The Death of The Dying Swan


On Dance

Ballet at the movies.

Dying Swan 2

A still from The Dying Swan, 1917.

In the 1980s, Hellman’s launched an extensive campaign to rebrand its mayonnaise products as health conscious. Between shots of garishly pink salmon and luxuriant folds of Romaine lettuce were ballet dancers: “Without a choreographer,” the voice-over says, “there is no ballet … Without Hellman’s, there’s no salad.” (Maybe the copywriters were drawing from Yeats—“How can we know the dancer from the dance?”) Dancers are superimposed onto vegetables—one in orange twirls into a carrot—and a note in small type at the bottom says that Hellman’s “can help slimming or weight control.”

The ad only makes sense in light of the “tradition of morbidity,” as the former New Yorker critic Arlene Croce once called it: a certain subtext associated with the ballerina in popular culture. Movies, in particular, have over the course of a century misrepresented, if not outright disfigured, her. She’s a delicate, overwrought creature who shuns all material desires (including dessert, sex, and probably mayonnaise, too) for her craft. If you’re trying to sell a fat-laden emulsion of oil and eggs typically eaten on a red-checkered tablecloth with the WASP-ish anemia of the upper class, you’ll find no better spokesperson than the ballerina.

Of course, ballet in the theater has never been without its morbidities. The first ballet craze occurred in the Romantic era of the Bourbon Restoration, and the heroines of these “ballets blancs” tended to be otherworldly, half-human creatures who almost invariably died in the end; when ballet was first translated to the silver screen, its tragedies followed in a long line of fatalistic librettos.

Take The Dying Swan, from 1917, by the Russian director Yevgeni Bauer. Its lead, Gizella, was undoubtedly inspired by Giselle, perhaps the most famous Romantic ballet character of all time, conceived in 1841 by Théophile Gautier. Like Giselle, Gizella is disappointed when she sees her suitor with another woman. She then devotes herself to her performances, dancing The Dying Swan solo over and over again. An impresario-like painter, Glinskii, commissions her to sit for him in the postmortem swan pose. Of course, the suitor returns, full of remorse; happiness looks like it’s within reach. But during Gizella’s last session with Glinskii, he notices that she is, presumably under the influence of the rekindled romance, bright-eyed. “Gizella, are you alive?” he asks. “That won’t do at all.” He walks over, snaps her neck as if she’s a chicken, then returns to his canvas in order to complete his nature morte.

The Dying Swan contains elements of a ballet mythology that would appear and reappear in dance films for generations to come. Always, the dancer must choose between her art, out of which she has fashioned a career, and her life, which until the 1970s most likely involved marriage and kids. That, at least, would be the moral of The Men in Her Life (1941), in which the heroine implausibly collapses onstage during a performance because she is with child. (“But I can’t, Doctor! I’m a dancer.” “Nature makes no exceptions.”) Always the ballerina remains firmly in the patriarchal grip, passed from father to regisseur to prospective husband without any volition of her own. The men in her life mold her into whichever fantasy suits them; she usually dies because she can’t fulfill all of them at once.

Red Shoes

From The Red Shoes.

It’s worth noting that the pop-culture ballerina is forced to choose between career and family only because she has a career in the first place. Ballerinas were given screen time long before other female artists or athletes. Gizella wears a wristwatch, which in 1917 signified that she was a modern woman.1 And despite the way the ballerina almost always plays the ingenue—even the older women appear frozen in puberty—she knows how to wield her body in highly skilled and very uningenue-like ways.

While feature films maintained the impossibility of reconciling backstage with center stage, the dream sequences made popular in movies such as On the Town (1949) and An American in Paris (1951) furthered ballet’s association with the exotic and ethereal. The hero of the Hollywood musical thought of his love interest wearing pointe shoes, presumably because of their connotation with swoony romance. According to George Balanchine, the founder of the New York City Ballet, this made ballet integral to the film industry: “it introduces a completely imaginative world whose form is of a plastic nature—a visual perfection of imaginative life.”2 These dream sequences contained all the erotic undertones of the surrealist movement—Guillaume Apollinaire actually coined the term surréalisme when he wrote about the ballet Parade in 1917—except the idea was not to épate le bourgeois but to cater to them. 3 Ballet was still considered the “public exposure of a naked female,” as it had been according to Samuel F. B. Morse, but leotards and leg extensions allowed just enough to be seen.4

This ultrashiny veneer is probably what induces everyone to imagine the ballet world’s lurid underpinnings. Michael Powell, one of the creators of The Red Shoes (1948), wrote that much of the film was shot with one image in mind, that of “the shattered body of the ballerina on the railroad tracks, and her Red shoes, red with blood.”5 Pointe shoes are worshipped almost as if they are witchy familiars; in Grand Hotel (1932), Greta Garbo kisses them, and in The Red Shoes, Moira Shearer strokes them at night when she can’t sleep. The ballet gods are harsh. “You don’t honor ballet by your presence in it; ballet honors you,” Madame Kirowa says in Waterloo Bridge. Her pupil Myra is kicked out of the company for going on a date, recourses to prostitution, and dies shortly thereafter.

Grand Hotel

From Grand Hotel.

When the Motion Picture Production Code relaxed and sex became more explicit onscreen, the movies started focusing even more on the ritualistic sacrifice the ballerinas committed for their art. In films like The Turning Point (1977) and Center Stage (2000), the dancer doesn’t have a menstrual period—she’s too thin—but she still suffers from “love’s eternal wound” by the loss of blood from her toes. If The Black Swan (2010) is to be believed, there are corpses in the stage wings.

