Content warning: mentions of suicide
Watching “Dancing on Glass,” learning about the trials and traumas in ballet, made me glad I made the decision to quit the sport. I’m sure if you’ve seen “Black Swan,” this movie’s revelations are nothing shocking. But five-year-old me prancing around in ballet class had no idea the hidden traumas that often reveal themselves within the art as ballerinas improve. And I’m glad I never found out for myself. If I had not made the decision to quit ballet, I could have faced the same tribulations as the film’s main characters, Irene (María Pedraza, “El Verano Que Vivimos”) and Aurora (Paula Losada, debut). While the film highlights the beauty of ballet through otherworldly dance scenes, there are many negative sides of the sport discussed in this movie. The Spanish film chronicles the journey of two sad, stressed young women whose lives revolve around their professional ballet company. The off-putting movie contains a whirlwind of drama, mystery, and thrills that chronicle the details of many dancers’ unwavering need for perfectionism. Director Jota Linares (“Who Would You Take on a Deserted Island?”) clearly expresses a depressing message that paints ballet as a lost cause, with no hope of changing the art for the better.
The despairing movie reveals the darkness of ballet through Irene, an overworked bulimic girl newly promoted to lead dancer, and Aurora, an anxious ballerina who is new to Irene’s dance company in Spain. Unfortunately, Irene’s bulimia is common among dancers, as many face various eating disorders due to pressure from those around them to maintain unrealistic standards. The pair become fast friends and never fail to find refuge in each other through the immense pressure they constantly face. While trying to achieve an inhumane level of perfection through their performances, the two escape to the imagined, otherworldly scenes playing out in their minds that allow them to enjoy the beauty of dance and avoid all the negativity that comes with it.
These scenes definitely brought a kind of serenity to the movie, but the beauty of ballet in these scenes doesn’t seem worth all the resulting trauma the girls face. It made me wonder why they even choose to continue dancing professionally at all. I understand Linares’ intention to raise awareness about the mistreatment of dancers in ballet, but it was disheartening to realize that these girls were doomed from the start with no chance of salvation. If Linares had resolved the characters’ underlying issues in the movie (mental health disorders, stress and anxiety) with some sort of solution, he could have inspired the audience to do the same. But what is insinuated is that the only way out of their vicious ballet cycle was through death. Solely based on this movie, I would never recommend anyone practice ballet, as the entire industry seems to be beyond saving.
When expressing a powerful message, there’s a difference between trying to inspire change in the audience and trying to make the audience feel disturbed. The film definitely exposed the darkness clouding every successful ballerina and left me feeling anxious. I feel anxious for all young girls in ballet, completely oblivious to the potential black hole it could lead them down. I found myself rooting for the main characters’ happiness, but the built-up anxiety was never had the chance to be even partially resolved.
The cinematography present in the movie, however, was rather impressive. Surreal scenes of mountains, lakes and more were displayed in a 360-degree view while the girls danced in the center. I liked the concept of building a mental fortress around an idealized world to retreat to during hardship, but, though these mental health issues never have an easy solution, I was also disappointed that the girls could never fully face their problems.
The topic of suicide is indirectly brought up often, as the previous lead ballerina was driven to insanity and took her own life. It was disappointing to have the same depressive energy manifested into the main characters traveling in a downward spiral throughout the movie. It makes me wonder if this movie was truly raising awareness and trying to make a change in the ballet industry, or if it was simply a nihilistic warning to the audience. Simply put, “Dancing on Glass” was an effectively disturbing but unhelpful perspective on the popularly corrupt ballet industry.
Daily Arts Writer Zara Manna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.