Ballerina: the animated kids' film that gets to the pointe of ballet

This feature-length animation set in the prestigious Paris Opera school boasts choreography based on real performances and takes the art form seriously

Ask any ballet dancer about the film Black Swan and you’ll immediately get a groan that falls somewhere between disdain and disgust. They’re tired of the myths about ballet being a world of competition and cruelty, of freakishly talented and freakishly driven dancers – never mind that there’s some truth in that.

Ballet both feeds on its myths – of it being exceptional and otherworldly – and is constantly trying to demolish them. And each new fiction adds another layer in the popular imagination, even an unassuming, entertaining children’s animation such as Ballerina, the French-Canadian film which follows orphan Félicie on her quest to be a dancer.

This is a film that takes its dance seriously. The choreography is modelled on real performances by ballerina Aurélie Dupont – former Paris Opera étoile (star), now artistic director of the company – and fellow dancer Jérémie Bélingard. The result is ballet XXL, a little faster and higher than humanly possible, but the steps are real.

Aurélie Dupont and Jean-Guillaume Bart in La Bayadère at the Lowry, Salford Quays, in 2000.
Aurélie Dupont and Jean-Guillaume Bart in La Bayadère at the Lowry, Salford Quays, in 2000. Photograph: Don McPhee for the Guardian

It’s also a film that idolises not just the role of the ballerina but also the world’s oldest ballet company, the Paris Opera. Set in Paris in 1879, with the first iron girders of the Eiffel Tower beginning to rise in the background, Félicie’s mecca is the Palais Garnier, home of the Paris Opera and as important a character as anyone in the film. Its grand dome glows amid the rooftops, the building’s grandeur is rendered in fine detail, its sweeping staircases and gilded candelabras, the iconic circular windows of the ballet studio.

Founded in 1669 at the court of Louis XIV, the Paris Opera Ballet is deeply entrenched in tradition. When Benjamin Millepied resigned as director last year, the subsequent fallout emphasised a rigidly hierarchical institution resistant to change. The company’s exacting regime is certainly in evidence in Ballerina. By way of luck and subterfuge, Félicie finds her way into the Paris Opera Ballet School (these days it has its own building but back then students, nicknamed the petit rats, trained in the opera house itself) and the merciless discipline of ballet master Mérante. The film’s makers might well have read the 2002 report criticising the severity of the school’s culture and its regime of “psychological terror”.

Initially, Félicie gets by on the Billy Elliot formula: spirit over technique. But she soon learns there’s no substitute for hard work and it takes 5am starts to push her body to perfection – plus some Karate Kid-style training methods applied by her mentor, like jumping into a puddle of water without making a splash.

But the ultimate lesson is that Billy Elliot is right, at least once you’ve mastered the steps: to be a great dancer is about the spirit you communicate on stage. “Passion is more important than technique,” Félicie is told. “How you deliver it, musicality, emotion. Every sound, every harmony needs to leave your body vibrating from the ends of your hair to the tips of your toes.” And that really isn’t a myth.

Contributor

Lyndsey Winship

The GuardianTramp

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