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The Fourth Wall

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Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, the Horror and Beauty of Ballet

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September 9th, 2010 at 12:32 pm

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Portman has never looked quite so spooky: the Black Swan poster.

Once upon a time, I was a little girl who, as my oldest friend likes to put it, loved to wear cute little dresses, then swing on the monkey bars and play with the boys. (I like to think this is still a fair representation of my personality.) I also squeezed myself into a leotard, tights, and legwarmers, then shoved my tiny feet into pastel pink ballet shoes and clung to the bar for dear life as I strove for a plié in fifth position. I was no ballerina, but ballet occupied a part of my growing brain that nothing else could. I ached for the exquisite beauty, strength, and poise of the ballerinas striding and leaping beneath the hot white lights in The Nutcracker. I never danced en pointe, eventually grew out of the legwarmers, and started playing softball, but ballet continues to fascinate me. Though I’m drawn most often to drama, satire, and horror, I can hardly resist a ballet movie…and it’s interesting how ballet fits so well in those genres.

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Black Swan‘s theatrical trailer.

The trailer for Darren Aronofsky’s highly anticipated thriller Black Swan released recently, and it made me think: why does a movie that focuses on ballet dancers appear so utterly bizarre and frightening? Black Swan tells the story of prima ballerina Nina (Natalie Portman) who is cast by artistic director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) in the role of the swan in Swan Lake. Rival dancer Lily (Mila Kunis) provides an eerie doppelganger for Nina as the two battle it out for the lead role and the love of the artistic director. Aronofsky’s films are often bizarre, surreal, and spooky; Black Swan looks no different—but if there’s one director who can do beautiful and horrific at once, it’s Aronofsky.

Ballet is an art form, a style and grace of movement that captivates so many because it is so extraordinary. So why is it, then, that so many movies about ballet are horror-influenced?

Moira Shearer dances like there’s no tomorrow in The Red Shoes.

Humans are inherently fascinated with things that don’t seem possible but are. Ballet, in its base form, is totally unreal; the human body shouldn’t bend like that. To truly become a great ballet dancer, to allow one’s body to twist and move so gracefully, with such strength, it seems one must torture one’s body into submission. As artistic director Lermontov chastises lead dancer Victoria in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, “The great impression of simplicity can only be achieved by great agony of body and spirit.”

“Great agony of body and spirit,” indeed. Shearer in The Red Shoes.

Director Powell, who also made 1960’s voyeurism-serial-killer flick Peeping Tom, knows his horror. The film is based on a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale about a young girl who puts on cursed ballet shoes and then can’t stop dancing until she dies. (Andersen is actually a hell of a lot more twisted than Disney’s The Little Mermaid would have you believe.) In the film The Red Shoes, ballet impresario Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) takes beautiful young dancer Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) under his wing and casts her in his ballet of The Red Shoes. You’d never guess, watching it, that Powell and Pressburger made The Red Shoes in 1948. The film features dance editing techniques far, far ahead of its time. Due to magnificent sets, lighting, and makeup, and in part to its melodramatic and surreal plot, the movie is nightmarishly strange.

Summer Glau’s prima ballerina, forced to relive her flawed performance for a hundred years in “Angel.”

A common theme in ballet films is choice: in the movies, ballet is life, or as Lermontov says in The Red Shoes, “a religion;” this means there can be no distractions. Lermontov’s jealousy forces Victoria to choose between her lover Julian Craster (Marius Göring) and her career as a prima ballerina. Likewise, in season three of the Joss Whedon-created show “Angel,” an episode titled “Waiting in the Wings” features a supernatural variation on this theme. On a trip to the ballet, Angel (David Boreanaz) notices the company onstage features the same exact dancers as the show he saw in 1890 (Angel is of course a 300-year-old vampire). Main characters Angel and Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) fall into a spiritual hot spot and relive the lust of a prima ballerina (Summer Glau) and her lover. It turns out, once the company owner (a Lermontov-like character) discovered their tryst, he punished the ballerina by forcing her to relive her performance every night for more than a hundred years. Again, the surreal beauty of ballet forms a backdrop for supernatural horror.

A true dancer stays on her toes til the very end: Suzy collapses in Suspiria.

Italian horror maestro Dario Argento also acknowledged the connection between ballet and terror in his 1977 movie Suspiria, about a German ballet school that’s a facade for a coven of witches. When aspiring ballerina Suzy Banion begins attending the Tanz Academie, she endures physical and emotional torture at the hands of authoritarian teachers and her fellow students. As the film progresses Suzy discovers malevolence beneath the beauty. One of the last movies made in true Technicolor, primary-hued and Goblin-scored Suspiria is a Grand Guignol masterpiece that unites absolutely gorgeous sets, lovely dance, and horrific deaths.

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Cut to 6:30 for an eerie dance sequence from Suspiria.

Jealousy, death, torture, immortality, beauty: they are common themes in ballet films. Is it any wonder films about dance and dancing are often horror-influenced?

There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. Stephen Daldry’s 2000 drama Billy Elliot isn’t horror, though it deals with the struggles of a young dancer and the choices and sacrifices he has to make in order to dance. Likewise, 2000’s Center Stage is a comedy-drama about ballet that isn’t horrific at all, but deals with choice, eating disorders, and bodily torture (I can’t erase shots of the dancers’ bloody, ruined toes from my mind). Robert Altman’s The Company (2003) is largely focused on the sheer beauty of dance, modern and ancient; though the plot isn’t particularly linear, there is a subplot involving dancer Ry (Neve Campbell), who has to choose between her lover (James Franco) and ballet impresario Antonelli (Malcolm McDowell). Once again, choice is a major theme. Save the Last Dance and Fame are yet other films that deal with ballet dancers and have no horror influence. This is by no means a blanket statement—just a curious thought.

Billy Elliot: certainly not horror, but not entirely lighthearted, either.


What say you, Fourth Wall readers? What is the link between ballet and horror? And what are your favorite ballet films, horror-influenced or not?

  • Amanda

    Another ballet-horror movie is “Wishing Stairs.” It’s Korean, with all the demonic inspiration therein, even during the ballet – beautiful, stylized, cruel, and creepy.

  • http://calitreview.com/author/william_bibbiani William Bibbiani

    Hey, don’t forget the “other” Red Shoes, a South Korean horror film about a pair of, well… haunted red shoes, that used to belong to a ballet dancer and drive women mad before cutting their feet off at the heel. It’s not especially good or anything, just related to the subject at hand.

  • Kar

    No mention of the classic “Turning Point?” Not a traditional horror but it has jealousy, back stabbing and divas galore. Plus one of the best cinematic cat-fights ever.

    Besides, what could be more horrific than a diva facing the darkening spotlight and being left with nothing?

  • http://www.fieldspointpictures.com Dan Fields

    For me, the world of ballet more or less begins and ends with Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary. But that’s no slouch of a beginning or ending point.

    But if we’re talking horror with a ballet twist, who remembers “Audition?”

  • http://mattsmithonfilm.blogspot.com Matthew Smith

    Julia, you will LOVE Aronofsky’s film. I pretty much guarantee it. Best (somewhat) ‘mainstream’ film I’ve seen this year. Well, I may like SPLICE more…maybe. But that’s neither here nor there.

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