Film Ballet

February 9, 2016

My version of the Super Bowl is the Academy Awards. Besides heavily snacking, drinking, and shouting at the television the day of the award ceremony, I spend Oscar month watching more movies than usual, which in turn leads to more critical thinking on the subject. This year’s Oscar buzz has become dull due to all the usual hoopla.

So, I want to throw out an Oscar hindsight of mine. Five years ago, Natalie Portman won for her performance in Black Swan. Portman’s apparent transformation into a ballerina was said to have pushed the Oscar in her favor. The ballet-dancer double claims she was the dancer prominently featured in the film. I don’t really like Black Swan. Initially I did, but over time it has lost any allure it once held. But the attention around the ballet dancer’s claim versus the director’s claim has stuck with me. It made me wonder if there was an imbalance and possible lack of understanding between the ballet and film, and if it could be done differently or arguably better for the screen. Sixty-two years before Black Swan came The Red Shoes. In 1948, ballet and film became a successful hybrid.
The two movies are similar in plot — there’s a classical ballerina and her eventual dramatic unraveling due to the devotion to the craft — but oh-so-different in the treatment of ballet. There is no doubt that Black Swan is indebted to Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger for their groundbreaking creation. This style of filmmaking, specifically the long break for a ballet performance, had not been done before, and film was still quite young at the time. Watching The Red Shoes is what I imagine it felt like to see The Great Train Robbery in 1903.

Every time I watch, my eyes are wide open, for it’s highly stylized from head to toe. I’m overwhelmed by all of the detail and work put into each second. The Red Shoes is not just a dance movie. It leaves one hell of a long-lasting impression because of how ballet is handled with care through a cinematic perspective, while Black Swan is purely cinematic. The CGI and camera tricks take away from what the stage and performers could do. Black Swan is less focused on the ballet and more focused on the psychological horror setting and the star power (yeah, I said it!), while Powell and Pressburg equally include time for the ballet and time for the film.

The relationship between ballet and film is fascinating, depending on the your own perspective. Are you watching a movie, or are you watching a ballet performance? Sarah Lane, the ballet dancer in Black Swan, and Moira Shearer, the ballet dancer in The Red Shoes, expressed a similar hesitation to put ballet in film. That’s understandable, considering ballet is used more of an ingredient than an art form in film. But, I do hope that those two dancers would agree that The Red Shoes is one of the greatest film ballets ever made.