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The Best Ballet Movies: From The Red Shoes to Black Swan

Updated on September 6, 2014
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The Ballet Movies That Danced Into Our Hearts

Ballet movies have brought the world of dance into our everyday lives, taking us on a magical and sometimes dangerous journey. A film about the life and struggles of a ballerina or aspiring dance star has the power to whisk us into the wings, the rehearsal studio and even to take that final graceful curtsey as the curtain falls. So too do these dance films allow us to glimpse the pain and sweat of the body pushed to its limits, the tension of backstage rivalries, and the sheer joy of movement in perfect harmony with the music.

Discover the plots and stars of these ballet movies -- revisit a classic or maybe discover something new.

Black Swan

Black Swan

Darkness consumes all in a battle for a dream role

Swan Lake is one of the most famous ballets of all time, telling the tale of a young woman, Odette, who along with her female friends has been transformed by an evil sorcerer into a swan during daylight hours. During a hunting trip, Prince Siegfried comes across the Swan Queen (Odette) who takes on her human form at dusk. Falling in love with this beautiful girl, he promises her the undying love that will break the enchantment. However, the sorcerer uses his powers to transform his own daughter, Odile, into a swan to confuse the prince. Odile, as the black swan, lures Prince Siegfried from Odette and he is tricked into pledging his love to the wrong girl. Seeing this, Odette flees from the scene, pursued by Siegfriend. In the traditional ending of the ballet, she chooses death rather than to continue a life where she must live as a swan and without her prince.

The Plot:

The Swan Queen is a demanding role and one that represents the ultimate goal for many ballerinas. For the central character of Black Swan, Nina (played by Natalie Portman), it appears her one great dream has come true when she is given the role of Odette-Odile, with the company's enraged former prima ballerina being ousted due to her age. Nina's own purity and technical brilliance perfectly place her to dance Odette (the White Swan), yet the company director has doubts about her ability to portray the darker aspects of the Black Swan role. She is pushed to explore her own dark side in order to have what it takes to dance as the Black Swan.

At the same time, the company welcomes Lily, a new dancer and rival to Nina, who poses a threat to her Swan Queen role and to her prima ballerina career. She is also under constant pressure from her mother's failed ambitions as a dancer.

In pursuit of her dream role, Nina pushes herself to her physical and mental limits and beyond. Reality and nightmare merge together and menace lurks in every face and around every corner, with Lily at the heart of her dark fantasies.

Scene from Black Swan - Natalie Portman dancing as the Black Swan

I have shared this clip of Portman dancing in the role of the Black Swan rather than the official trailer as this movie is a dark thriller and contains scenes that some viewers may find disturbing.

If you wish, you can follow the link to view the Black Swan trailer.

Black Swan on DVD - Starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent

Awards:

Natalie Portman won the Golden Globe Award (2010) for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture (Drama) for her portrayal of ambitious ballet dancer Nina. Black Swan was also nominated for Best Motion Picture (Drama) and co-star Mila Kunis (in the role of rival ballerina Lily) was nominated for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role. Darren Aronofsky was nominated as Best Director.

Cast of Black Swan

Starring alongside Portman and Kunis in Black Swan are Vincent Cassel as company director Thomas Leroy and Barbara Hershey as Nina's overbearing mother. Winona Ryder is the aging principal dancer, Beth, who is forced to retire.

Natalie Portman - Spent more than a year in intensive ballet training

The Red Shoes

The Red Shoes

A ballerina must choose between love of a man and love of the dance

The story of The Red Shoes that inspired this ballet movie was a fairytale of the same name written by Hans Christian Anderson. Though it is a fairy story, it is very much a lesson in Christian faith and carries a warning for children who forget to respect God.

In the tale a beautiful little girl named Karen falls in love with a pair of red shoes worn by a princess and tricks her old guardian (who can't see well) into buying her a similar pair to wear to her confirmation. She is distracted by pride in her shoes, and then when an old red-bearded soldier puts an enchantment on them, the red shoes begin to take over her life. The shoes force her to dance and take her in whichever is the opposite direction to the one she wishes to go in, and will not let her rest. In desperation, she asks an executioner to cut off her feet with his axe. Her shoes dance away with her feet still in them, only to return each time she heads to church to repent, dancing along beside her. Eventually God forgives her and her heart breaks of joy, allowing her soul to ascend to Heaven.

The Red Shoes illustration by Anne Anderson
The Red Shoes illustration by Anne Anderson | Source


The Plot:

One of the first and best-loved ballet movies of them all, The Red Shoes is about a ballerina, Victoria Paige, who must choose between the man she loves and the hold that ballet has over her.

Vicky is a talented young dancer who has been given the starring role in a ballet version of the classic tale The Red Shoes. It is to be her debut as one of the world's finest ballerinas, made possible by the revered ballet company leader, Boris Lermontov, whose passion for dance leads him to demand total commitment from his dancers.

When Vicky falls in love with the composer of The Red Shoes, Julian Craster, she makes the choice to put love and marriage before dance.

