baryshnikov's adaptation of the Balanchine and it's an opportunity to see Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland in their most famous partnering. Though severely abridged, the telefilm uses a range of cinematic effects that heightens the sense of dream-like magic essential to a successful staging of the story.
Pina Bausch was one of the most innovative and radical choreographers of the modern era, a successor to the revolutionary modernism of Vaslav Nijinsky, and Wim Wenders's film is a tribute to her work and an exploration of its implications, which is analyzed almost exclusively through the movements of the dances themselves. The film includes excerpts from some of Bausch's most influential and subtle ballets, capturing the mysterious fascination her dancers emanate in the throes of her choreographic spell; among the pieces featured are Bausch's version of The Rite of Spring, Café Müller, and Vollmond. Bausch's dances confront the difficulties of what it means to be a human being, a human body, struggling with them and never conceding defeat. While the classical technique of Petipa placed the locus of the dance in the legs, Bausch reversed that technique, with the arms engaging in the complex series of gestures once the dominion of the legs, while the legs remain still only to suddenly leap upwards or collapse to the ground. If Pina radiates one quality above others, it is the love that her dancers feel for her and the love she clearly felt for her dancers.
The Pirate (1948)
Vincente Minnelli and Gene Kelly, the innovators of An American in Paris, were already experimenting with ballet in this 1948 film. Far too sophisticated and avant-garde for mainstream audiences, particularly audiences unused to modern ballet, the film was a painful flop. A pastiche of swashbucklers, The Pirate is gleefully subversive at almost every level. It tells the story of Serafin (Kelly), an unscrupulous circus acrobat who has his lustful eye on Manuela (Judy Garland), a sheltered young señorita who harbors explosive sexual fantasies about the pirate Macoco. The movie pushes against the boundaries of acceptable ideas of gender, sexuality, and desire, and even race - Kelly performs with the Nicholas Brothers, Fayard and Harold, two of the greatest American dancers of all time, whose appearance in an otherwise lily-white production inspired protest in certain regions of the United States. Kelly's sexually charged ballet, framed as Manuela's fantasy, is unlike any other dance in a Hollywood film and could conceivably be one of the earliest explorations of private female desire in a mainstream movie.
The Red Shoes (1948)
A strong contender for the greatest ballet film of all time, The Red Shoes, directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, is inspired by the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale in which a heedless young girl with a longing to dance is bewitched by a pair of red shoes and eventually dances herself to death. The story both provides the framework of the modern plot of a ballerina (Moira Shearer) torn between a career with a Svengali-like impresario (Anton Walbrook) and the love of an idealistic composer (Marius Goring) and the libretto of the gorgeous, thrilling ballet, which is the jewel of ballet cinema. The ballet's choreography is by two of the giants of twentieth century dancemaking, Robert Helpmann and Léonide Massine, who also dance, and the music is by Brian Easdale. This film has something magical at its core, something which both disturbs and elates. Few films succeed in portraying anything but the superficial aspects of being an artist, but The Red Shoes reveals the complex depths of feeling, impulse, and thought that motivate the making of great art, the exaltations and the despairs of the artist.
Sleeping Beauty (1965)
This Soviet ballet film features my favorite male dancer of all time, Yuri Soloviev, who, although he did not defect along with his contemporaries Nureyev and Baryshnikov, steadfastly refused to join the Communist Party, despite the possible lethal consequences of this decision. His dancing is both more delicate and more precise than that of his contemporaries and he was often compared to Nijinsky. His grand jetés have a weightless quality that lends an air of ethereal magic to even his most athletically challenging performances. In this gorgeous and highly cinematic version of the ballet, performed on sets that transform the theatrical experience into something purely immersive, he shares the stage with Alla Sizova, Natalia Dudinskaya, and Irina Bazhenova. Though the film is in desperate need of restoration, it is an essential, both for the brilliant quality of the dancing and the artfulness of the filmmaking.
The Tales of Hoffmann (1951)
Jacques Offenbach's opera is the source for another masterpiece by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, a pageant of brilliant color, dazzling choreography danced with panache, and exquisite music. The ballet-opera, which in its turn was inspired by stories by E.T.A. Hoffmann, author of The Nutcracker, follows a sensitive lovelorn poet on his travels in Paris, Venice, and Greece. The ballets are choreographed by Frederic Ashton, who also danced alongside Léonide Massine, Moira Shearer, Robert Helpmann, and Ludmilla Tchérina, while the singers include Robert Rounseville, Monica Sinclair, and Ann Ayars. The meticulous attention to design and costume and the flamboyant use of color in both the design elements and the cinematographic lighting recall, as does the presence of Massine, the exoticism, sensuality, and innovation of the Ballets Russes. Special note should also be made of the extraordinary editing by Reginald Mills, who masterfully edited the film to the rhythm and phrasing of the previously recorded music.
