Film Prof Takes a ‘Swan’ Dive into Ballerina Imagery
From White Nights to Billy Elliot, ballet has found its way, time and again, onto the silver screen and into the hearts of otherwise unlikely audiences. With Oscar nominations gracing Black Swan, ballet is once again on point in Hollywood and beyond. But the film isn’t all tutus and curtain calls – it reveals a darker shade of pink.
In her 2008 book Dying Swans and Madmen: Ballet, the Body, and Narrative Cinema, Dr. Adrienne L. McLean, professor of film and aesthetic studies at The University of Texas at Dallas, explores the symbiosis of ballet and film. Drawing on examples that range from musicals to tragic melodramas, or “mellers,” she suggests that commercial films have produced an image of ballet and its artists that is associated at once with joy, fulfillment, fame and power – and also with sexual and mental perversity, melancholy and death.
McLean, who specializes in classical Hollywood film history and who has an MFA in dance, says the drama of the dance goes back a long way. “Variety used the term ‘ballet meller’ in the 1950s to refer to a film that was yet another in a long line of sometimes over-the-top and clichéd representations of ballet in the movies as something associated with death, illness, insanity, doom and so on,” she said. “The Red Shoes (1948) is probably the pre-eminent ballet meller, complete with narcissistic and domineering impresario, and a ballerina who wants to dance more than life itself and who dies because she is asked to choose between career and marriage.”
But ballet is not just about melodrama – McLean says it was often present in classic Hollywood musicals as well. “Ballet was sometimes employed to raise the prestige or class value of a film, but it was often lampooned or criticized in the process in favor of more ‘popular’ dance forms,” she said. “ These dance forms often used ballet as their technical basis, but you wouldn’t know it from watching – think Gene Kelly doing pirouettes in khaki pants and loafers in Singin’ in the Rain.”
The weight loss of Black Swan stars Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis to prepare for the film has been widely publicized, and at the time that the film came out, there was a controversy over a New York Times’ dance reviewer criticizing a principal dancer in a local production ofThe Nutcracker for having “eaten one sugarplum too many.” As McLean points out in her book, “the extreme thinness that we now expect of women dancers is, in ways that are amorphous and difficult to measure, likely a result of ballet’s intersection with forms of visual time-based media like film. There are all sorts of other reasons across the past century for the pressure for women to be extremely thin, but the way that bodies look in the movies has certainly been a factor, and not just in ballet.
“There are certainly some driven and obsessive young women in the dance world, as there are in most high-profile or performance-based professions, and always have been,” McLean says. “But there are also plenty of regular folks who are devoted to ballet as their profession but who do not mutilate themselves, go insane, and so on. In general, the issue with all films about worlds that audiences may not have experienced extensively on their own in ‘real life’ is that films can construct our attitudes about that world, the people in it, and what art means and is. As [New Yorker dance critic] Joan Acocella wrote in 2004, ‘People don’t know about ballet from seeing it … people know about ballet from the movies.’ ”