The real casualty of such depictions has been the dancing itself. While the tropes of The Dying Swan movie have remained firmly entrenched in the popular conception of the art form, ballet has changed a lot since 1917. Of course the art requires extreme dedication and willpower, and of course the dancers do nigh-impossible things with their bodies. But many of them are married. Some of them even have kids. Their bodies are more athletic than skeletal, and the men dance just as much as the women. If ballerinas are psychotic, the press offices cover this up remarkably well.

Dying Swan 1

From The Dying Swan.

The movie ballerina is usually rescued by an act of miscegenation: her highfalutin art mingles with those “of the people,” such as tap in The Band Wagon (1953), jazz in Center Stage (“Why can’t dancing always be this fun!”), or hip-hop in Save the Last Dance (2001). In actuality, ballet’s avant-garde is and has always been rooted in classical technique. The Dying Swan solo featured in the film is still performed every so often, and dancers playing Odette in Swan Lake will make reference to it with a particular movement of the arms. But these museum pieces are shown alongside works made by living choreographers such as Alexei Ratmansky and Justin Peck. Their ballets are decidedly more interesting to watch than the hair-flowing hippy-dippiness of the numbers shown in The Company (2003), or the rock-and-roll inspired sequence of Center Stage, which pairs red pointe shoes with a motorcycle.

Yet few people know this, because few of them are seeing ballet as it’s performed live. As the New Yorker’s Joan Acocella has pointed out, we’re learning about ballet at the movies rather than any center for the arts. In 2008 the NEA found that only 7 percent of the American population had seen a live ballet performance in the past twelve months. Ballet retains an elitist reputation, even though its tickets are cheaper than most pop concerts.

Why is “real” ballet so shy of the silver screen? The answer has something to do with a consistent wariness displayed by the dance world at large. Sergei Diaghilev, the mastermind behind the Ballets Russes, worked hard to associate his company with the Cubists and Surrealists rather than the music hall; in order to do so, he felt it necessary to keep his troupe far away from the cameras. According to the biographer of the British ballerina Margot Fonteyn, “the transposition of ballet to celluloid was a vulgarity.”6 Such was the stigma surrounding time spent on screen that Moira Shearer made a permanent transition into the movies; once she began to appear in films, her career as a performer (and she was a great one) never recovered.

It wasn’t until the sixties, when ballet programs started to be featured regularly on PBS and the BBC, that dancers like Baryshnikov, Nureyev, and Fonteyn became household names. Even then, this “transposition” was disparaged; one critic said that the choreography was “raped by technology.”7 Edwin Denby wrote that filming dance was like “playing a symphony for the radio but shifting the microphone arbitrarily from one instrument to another.”8 Others have noted that the mediation of the screen negates the “kinetic empathy,” a physical feeling for the movement in one’s own body that is often described as ballet’s most powerful effect.

Lately there’s been a revitalized effort at capturing ballet onscreen, and from within the dance community itself. During this past month’s Tribeca Film Festival, two ballet shorts had their premiere: Les Bosquets, the artist JR’s take on the 2005 riots in French suburbs, and Early Sunday Morning, which is set to a sound track by Sufjan Stevens. And a documentary paid tribute to Misty Copeland, star of the American Ballet Theatre, who has advertised everything from Dr. Pepper to Under Armour. (The latter shows off her muscles with the high definition usually reserved for athletes.) Ballet 422, a close look at Justin Peck’s creative process, hit theaters nationwide in February. “The first time the dancers saw it, a lot of them came up to me and said ‘This is the most honest portrait I’ve ever seen of what our life is like,’” the producer Ellen Bar, herself a former NYCB soloist, told me over the phone. Ballet 422 has no interviews and no backstory—instead it manages, beautifully, to capture workaday details like the dyeing of costume fabric and fiddling with light controls. These start to look like visual ballets in their own right.

Then again, some more recent documentary efforts have fulfilled stereotypes at their histrionic worst. Breaking Pointe, which marked reality TV’s foray into ballet, distributed promo images of dancers on shards of broken mirrors; their petty rivalries made the Kardashian family look gracious by comparison. But the recent image of the art form has more to do with glimpses of ephemeral physicality set to music, and these prove more compelling than any hammy backstage drama. They might just be enough to get us to skip the movies, for once, and see what it’s actually like onstage.

Madison Mainwaring trained at the Rock School in Philadelphia. Her writing and criticism has been featured by The American Reader, BOMB, The Brooklyn Rail, The Fjord Review, Lapham’s Quarterly, and VICE. She lives in Manhattan.

[1] Youngblood, Denise. The Magic Mirror: Moviemaking in Russia, 1908-1918. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press (1989), p. 99.
[2] Roper, Susan, “Balanchine in Hollywood.” The Ballet Review, Winter 1995, p. 58.
[3] Bohn, Willard. The Rise of Surrealism: Cubism, Dada, and the Pursuit of the Marvelous. New York: SUNY Press (2002), p.125.
[4] Swift, Mary Grace. Belles and Beaux on Their Toes: Dancing Stars in Young America. Lanham: University of America Press (1982), p. 24.
[5] Powell, Michael. “The Red Shoes.” Reading Dance, ed. by Robert Gottlieb. New York: Random House, p. 884.
[6] Daneman, Meredith. Margot Fonteyn. New York: Viking (2004), p. 202.
[7] Schmidt, J. “Exploitation or Symbiosis? On the Contradictions Between Dance and Video.” Ballet International, 14.1 (January 1991), p. 97.
[8] Denby, Edwin. Dance Writings and Poetry. Yale: Yale University Press (1998), p. 87.