When I was 5-years-old I wanted to be a ballet dancer. I was obsessed by pink slippers and black leotards and most especially tutus. I changed into my pink sequined tutu when I got home from preschool, and I idolized my babysitter who studied ballet at LaGuardia High School and wore high ponytails and motorcycle boots. She gave me a pair of her toe shoes which I carried around in my backpack for most of first grade, maybe to impress my friends, but also just because I loved them. There is something so beautiful, so elegant, so feminine about ballet. It may be the most graceful art, but it is also the most disciplined. Which is why after age 7 I lost my patience for it and took to drawing on my walls instead—the visual arts are far more freeing.
I saw Black Swan a few weeks ago and then last week I saw The Red Shoes for the first time. Both films are set in the excruciatingly perfect world of ballet, and both are beautiful and devastating as they linger in your thoughts for days. There is no room for error in ballet, the movements must be perfect. If you can’t get your body to perform with the required grace, you either work harder, or give up. Part of the fascination with ballet (aside from the beautiful costumes and sets), is the perfection—it’s exhausting to watch at times, but when performed with ease, it’s completely mesmerizing.
Both the protagonist in The Red Shoes, Vickie Paige, and in Black Swan, Nina Sayers, are forced to make enormous sacrifices for their art—love, family, health, even sanity. The two films look at the world of ballet from the back, and both show us the physical and mental torment that come with the quest for perfection. Obviously not all ballerinas have nervous breakdowns, but it does seem that, more than other art forms, ballet projects the idea of beauty through pain. Maybe that feeds our fascination, or maybe it’s just the pretty costumes and the breathtaking elegance. Either way, both these films give deeply effective portrayals of the complexity of the ballet world and the dancers within them. There is the expected theatrical drama of who will get the lead and who will succeed, but it’s the vice-like pressure, the fear of failure, and the need to be the “ideal” that acts as the driving force. The pressure isn’t just from overbearing directors, or mothers, but all the more disturbingly, from within the individual.
Whether you’re a fan of ballet or you think Swan Lake is danced by hippos and ostriches, you will find yourself caught up in these films. While Black Swan takes the viewer on a spiraling trip into the psyche (the actual dancing not being very important), The Red Shoes delivers a heartbreaking account of impossible choice (with incredible dancing), both films make clear that an artist cannot achieve perfection without a certain degree of sacrifice. In the end, it is left to us to decide whether we believe the sacrifice was worth it.
I can’t take screen-shots of Black Swan because it’s not out on DVD yet, but The Red Shoes is simply gorgeous, here are some stills to convince you to see it.
Look, 40s era costumes with ballet slippers—how can you not love that?
Is this not gorgeous?
At a certain point it’s so beautiful, it doesn’t even look real anymore.
This post is pretty much just an excuse for me to do two things, 1. tell you to watch both of these amazing movies, and 2. make a pretty ballet collage on Polyvore. I hope I’ve gotten through to you on the first point, and see below for the second—I’ve never outgrown my 5-year-old self’s love of ballet inspired pieces, and I still love tutus—don’t you?
5.75 GBP – dancinginthestreet.com
Ballet skirt »
Tulle skirts »
$19 – spiegel.com
11 GBP – dancinginthestreet.com
$35 – lasenza.com
Bustier bra »
$50 – dancewearsolutions.com
Ballerina shoes »
$185 – net-a-porter.com
Ruffled scarves »
$23 – barneys.com