Ballet is inherently dramatic, so it is no wonder the movies have frequently looked to pointed shoes and bun heads for inspiration. The first ballet moves captured on film were likely in the turn-of-the-last-century animated films of Alexander Shiryaev, whose crude but beautiful films used drawings and puppets as an early form of dance notation.
Since then, the movies have been dancing with the stars. Everyone from legendary performers like Mikhail Baryshnikov to gifted amateurs like Natalie Portman, who plays a beautiful but troubled ballerina in this weekend’s dark drama Black Swan, have done a cinematic grand jeté or two.
The most classic ballet movie has to be The Red Shoes, the 1948 classic which interweaves on and off stage action to tell the story of a ballerina pulled between two men—a composer who loves her and an impresario who wants to make her a star. The British Film Institute labeled it one of “the best British films ever” and the movie inspired Kate Bush’s song and album of the same name.
The Red Shoes was nominated for four Oscars and took home a pair, which is two more than our next ballet film, even though it was nominated for eleven. The Turning Point (which ties The Color Purple for most nominations with no wins) starred Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft as lifelong rivals; one who left the ballet to become a wife and mother, the other who stayed and became a star. Audrey Hepburn, Doris Day and Grace Kelly were all offered the lead roles, but turned them down. After seeing the movie, Hepburn regretted her decision. “That was the one film,” she said, “that got away from me.”
There are dozens of Hollywood ballet movies. It’s almost tutu much (you had to know that pun was coming); White Nights, Center Stage (with Avatar’s Zoe Saldana), Billy Elliot, The Company (made with the cooperation of the Joffrey Ballet) and even the South Korean horror film, Wishing Stairs, feature stories about fictional ballet dancers, but there are many interesting ballet documentaries as well.
The history of the Ballet Russe of Monte Carlo is touchingly and lovingly told in Ballets Russes, an intimate documentary focused on the founders of modern ballet and also fascinating is La Danse – Le ballet de l’Opéra de Paris, director Frederick Wiseman’s fly-on-the-wall look at the production of seven ballets by the Paris Opera Ballet.