It is often said that the best way for an artist to create meaningful work is for them to portray that which they know best. As a result, it is little wonder why one of the most enduring portrayals in art is the struggle and sacrifice of the artistic lifestyle. From consumptive bohemians, to mad painters, to reclusive writers, many of the most raw characterizations in modern storytelling are those of artists striving to achieve success and fulfillment regardless of the cost it may require. While each art form entails its own set of challenges, one of the most demanding of art forms is dance, particularly ballet. Unlike ancient eastern dance traditions designed to work with and accentuate the body’s natural movements, ballet captures audience’s attention by revealing the beauty of the human form beyond the limits of everyday movement. Similarly, while modern dances thrive upon spontaneity and improvisation, ballet is a rigorous art form, which requires the utmost precision in each of its choreographed movements. By its very nature ballet is an art form which is consuming, elite, and inaccessible; in short it is the ideal vehicle through which to explore the passion, doubts, obstacles, and triumphs of life as an artist. As a result, there have been numerous books and films which have used ballet to portray diverse characters facing obstacles ranging from aging (The Turning Point), to unemployment (Waterloo Bridge), to political oppression (White Nights), to personal loss (Save the Last Dance). Despite the many critically and commercially successful ballet films, the film that many critics and viewers continue to immediately think of when they heard the word ‘ballet’ is the 1948 British drama The Red Shoes.
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The story of The Red Shoes is a deceptively simple one; inexperienced but passionate dancer, Vickie (professional ballerina Moira Shearer), joins an elite ballet company where she achieves the success she’s always dreamed of, only to become conflicted between her professional goals and personal needs. While the conflict between love and art was already a well-worn theme even in 1948, what the film lacked in original storytelling it made up for in accuracy, visual innovation, and emotional honesty. Few dance films can compare to The Red Shoes in terms of attention to detail and realism. Rather than focusing upon the glamour of the performances, the film spends most of its time backstage, as it shows the painstaking work that goes into a ballet from its first draft to its final rehearsal. In this way the film provides an insider’s perspective to viewers who are unfamiliar with the world of professional dance and pays apt tribute to the men and women who tirelessly work to bring that magical world to life. The film even goes so far as to populate its cast with professional dancers rather than utilizing established actors and body doubles. The film also accurately portrays its heroine’s struggle for success rather than relying upon the cliché of a meteoric rise to stardom, as Vickie frustratedly works her way through the ranks of the ballet company over time.
The film approaches its characters with similar realism in its exploration of daily life in a ballet company populated with a diverse array of three dimensional characters. Despite the film’s age, The Red Shoes is remarkably refreshing in the way that it treats its story as one of a particular dancer working in a specific company rather than as a commentary upon ballet, dance, or art at large by avoiding typical clichés such as abusive directors, ego-maniacal stars, and petty rivalries. In this way the film ensures that the audience is able to invest in the characters as though they were real people, which in turn lends the relationships and conflicts between the characters emotional weight.
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Today, another ballet film has taken center stage using a very different approach. In the 2010 psychological thriller Black Swan, Natalie Portman plays similarly impressionable and eager dancer, Nina, whose quest for stardom takes a disturbing turn. In order to provide viewers with insight into Nina’s fractured mind the characters, plot, and visuals take on a sinister quality befitting a horror movie’s haunted house rather than a typical theater. Because the story is told from an unstable character’s perspective, the world of ballet quickly escalates from a competitive, but fulfilling, working environment to an elaborate prison in which dancers torture their minds and bodies in order impress fickle audiences and lecherous directors. Although the fantastic elements heighten the surreal atmosphere and suspense, they also bring the film dangerously close to caricature as Nina is constantly surrounded by the very stock characters that The Red Shoes widely avoided as she is alternately sexually harassed by her volatile director, threatened by a bitter ballerina forced into early retirement, and tormented by the impossible expectations of her ex-dancer stage mother. This tendency toward camp is most obvious in Nina’s one-note abusive relationship with exploitive director Thomas LeRoy (Vincent Cassel), which sorely lacks the subtlety and complexity that made Vickie’s relationship with impresario Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) both fraught and fascinating. Through its unabashed sense of melodrama, Black Swan creates its own surreal world of light and shadow in which everyone and everything poses a potential threat, which works wonderfully for a psychological thriller, but fails to shed any light or add any dimension to the public’s understanding of ballet.
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Nina’s struggle with her unraveling psyche, for all of its flash and theatrics similarly fails to resonate when compared with the much more relatable and timeless conflict that proves to be Vickie’s undoing. On the dvd box and in critics’ summaries, Vickie is described as being torn between ‘love and dance’. Although this statement is accurate given the fact that she is forced to choose between her position in the company and her marriage to its temperamental composer, Julian (Marius Goring), there is also another more resonant struggle that she faces; the conflict between career and family. Today we often hear about the conflict between career and family and the difficulty of balancing the two is hotly discussed and debated. At the time of this film’s release, this debate was more than a mere talking point; it was the frontier faced by an entire generation of women who had held down the home-front by managing homes and taking jobs as the men in their lives fought overseas in WWII, only to be forced back into their former roles when peace returned. In her attempt to balance her marriage and her career, Vickie simultaneously faces another, even greater, challenge to find her place in a changing society. It is through this battle within its heroine that The Red Shoes rises above its ‘dance movie’ premise and becomes a true tragedy when Vickie finally makes the ultimate sacrifice in order to escape a world in which she cannot be her true and complete self.
Despite their drastically different approaches to their stories, the films share a number of striking similarities beyond their focus upon ballet. Both films tackle the emotional toll of dedication to art, with Black Swan taking this idea to a chilling end. The Red Shoes and Black Swan also share breathtaking visuals that border on the surreal as the fairy tale landscapes of the performances not only come to life, but expand to permeate the characters’ entire worlds. It is these visuals that not only transport viewers into the world of both heroines, but also provides audiences with crucial insight into how each woman perceives that world. The most notable similarity, however, by far is the ambiguous endings to both films that leave viewers spellbound as they continue to ponder if it the fates of Vicky and Nina were accidents, deliberate or just two more casualties of the dark side of dance. Both films succeed at telling very different tales set within the ballet world, but once the initial lights came on following Black Swan the shock of the film's darkness faded while I was still haunted by Vickie Page and the tragic end she was driven to by The Red Shoes.
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