In the movie we see Vicky dance in the title ballet which is an analogy for the wider plot in which dance drives a young woman to make a desperate decision.

The Red Shoes on DVD - Starring Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring

Awards:

The Red Shoes won 2 Oscars in the 1949 Academy Awards, one for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration and the other for Best Music. The movie also won a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Score.

Cast of The Red Shoes:

The beautiful and talented red-haired Vicky is acted and danced by ballet star Moira Shearer. Moira came from Dufermline in Fife, Scotland and joined the famous Royal Ballet, based at Sadler's Wells, London. Although she was already making her name as a ballerina, it was The Red Shoes that shot her to fame.

Her co-stars in the film were Anton Walbrook (Lermontov) and Marius Goring (Craster). Russian dancer and choreography Léonide Massine and the French-Russian ballerina Ludmilla Tcherina also appear.

The Company

The Company

The detail behind life in a dance company

The Plot:

This ballet movie gives us an insider view of the life of a ballet company, specifically the real life Joffrey Ballet of Chicago who are joined by actress Neve Campbell taking the role of a rising ballet star, Loretta Ryan (known as Ry). Although a scripted production, The Company comes across as a documentary of the dancer's life and all of the other dancers are playing themselves rather than fictional characters.

This is a movie that reveals the detail of a ballet career, including the emotion, the toll taken on the body, the struggle to make a name and at the same time the struggle to get by financially. In the main character we also see a dancer trying to balance her career with a romantic relationship.

The Company on DVD - Starring Neve Campbell, Malcolm McDowell, James Franco

Cast of The Company:

Actress Neve Campbell plays Loretta ('Ry'), a role that fits her perfectly given her background as a professional dancer with the National Ballet of Canada. Her chef boyfriend is played by James Franco, and Malcolm McDowell takes on the role of the company's artistic director.

The Company was directed by Robert Altman.

Center Stage

Center Stage

Teens trying to make it at ballet school

The Plot:

Would-be ballerina Jody Sawyer is accepted to train at the prestigious American Ballet Academy in New York, alongside a collection of talented young dancers. Jody and classmates Eva and Maureen all have to come to terms with some hard realities about the demands of a ballet career as they are put through their paces at the school.

At the same time, they must deal with the expectations of parents and the highs and lows of romantic entanglements. And, as the plot of Center Stage unravels, each girl must ultimately decide her own future as a dancer and a woman.

Center Stage on DVD - Starring Amanda Schull and Zoe Saldana

Cast of Center Stage:

Amanda Schull takes on the central character of Jody, with Zoe Saldana (more recently starring as Uhura in Star Trek and the voice of Neytiri in Avatar) playing Eva, and Susan May Pratt as Maureen. Professional dancers Ethan Steifel and Sascha Radetsky co-star.

Center Stage was directed by Nicholas Hytner.

Mao's Last Dancer

Mao's Last Dancer

The true story of the defection of a Chinese ballet dancer

The Plot:

Although all of the other ballet movies here have been influenced by real life dancers and other characters from the ballet world, Mao's Last Dancer is the only film in the current list based on a true story.

A young Chinese boy, Li Cunxin, is taken from his family and village, having been selected to train as a dancer. In Beijing he is subjected to a tough training regime which, combined with his natural dance talent, will later single him out as an exceptional ballet dancer.

During an exchange visit to Houston, Texas, Li receives great acclaim for his dance ability. He finds freedom to express himself as a dancer, and as a person, in the USA. He also falls in love with an American dancer. Unable to face his return to China, Li defects. It is a decision that results in turmoil, both in terms of international politics and on a personal level, with Li forced to choose between freedom and family.

Mao's Last Dancer on DVD - Starring Chi Cao and Amanda Schull

Cast of Mao's Last Dancer:

Chi Cao is a Principal Dancer with the Birmingham Royal Ballet and, like Li, was initially trained at the Beijing Dance Academy. He was Li's own choice. He is joined by Amanda Schull, who also starred in Center Stage. Bruce Greenwood and Kyle MacLachlan are also billed. The younger Li is played by Chengwu Guo.

Mao's Last Dancer was directed by Bruce Beresford.

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© 2011 Indigo Janson

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  • TxCowboyDancer profile image

    Tony New 4 years ago from Dallas, TX

    There were a couple films that I was unaware of... I'll have to check them out. :)

  • indigoj profile image
    Author

    Indigo Janson 4 years ago from UK

    @swuerthner: Excellent recommendations, thanks so much for adding them!

  • profile image

    swuerthner 4 years ago

    Three fantastic dance movies that are missing from this list are Dancers, White Nights, and The Turning Point. If you haven't seen them I highly recommend that you do. They put Black Swan to shame.

  • salsa-dancing profile image

    Salsa Dancing 4 years ago

    I'm not going to lie, Black Swan was pretty intense!

  • EMangl profile image

    EMangl 4 years ago

    "love" is too much but i enjoy to watch them

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