10 Greatest films about ballet

James Oliver

We take a look at some of the greatest films about ballet ever made... 

Everyone enjoys a bit of dancing now and then but there are those whose dedication to the terpsichorean arts goes a bit further than a spot of drunken frugging at a wedding.

Carlos Acosta is one of those, as no doubt you know: born in Cuba, he transcended early poverty to become quite possibly the most famous ballet dancer in the whole wide world, and one who's done more than most to open up that potentially elitist medium to the widest possible audience.

He's the subject of a soon-to-released film called Yuli and that gave us the idea of looking at other films about ballet and ballerinas So if you'd like to join us at the barre, we shall begin.

 

The Red Shoes

Many movies have been made about ballet but filmmakers always face one fundamental problem: it takes years of practice to master the twirls and pirouettes that dancers are expected to perform: most actors are far too ungainly ever to pass muster.

When they made The Red Shoes, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger hit upon an ingenious solution. They cast real dancers, the best they could find who could also act, including Moira Shearer, Leonid Massine and Robert Helpmann. And they made them earn their keep—at the heart of the film is a real 20 minute ballet sequence: it was probably seen by more people who had ever seen a ballet before.

 

An American in Paris

Most American musicals derive their dancing styles from their Broadway cousins, styles altogether more vigorous than the refined world of the ballet. An American in Paris is a rare exception; after Gene Kelly saw—and was blown away by—The Red Shoes (q.v.), he determined to do something similar.

The ballet-infused final sequence is one of the highest points of the Hollywood musical. No doubt purists will find fault with our Gene's technique but the rest of us will be too busy marvelling at the razzle-dazzle to care.

 

Black Swan

There's a paradox in ballet. The movements are so graceful, so pure but the effect on a those who perform them is brutal—have you ever seen a ballerina's feet? And sometimes the cost is even greater still.

That's what Black Swan is about: a fragile ballerina (Natalie Portman) is given a plum role in a production of Swan Lake which sends her—spoiler alert—round the twist. Unlike earlier generations of filmmaker, director Darren Aronofsky could use computers to glue Portman's head onto a professional dancer's body. Not content with that, he also uses computers to turn her into a swan; “restraint” is not really his strong point.

 

Suspiria

Black Swan was not the first horror film set against a balletic backdrop. Suspiria—the 1977 version—got the jump on it there, telling the tale of a young dancer who finds a witch's coven underneath her ballet school.

Truth be told, there's not much in the way of actual dancing here. What there is, though, is a full-on sensory assault: director Dario Argento goes to town on the technicolor and tops it off with an outrageous soundtrack.

Last year's remake has its admirers but the original is such a singular film that it was never going to escape Argento's shadow.

 

The Company

Unlike Natalie Portman, Neve Campbell didn't need computers to help her look the part of a ballerina: before she took to acting, she planned on being a dancer, her career change necessitated by injury.

Still, she never forgot that early ambition and once she'd got a bit of clout (she starred in the Scream series), she decided she wanted to return to that world, if only on film. The Company is set in the (real life) Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, with Campbell as a young newcomer. But wait! This is no vanity project—Campbell had the good sense to get seasoned pro Robert Altman to direct and he broadened the focus, looking at other characters (played by real dancers) and the entire creative process, something the veteran director knew all about.

 

Billy Elliot

No matter how hard the likes of Carlos Acosta try, ballet still has a reputation—in this country, at least—for being something for girls.

Billy Elliot gives the lie to that. As surely everyone knows, it's about a young lad from the flinty North who thumbs his nose at what's expected of a boy when he discovers the joys of dance. A huge feel-good hit in its day—an impressive feat, given that it's set during the not-at-all-heart-warming miner's strike—it later became a Broadway musical, complete with American actors attempting Geordie accents. Ooh, that must have been something to behold.

 

The Dumb Girl of Portici

A bit of a cheat this, since it's not really about ballet—the story actually derives from an opera (La Muette de Portici), even if none of the tunes actually survive 'cos it's a silent film. But it warrants inclusion because it stars possibly the most famous ballerina of them all, Anna Pavlova.

Hired at vast expense when she was on a tour of the USA in 1915, she plays the titular mute, a young peasant who falls for the local bigwig. There's not much room for dancing, but they crowbar some in anyway and we must be glad they did, for it's some of the only footage that survives of the great Pavlova strutting her stuff.

(Oh, and it wins additional historical bonus points for being the very first Hollywood blockbuster to be directed by a woman, Lois Weber.)

 

White Nights

Ballet played an unlikely part of the Cold War: it was the Soviet Union's prime cultural export, with tours of the West being used to soften the image of the dictatorship. But those tours afforded opportunities for dancers to defect, something Western authorities were always keen to encourage.

Mikhail Baryshnikov was one who leapt over the Iron Curtain, and that's reflected in the plot of White Nights. He plays a defector who finds himself back in the Soviet Union with unhappy consequences. Helen Mirren plays his lost love and she puts on her best Russian Yeccent to do so: no doubt actual Russians will find it as amusing as we find American Geordies.

Baryshnikov wasn't the best ballet defector though: that would be Alexander Godunov. Baryshnikov might have the moves and the acclaim but Godunov played one of the terrorists in Die Hard so he wins.

 

Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary

Quite the most peculiar film on this list, it is—as you will already have guessed from the title—an adaptation of Bram Stoker's most famous novel but by no means a traditional one. For a start, it's a record of a Royal Winnipeg Ballet production, so Dracula twirls about a good deal more than Bela Lugosi ever managed. More that that, though, it's directed by Canadian oddball Guy Maddin and, as was his wont, he shot it as a silent film (this was in 2002).

But it works very well: the dancers are supremely graceful, very much complimenting the expressionist shooting style. Even if it's ultimately not much more than a folly, it is at least an aesthetically pleasing one.

 

The White Crow

Ballet dancers might be stars in their own field but only the really, really famous one get movie biopics. Anna Pavlova got one (called Anna Pavlova) and so too did the ill-fated Isadora Duncan (Isadora, starring Vanessa Redgrave).

Rudolph Nureyev was as famous as either of them, amongst balletomanes and beyond. The cognoscenti reckoned he was the greatest male dancer of the 20th century while the general public knew him for his dramatic defection for the Soviet Union—he was the first dancer to make the leap, paving the way for that bloke from Die Hard.

A good subject for a biopic, as the makers of The White Crow realised. It's directed by Ralph Fiennes, although he lets Ukrainian dancer Oleg Ivenko play “Rudi” himself, bristling with talent and ambition. Naturally enough, the escape to freedom is the biggest story here but Fiennes doesn't skimp on performance: Ivenko might not be in Nureyev's class but he's pretty damn good.

Read more: How to appreciate ballet