Ballet on the big screen

Por: José Alberto Lezcano

Giselle BNC en Kennedy Center de Washington 2018

The great difference between opera and ballet does not come down to the predominance of song poetry in the first and the world of body poetry in the second; lies in his own characteristic vision of the represented world. If the operatic is almost always projected by the recasting of drama, tragedy and comedy in a show that appeals in more or less realistic clothing to the vivisection of passions, conflicts and misunderstandings, classical dance rarely renounces an adventure, preferably romantic, almost dreamlike, whose audience is invited to penetrate a range of signs and encounters governed by chance and by keys of a symbolic and mystical value. It does not seek the rational and logical layout of a story but those “privileged” moments that amount to the language of dreams and revelation. Among the nooks and crannies of the moving figures and levitating about the musical filigree, the dramaturgy settles into a ritual of mirages and spell. Existence, in its fullness, is “delighted” and its acceptance as a real-life transfer depends on the dose of ecstasy and aesthetic power provided by the dancers’ pirouettes, the degree of lyricism that comes from music and the correspondence of scenery, lighting and the conception of space with the world to be formed.
Classical ballet participates in rite, legend and ambiguity. Sometimes he exhorts the viewer to share with Heráclito the idea that fire is the root of life, that everything comes from fire, but sometimes urges us to believe, with Tales of Miletus, that everything comes from the water; that everything is water (as if the human creature were to find a safe harbor, after a journey pregnant with threats).
In classical ballet, the craving for the ethereal and the suprasensitive is often accompanied by sortilegio, sorcery and foolproof prediction. Christian and pagan symbols are in this invitation to dance. Ballet has taken this common fund into account and has taken advantage of myths and traditions that continue to captivate the imagination of audiences. That this art has been able to connect even with viewers who do not master the technical vocabulary of the specialty, especially with the perpetual magnet of works such as Giselle, Coppelia and The Swan Lake, is one of the many proofs of the tribute that gives beauty to survival.
The nexus of cinema to classical ballet has experiences of authority and impact. Among them stands out the English realization The Red Shoes (1948), directed by the duet of filmmakers who formed under the label The Archers, in a race pulled with hits, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The plot of the film – well known – develops the conflict of a young ballerina, who tears hem under pressure from a selfish boyfriend and the demands of an entrepreneur in appearance as hard as a steel statue.
The ever-elusive boundaries between life and art are sharpened or confused in their argument until the dimensions of tragedy are given to melodrama. Something else: the film does not merely crumble the existential anguish to which the protagonist is driven and directs the gaze – with nothing usual depth and lucidity – to the interthelons of a world asetized by the demons of rivalry, the hardness of the trade and the human price of unreserved dedication to the profession. Added to this is a high-flying expressive value. The film proved to the full that cinema cameras were not doomed to be passive spectators of a show mounted on the boards. The performance of the central ballet gained in fluency, allowed to expand the stage and extend its action to spaces inaccessible to the theater.
Metaphors and symbols intersected in fictional history, the task of dance (a doll made with newspaper clippings becomes a flesh-and-blood being who dances with heroin), while red slippers – incarnation of a magic that drags and dominates, enslaves and seduces, delivers generously and demands with despotism – will grab the screen , endowed with their own lives, just as their owner, in the replacement of ballet, transits to the world of the dead. It should be noted that the debut of actress and renowned ballerina Moira Shearer in film, strongly overshadowed all her subsequent interventions on the big screen (Hoffman’s Tales, Three Love Story, The Paris Ballets, among others). However, we must clash with a question as intriguing as the enigma of the Sphinx: Why did the artist, who died in 2006, always consider it a mistake to have shot The Red Shoes?
In 1946, perhaps to confirm that art is a break from our usual modes of vision, American novelist and screenwriter Ben Hecht directed a film titled The Spectrum of The Rose, centered on ballet of the same name as, with music by Carl Maria von Weber and choreography by Fokine, marked one of the memorable moments of the brilliant Nijinski. The filmmaker interpolates a dream in the course of the plot and sleep is a carrier of ballet, whose representation, in a climate at once rarefied and poetic, underpins unreality with attachment to rather esoteric keys. Experiments of this kind have not been frequent in later cinema, although many of us may regret that Ben Hecht’s example, with his search for new semantic irradiations of classical dance, did not have the followers he deserved.
Another case that demands attention is the English film The Tales of Hoffman, by Powell and Pressburger. Released three years after The Red Shoes, comparisons to this crowd classic did a lot of damage to the new film and caused an unfair rejection of those who had hoped for a similar show in themed hook and character shaping. In fact, the film inspired by Offenbach’s work was in advance a different and ungerible dish for viewers unfamiliar with a cinema built on fantastic evocations and a theme so fragile that it crumbs a flying carpet unable to sustain the weight of its passengers. One part of the criticism attacked the film’s “artistic ins and another, more tolerant, expressed respect for its atmosphere of dreaming and visual richness. Either way, these Tales of Hoffman must be certified as a risk-filled adventure, at times imaginative, sometimes sterile, that subjects itself more slackly to ballet dictates than film dictates.
