Before Black Swan: ballet and the movies

We've heard lots about Natalie Portman's travails as a fictional prima ballerina in Darren Aronofsky's film, but she's just the latest in a long line of doomed cinematic dancers

WARNING: contains spoilers

Yesterday's G2 interviews on Darren Aronofsky's ballet film Black Swan made me think about how feature films have incorporated ballet into their stories. Most people will think immediately of musicals, which have a readymade slot in their song-and-dance numbers, or of wish-fulfilment fantasies: Fame, Flashdance, Center Stage, Save the Last Dance and the like. From that standpoint, Black Swan looks like an exception. But look beyond these films and two other genres come to the fore: melodrama and horror.

Over decades and across continents, ballet dancers in feature films have consistently been associated with hysteria, madness, torture, the supernatural and death. Former New Yorker critic Arlene Croce dubbed this a "tradition of morbidity", and certain motifs crop up over and over again. Here are few of them.

The monstrous maestro

The balletmaster – or occasionally mistress – is an obsessive, manipulative tyrant, preferably with a foreign accent (all the better to ham with), who treats the dancer as his personal creation. Both ballet and film fans will point to Lermontov in The Red Shoes (1948), but there are plenty of others. An early example is The Mad Genius (1932), a kind of deranged mother to The Red Shoes, with a splendidly bug-eyed John Barrymore as Tsarakov, a former puppet-master who makes a street urchin into a great dancer – a creation myth that has explicit overtones of Frankenstein.

In the end she dies

"In the end she dies" is a line from The Red Shoes again, but its application is widespread. Ballerinas are forever dying at the end of their films. Often it's suicide. The Red Shoes: she jumps off a cliff. Waterloo Bridge (1940): she throws herself under a bus. The Red Danube (1949): she jumps through a window. The Spectre of the Rose (1946): he (a rare male dancer) also jumps through a window. In The Story of Three Loves (1953) she knows her weak heart will give out if she dances – and chooses death.

Film the pirouette

Pirouettes – or, alternatively, fouettés – are a cinematic gift. As the dancer's body spins, the head appears to stay still (it's like the exact opposite of the full-circle head turn in The Exorcist). This means that, with each head-snap, the film-maker can rack up tension while the scene remains essentially the same. A great example is in The Howling III (1987), where Olga, a Russian ballerina, progressively turns into a werewolf with each spin. Awesome.

Jealous rivalry

Never mind Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, ballerinas are the high queens of female rivalry. In Korean horror Wishing Stairs (2003), two best-friends-forever schoolgirls go off the rails because they both want to dance the lead in Giselle. So one of them puts glass in the other's toe shoe, and her rival dies but gets to wreak revenge from beyond the grave. Sometimes this rivalry is figured through an evil twin motif, with the good and bad dancers measured not by skill but character, one embodying the dark flipside of the other. In Dance, Girl, Dance(1940) a well-bred ballerina slugs it out with a low-life burlesque dancer. In The Unfinished Dance (1947), it's channelled through the device of the demon child: angel-faced tot Margaret O'Brien embodies a professional rivalry by opening a trapdoor during a performance; the pirouetting ballerina falls into it and is crippled.

Backstage, it's girls' school

Ballet films love to overload the dance academy or ballet company with a girls'-school ambience, portraying pent-up passions in a cloistered world. Of course, this also affords plenty of opportunities for pervy peeking – a staple of horror-exploitation film. Especially Italian ones: witness 1960's Vampire and the Ballerina (bloodsucker terrorises dance school), or Suspiria (1977), where passion and paranoia in a ballet academy erupt extravagantly into murder and witchcraft.

There are other recurring themes – psychosomatic disorders (Limelight, 1952), ageing as a kind of death (Grand Hotel, 1932) – but at the heart of these films there is one crucial maxim …

Life and ballet do not mix

And when talking of cinema, you could rephrase that as: realism and ballet do not mix. It's useless to protest that feature films about ballet dancers are woeful misrepresentations when even the most documentary-style feature film ever produced – Robert Altman's The Company (2003) – regularly tips into cliche and its writer, co-producer and star is Hollywood Scream queen Neve Campbell. Surrender now, because when it comes to narrative cinema featuring ballet dancers, genre wins over realism every time. Aronofsky's Black Swan – which, incidentally, starts out as a not terribly good melodrama and ends up as a great horror movie – is just the latest in a long and well-established line.


Sanjoy Roy

The GuardianTramp

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