On Your Toes

I don’t like baseball, but I love movies about baseball. You see all the good parts without the long, boring stretches. The same may be true for many people regarding ballet. Even if you would not spend an evening at the ballet, there are three movies about ballet that I believe are movie-making at its best.

The Red Shoes (1948) is probably the most famous of ballet-themed movies. Starring prima ballerina Moira Shearer, it is a story of conflict, love and tragedy. The Hans Christian Andersen tale about a girl who covets a pair of red shoes, only to find that they will never stop dancing, is mirrored in the story of ballerina Vicky Page (Shearer). Her love of dance and fascination with Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), the ballet impresario who is a thinly disguised version of real-life ballet producer Diaghilev, collides with her wish for normal love and life with composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring). This conflict is portrayed on a melodramatic and epic scale.

This film is rich in color, features incredible music by Brian Easdale, and reflects the genius of writer-producer-directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (also famous for their film Black Narcissus). “The Ballet of the Red Shoes,” starring and choreographed by ballet master Robert Helpmann, is a marvel of impressionistic artistry. The great Leonide Massine created the role of the demonic shoemaker. Both give performances that rival the sinister Walbrook, the emotive Goring and the ethereal Shearer.

In 1977, director Herbert Ross filmed The Turning Point, starring Anne Bancroft, Shirley MacLaine, the great Mikhail Baryshnikov and young ballerina Leslie Browne. Alternating between the often idealized world of ballet and the everyday world of marriage and family, the film revolves around the relationship between aging prima ballerina Emma (Bancroft) and former ballerina turned wife and mother Deedee (MacLaine). The complex relationship between the two women seesaws from love to anger, from jealousy to need. Their turmoil comes to a head in a fight you will not soon forget. Meanwhile, Baryshnikov and Browne strike up their own star-crossed love affair. Basically a study of people and relationships, the film is filled with incredible dancing to some of ballet’s most famous and beautiful scores. In all respects, The Turning Point is a tour de force.

Herbert Ross turned to ballet again with 1980’s Nijinsky. George de la Pena plays and dances the doomed Vaslav Nijinsky, premiere dancer of the Ballet Russe in the early 20th Century. Alan Bates is wonderfully effete as Diaghilev, impresario of the Ballet Russe and Nijinsky’s lover. Leslie Browne appears again as a naïve lovestruck girl who eventually marries Nijinsky. This marriage causes an irreparable rift between Diaghilev and Nijinsky, ending Nijinsky’s career with the Ballet Russe. De la Pena dances three of Nijinsky’s most famous performances, Spectre de la Rose, Scheherazade and Afternoon of a Faun, all presented with splendid artistry and authenticity. It is with Afternoon of a Faun that Nijinsky performs an indecent act on stage, and his eventual descent into madness begins. Although not an actor per se, de la Pena does an admirable job bringing to disturbing life the hysterical nature of Nijinsky, as well as his downward spiral at a very young age into the semi-comatose state in which he spent the remainder of his life.

So, if you don’t like baseball but enjoy baseball movies, take a chance on these three wonderful films about ballet. You will never forget them.

ClassicBecky is a regular contributor at the Classic Film & TV Café (http://classic-film-tv.blogspot.com/). She also publishes her own blog, ClassicBecky’s Film and Literary Review (http://classicbeckybrainfood.blogspot.com/).