In Hollywood, in the field of fiction, classical ballet has sometimes been used as a simple reference element, which never gets to occupy a stellar plane in the plotting of history.
In 1940, Mervyn LeRoy released her version of Robert E. Sherwood’s theatrical drama The Waterloo Bridge, with Vivien Leigh as a young whaling woman in war-burdened London, who, being fired from the theatre where she works, engages in prostitution and, later, when she glimpses a chance to be happy alongside the man she loves (and believed dead) the burden of her dishonor drags her into suicide. This synopsis, which forces us to think of the worst folletines of Pedro Mata and Vargas Vila, can hardly give an idea of the feat carried out by the filmmaker: depth in the capture of the environment, absence of tearstreams, human stature in the characters, dialogues that develop with naturalness and conviction, oblivious to the pseudophilophilic verbose that so abounds in the typical melodramas of the time. Fragments of Swan Lake are the film’s only direct contact with ballet (and, for greater containment, Tchaikovsky’s music is prevented from reappearing intrusively on the soundtrack).
Much inferior in artistic values, Gregory Ratoff’s Men in Her Life emerged in 1941, about the loving past of a whaling woman married to her dance teacher. Six years later a modest Henry Koster film: The Unfinished Dance, a remake of the French film Ballerina, was finished, where a fearsome girl finds no other way to manifest her fanaticism for a nice dancer than to rid her of her rival through a simulated accident. The film exploded to the fullness of Tchaikovsky’s music.
Lastrada by very sentimental junctures (is it that the life of the dancers is always marked by conflicts and frustrations?) appeared in 1977 Decisive Step (The Turning Point). Acclaimed at the time and forgotten today, the play was nominated for eleven Hollywood Academy Awards and received none. It was directed by Herbert Ross, whose cinematic ties to ballet would remain, with uncommunicable results, through Nijinski (1980), a film focused on the homosexual relationship of the greatest dancer of the twentieth century with the businessman of the Russian Ballet Sergey Diaghilev and Danzarines (Dancers, 1987, with Mikhail Baryshnikov), who constituted a resounding failure. Paso Decisivo focuses on the reunion, after several years, of two former friends who, in their youth, received ballet classes. Emma drags the frustration of not being able to start a family for her dedication to dance; Dee-Dee regrets giving up her desire to become a great dancer to attend to her duties as a mother and wife. Through these conflicts drawn with rule and compass, a film of confessions and remembrances was billed that succeeded in the sensitive performance of Annet Bancroft in the role of Emma and Baryshnikov’s surprising work on a supporting character and his less reliable proposals in the development of a very chewed dramaturgy and overacting, with premeditation and alevosía , by actress Shirley MacLaine.
In 2003, veteran director Robert Altman gave us The Company, a work that delgs into the periptions of the assembly of a ballet by a group that, behind the scenes, in the maelstrom of rehearsals or in the human interrelationship of the dancers, sought some keys of the craft, until then little studied by the big screen. There was no lack of interest in this incursion, although certain doses of coldness and calculus and a cult of Terpsícore are not executed with all the necessary rigor.
Another Hollywood performance that sparked controversy was The Black Swan (Black Swann, 2010), directed by Darren Aronowski, who reported an Oscar to Natalie Portman as lead actress. The crises facing their character are focused on their most abyssal edges but, being unwrapped in a tone of hysteria and grandiloquence, they turn the story away from what may well have been their most worthy support for a medullary analysis. The process of self-destruction, not alien to masochism, of a woman who has confused her career goals with an exercise without pauses of frustration, insecurity and imbalance, required more lucidity in the script and less ambiguity in the images. Black inks eventually corrode the narrative structure and gain dubious terrain filled with violence and deafness. In other words, a pathological case is dismantled in its outer premises and comes to blur the primary sources of its virulence. In the background, the mother’s possessive image tries to instill credibility in the conflict, but the character’s outlining (another lost barge in the script) causes the dancer’s hallucinations and nightmares, by repeating hem, to often cause more irritation than mercy. Despite the film’s formal arrests in photography, sound and artistic direction, the aggressiveness of the speech, at apocalyptic moments, leaves little room for calm.
The best ballet-related film of recent times comes from England, titled Billy Elliot (In Spanish, I want to dance). It was released in 2000 by filmmaker Stephen Daldry, whose acuity for character study would be confirmed two years later with the supersede film The Hours. In a mining town in the north of the country, the boy Billy Elliot discovers his passion for dance, but clashes with the plans of the father, who wants to direct him towards boxing. Unless the man finds out, the boy receives classes from a mature teacher, who trusts his abilities. One day the father sees him dance and accepts that Billy has an artistic future, leading to a relentless struggle to put the little artist on the right path. This one pays off. The film concludes with the frozen image of Billy Elliot (also frozen was that of the boy Anton Doinel in Truffaut’s classic The 400 Strokes, but in totally opposite circumstances) at the time of executing one of his feats before the audience who admires the virtuosity of a consecrated adult.