Talk to Her (2002)
Though not obviously a dance film, Pedro Almodóvar's film (in my opinion, his best) is framed by Pina Bausch's Café Müller, a performance that subtly alters the perception of the devastating events of the story, which also includes an intense and disturbingly seductive pornographic film that acts as a pastiche of silent, experimental filmmaking. The story is psychologically complex, following two men who mourn and obsess over the comatose women they love, one a bull-fighter and the other a ballet student. The dance distills the complex meanings of the film, magnifying and deepening those meanings and elevating through its metatextual commentary the sufferings, joys, tentative attempts at connection, and compassionate impulses of the characters, played with exquisite sensitivity by Javier Cámara, Darío Grandinetti, Leonor Watling, and Rosario Flores, into expressions of universal human longing.
The Turning Point (1977)
DeeDee (Shirley MacLaine) is reunited with her old friend and rival, Emma (Anne Bancroft), just as her beloved daughter Emilia (Leslie Browne) is starting her own ballet career. While Emma became a prima ballerina, DeeDee gave up her career when she became pregnant with Emilia, and both women have a stake in the younger girl's success, especially when she is seduced by a young Mikhail Baryshnikov. MacLaine and Bancroft both give intense, ferocious performances, dramatizing the agonizing choice they each made between career and motherhood: each woman is desperate for the rewards that the other reaped. Nominated for eleven Academy Awards, The Turning Point is one of the few ballet films to receive positive critical recognition.
The Unfinished Dance (1947)
The Unfinished Dance is a strange and deeply flawed, and yet fascinating film. Starring child star Margaret O'Brien as Meg, an aspiring ballet student, the story is a cross between The Children's Hour and Black Swan, though it reins in the gathering darkness for a treacly finish that makes little sense. Meg obsesses over the company's prima ballerina (Cyd Charisse) and feels personally threatened when an international star (Karin Booth) comes to headline a new production of Swan Lake (perhaps the wonkiest version I've ever seen). Hoping to humiliate her idol's rival by killing the lights during her solo, Meg instead opens a trap door in the stage. This film is both unexpectedly dark and unexpectedly centered around women - the only major male character is Meg's kindhearted guardian (Danny Thomas) - and its ultimate message is, even more surprisingly, rather feminist. The movie seems to insist that, despite rivalries, betrayals, and the demands of would-be fiancés, there is nothing more important for a dancer than to dance.
Waterloo Bridge (1940)
This tragic melodrama - supposedly Vivien Leigh's favorite of all her films - is about the ill-fated love affair between a ballerina (Leigh), Myra, and an army captain (Robert Taylor), who meet in the frantic early days of World War I on Waterloo Bridge in the midst of an air raid. Their whirlwind romance is disapproved of both by his snobbish aristocratic mother (Lucile Watson) and her tyrannical ballet teacher (Maria Ouspenskaya), who explicitly sabotages the relationship. Like so many ballet dancers of cinema, Myra is forced to choose between a man she desperately loves and the discipline and self-sacrifice of a ballet career. It is no accident that Myra appears in Swan Lake, the haunting ballet that, in its psychological fracturing of the female dancer, proves so resonant in these films that confront the costs of being a ballerina.
Bonus: The Rite of Spring (1987)
Though not technically a film, the Joffrey Ballet's restoration of Nijinsky's choreography for Stravinsky's avant-garde ballet set in pre-historical pagan Russia is essential viewing for any ballet fan. The Rite of Spring was, of course, the most controversial ballet in history, a scandal that precipitated the advent of the choreographic avant-garde that nurtured the careers of Nijinska, Massine, and Balanchine. Though it is impossible to know just how completely ballet historian Millicent Hodson succeeded in reawakening Nijinsky's masterpiece, the choreography is electrifying, its pulsating, trembling bodies in the frenzied desperation of blood sacrifice and sun worship. Watch the ballet (and an accompanying documentary about the Joffrey Ballet's reconstruction).
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