Ballet in film
Five examples of ballet on the big screen.
Lauren Cuthbertson as Juliet and Federico Bonelli as Romeo in Romeo and Juliet © Bill Cooper/ROH 2012
Billy Elliot (2000)
A gritty tale of a young boy’s transition from boxing to ballet set against the political and social unrest of the 1980s, Billy Elliot is a classic of modern British cinema. Jamie Bell is fantastic as 11 year old Billy, misunderstood by his family and struggling to hide his love of dance in a world dominated by macho prejudice. Not only does he execute some fantastic dance sequences on his quest to join The Royal Ballet School, but he shows improvement and progression in his dancing as the film develops. The directorial debut of renowned stage director Stephen Daldry, this is a touching coming-of-age film that showcases the physical demands and dedication required to make it in ballet.
The Red Shoes (1948)
Based loosely on the fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen and said to have been inspired by the meeting between ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev and British ballerina Diana Gould, The Red Shoes tells the story of a young ballerina torn between love and her dancing career. One of the first feature-length colour films focused exclusively on ballet, it premiered to huge success, launching the film career of Scottish ballet dancer Moira Shearer. Featuring legendary ballet dancers of the era, including star of the Ballet Russes Léonide Massine and renowned French dancer Ludmilla Tchérina, the film includes some breathtaking dance sequences and made hundreds of girls want to become ballerinas.
White Nights (1985)
A Cold War thriller described by critic Roger Ebert as “a pas de deux between the KGB and the CIA”, White Nights is loosely based on the life of lead dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov. A complex story following the relationship between a Soviet ballet dancer (Baryshnikov) and an American tap dancer (Gregory Hines), the film is known for its red-hot dance sequences rather than its sharp script. The star of the film is undoubtedly Baryshnikov, considered by many to stand alongside Nijinsky and Nureyev as one of the greatest ballet dancers in history. His dynamic dance sequences, at once passionate and elegant, made him a movie hero. An explosive combination of ballet and tap from two of the world’s best dancers make this movie a dance classic.
The Turning Point (1977)
One of the most acclaimed dramas of the 1970s, The Turning Point follows the story of two dancers – one who left the stage for marriage and motherhood, and one who went on to become an international ballet icon – tackling the conflict between a career in dance and personal life. Starring Leslie Browne, who had just joined American Ballet Theatre, and Mikhail Baryshnikov – who dazzles with some characteristically impressive leaps – there are some beautiful dance sequences and a wealth of scenes from classic ballets.
Black Swan (2010)
Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s brutal psycho-drama about a ballerina’s descent into madness, is a controversial film amongst ballet-aficionados. The story, an inversion of Swan Lake, has been condemned for outrageously exaggerating clichés of the ballet world. Lauren Cuthbertson, principal of The Royal Ballet, noted at the time of release: “It makes ballet look all blood, sweat, tears and sacrifice… it doesn’t show any of the pleasure”. However, the film, when considered a portrait of obsession and madness rather than a reflection of ballet, is compelling, following in the footsteps of Aronofsky’s previous releases Requiem for a Dream, Pi and The Wrestler.
What are your favourite examples of ballet in film?