The plot is undoubtedly filled with countless biographies of fighters and platoons, trumpeters and singers, aviators and inventors, who from the top of success are returned to the realm of their childhood and adolescence when, against different obstacles, the skills that would lead them to fame. But there is one thing that gives Billy Elliot an advantage: a) he makes no concessions to prefabricated sentimentality; b) dodges any trait of fatuity and selfishness in the portrait of its young protagonist, always shown as a creature that, with naturalness and simplicity, assumes its destiny without the boasts of premature maturity that have weighed many images of the children prodigy of celluloid and c) the balance that sustains the work between an uns stimulating environment for the artistic vocation and the weight of a permeated inclination of legitimacy and talent. In short: authenticity in dramaturgical design, allergy to dramatic excessiveness, intelligence in characterization of the characterization of the characters. The only protest about the film has nothing to do with his artistic values: Jamie Bell’s impressive debut, in the central character, which does not yield a millimeter to the performance of his experienced co-stars, did not get an Oscar nomination.
Latin American cinema’s contacts with ballet remain an outstanding subject in his career in the field of fiction. Sometimes the record was reduced to including classical dance in a process sequence, within a story far from that art (remember the ballet embedded at the end of the 1942 Mexican comedy The Three Musketeers, with Cantinflas) or program it as a reinforcement of the dramatic corpus (typical example: ballet developed in the old Argentine film Where words die , directed by Hugo Fregonese in 1946). A pale approach to the world of classical dance occurred in Bonaerenses studios in the middle of the last century with Ernesto Arancibia’s The Crystal Birds, a tape articulated by the sobado triangle of the ballet director struck by almanaques, the company’s first dancer and the young dance sensation that stands between lovers.
Cuba, a whole power of ballet, has only one sample, the story of the traumatized ballerina that dominates one of the sections of La vida is to whistle fernando Pérez. The theme, with resonances of Graham Greene’s The Red Shoes and the Story The End of Adventure, is treated with an emphasis on sensuality and, at the same time, with a display of psychological subtleties, love of detail and power of suggestion (more a very appropriate Laura Ramos in the central character) than her contemplation, fifteen years after the premiere (1998) , retains its vigour and laziness.
If fiction, in general, has known relief victories and perspective flaws, many documentaries have authored the alliance of classical ballet with film cameras.
Works conceived, above all, to assure posterity of a fractured testimony about great performers, these documentaries recreate the artistic phenomenon in its immediacy, its authenticity and its teachings. In this sense, the work carried out by the Central Studies of Documentary Films in the former Soviet Union can be classified as exemplary. The names of two world-acclaimed ballerinas: Galina Ulanova and Maia Plisétskaya, eloquently illustrate this task of conservation and rescue.
The Ulanova (1910-1992), belonging to a family linked to the theater, debuted on stage in 1928 and was a prima ballerina del Bolshoi between 1944 and 1961, the year of his retirement, after which he devoted himself to the professional training of numerous dancers destined to enjoy deserved prestige. The screen collected completed his interventions in the ballets Romeo and Juliet, by Prokofiev and Giselle by Adolphe Adam, as well as fragments of Tchaikovsky’s The Swan Lake, included in the film The Masters of Russian Ballet.
Renowned for her personal charm and acting ability, the artist scored other hits with Cinderella and Stone Blossom, both Prokofiev ballets. Elena Lútskaia notes: “She played Shakespeare’s Juliet for twenty years, and her heroine always appeared inspiring, throbbing and luminous.”
The 1963 documentary about his life and work was an anthem to ballet and a reliable testimony of his daily existence and his magnaniest teaching work. By the way, the film allowed to confront two different but equally dazzling versions of Giselle: that of Anna Pavlova (preserved in the film The Immortal Swan) and that of the Ulanova (filmed in the Bolshoi). The importance of this fact, made possible by cinema, does not need to be underlined.
The Plisétskaia, born in 1925, studied at the Bolshoi and became a soloist in 1943. Recognized as one of the greatest ballerinas in the world, it has excelled at its impeccable technique and sensitivity, in a repertoire that encompasses Sleeping Beauty (Tchaikovsky) and Don Quixote (Mincus), among many other works. She appeared, only as an actress, in Alexandr Zarji’s 1967 version of Ana Karenina.
The documentary dedicated to him in 1989 shows her at a time when she rehearses next to the exercise bar, in full performance and behind the scenes, in the museum and in her own home.
In Cuba we have Giselle, ballet filmed by Enrique Pineda Barnet in 1964, which represents a tribute to Alicia Alonso in one of her supreme performances, accompanied by Azari Plisetski, Mirta Plá, Josefina Méndez, Loipa Araujo and other relevant dance figures.
The chemistry between classical ballet and film is not achieved in the same way that the almighty lamp genius satisfied his master’s wishes. Forging a filmic work of scope and depth that extracts novel vibrations from the art displayed in the tables by so many consecrated persons requires, together with purely technical skills, aesthetic sense, mastery of visual resources, general culture, continuous assessment of the ends and means and, to the same extent, that capacity for synthesis that knows how to combine music and poetry, plasticity and prestidigitation , in a proposal for delectation, planting and cabotage. Tough company, no doubt. But many have already made it. Ω

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