Oscar buzz and heated debate surround the recently released psychosexual thriller “Black Swan”— a film that encapsulates the cutthroat world of classical dance.
Yet Darren Aronofsky’s movie is not the first film of its kind. In 1948, British directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger — a filmmaking partnership known as “The Archers” — released their cutting-edge masterpiece, “The Red Shoes.”
Loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale of the same name, “The Red Shoes” follows the rise of ballerina Vicky Page, a British dancer with a thirst for success. When Page (Moira Shearer) joins the ballet company of Russian impresario Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), she quickly becomes the principal soloist of the company’s latest production. However, when she falls in love with the ballet’s composer, Julian Craster (Marius Goring), Page is forced to decide between her love and her career. Overwhelmed by pressure, she chooses suicide instead, leaping off a balcony to fall on an oncoming train.
The elements of “The Red Shoes” will jump out to anyone familiar with “Black Swan”: an ambitious ballerina, a pitiless and domineering ballet director, a fatally demanding role and a climactic suicide. But the most important similarity between the two films is, arguably, the way their respective directors capture the thrilling exhilaration and poetic beauty of ballet on film.
To many an uninitiated audience member, ballet can be summed up by a comment from Mila Kunis’s character in “Black Swan”: “It’s not for everyone.” Indeed, a 2008 study by the National Endowment for the Arts showed that in 1982, only 4.2 percent of American adults attended a ballet. Twenty-six years later, in 2008, that number has dropped to just 2.9 percent. By contrast, 9.3 percent of adults filled the seats of classical music concerts in 2008, and a whopping 16.7 percent of adults attended a musical that year.
In a nation where athletes are worshiped as gods, it is a wonder that ballet — with all its athletic allure and physical grandeur — should trail so far behind other performance art forms. Dizzying fouettés, perfectly balanced arabesques and impossibly high-reaching battement are enough to make any hardcore sports fan’s jaw drop. In fact, the success of former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Lynn Swann is largely due to the flexibility and muscular discipline he gained from his days as a dancer in high school.
This sporty appeal can be seen in the films of the Archers and Aronofsky. The leading ladies are no sissy twinkle toes, but rather a pair of agile and aggressive acrobats. Moira Shearer of “The Red Shoes” left audience members of the late ’40s spellbound following her forceful 14-minute onscreen ballet sequence, which she danced herself. While Natalie Portman may have partly relied on a dance double, critics raved over her ability to duplicate much of the adroit athleticism of a prima ballerina.
In addition to its athletic appeal, ballet has a certain dramatic quality that lends itself to the silver screen — a quality that many other art forms lack. Jan Kounen’s 2009 film “Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky” showed how clumsy directors can be when trying to portray the arts cinematically. The film was a dramatic flop largely because of director Kounen’s unsuccessful attempt to pass off composing music as a visually stimulating act. Scenes of Stravinsky banging on a piano or vigorously scribbling down “The Rite of Spring” came across as tedious, over-acted and even ridiculous.
However, “The Red Shoes” and “Black Swan” display the bloodthirsty competition and intense pressure that goes on behind the scenes in a ballet company, milking these intense moments for all they are worth. It is a riveting process to watch as Vicky Page in “The Red Shoes” claws her way to the top and then ends everything in an almost operatic moment of self-destruction.
As Nina Sayers, Natalie Portman’s lust for perfection and terrifying sexual awakening translate beautifully onscreen — especially during her onstage transformation into the black swan.
With the possible death of ballet looming on the horizon, the day may come when we can only witness the beauty and excitement of classical dance through films like “Black Swan” and “The Red Shoes.” Since the advent of modern dance styles like jazz and hip hop, ballet has begun to disappear from theaters and dance studios. Even the University lacks an official ballet company that performs full-scale works.
Yet the world of ballet may find unexpected help from films that depict it as an alluring art form. By emphasizing the athletic appeal of dance and by portraying it with a fresh sense of drama, “The Red Shoes” and “Black Swan” could inspire a new generation of ballet dancers and fans.
There’s no use denying the emotional and physical attraction of classical dance, especially when depicted on screen. Just as ballet inspired the Archers’ and Aronofsky’s daring films, the cinematic medium may lead to a revitalization of ballet itself.