Given the natural relationship between movies and music, combined with the motion picture screen's inevitable preference for subjects in motion, it is easy to understand why dance has been a favorite subject of filmmakers since before Fred met Ginger. Dance has been the centerpiece of countless musicals of the classical MGM variety, in which perfectly ordinary individuals suddenly erupt into song and dance and then return to their ordinary existence as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. This, of course, is a case of using dance in the creation of a cinematic fantasy world.
Dancing on the screen need not necessarily be presented in a fantasy context, however. It is also possible to do a perfectly realistic film about people who happen to be dancers - or, as in the case of the recently released "Billy Elliott," about someone who is trying to become a dancer. More specifically, young Billy has set his sights on becoming a ballet dancer, thereby joining the ranks of a long and distinguished roster of screen balletomanes. If you'd like to see how the ballet has been portrayed in earlier films, look for these titles on home video.
"Specter of the Rose" (1946). This odd little film was something of a pet project for screenwriter Ben Hecht, who produced and directed it as well as writing the script. It tells the story of a young ballerina and her psychologically unbalanced male dancing partner. "Specter of the Rose" is the name of a ballet about a woman who is visited by the ghost of a rose she had worn to a ball earlier in the evening. They dance together, and the rose dies, contented. In Hecht's story, the unstable dancer becomes enraged and abusive when he hears the music of the "Specter of the Rose" ballet. When he becomes romantically involved with the main character, who is rehearsing for a performance of that very ballet, trouble is inevitable.
"The Red Shoes" (1948). The producing-directing-screenwriting team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger created some of the most enduring classics to come out of British cinema during the Forties and early Fifties. One of their most successful was this tale of romantic intrigues between a ballerina, a composer, and a ballet impresario. If this all sounds like fodder for a prime time soap opera, think again. Powell and Pressburger were master storytellers who knew how to keep material like this fresh and compelling, never allowing it to sink to the level of the trite and maudlin.
"Limelight" (1952). Although he was to write and direct two more films, many regard this as Charles Chaplin's last great work. He stars as Calvero, formerly a great music hall comic, who has lived to become a has-been. He spends most of his time drowning his sorrows in an alcoholic stupor until he happens upon someone who is even more miserable than he. By chance, he interrupts the suicide attempt of a young ballerina, played by Claire Bloom, who is attempting to end her life because a strange paralysis has rendered her legs useless. Calvero takes her in and nurses her back to health. When she eventually regains the use of her legs, it is her turn to help him. "Limelight" is, like most of Chaplin's work, deeply sentimental, but it is also deeply felt and brilliantly performed.
"The Turning Point" (1977). Screenwriter Arthur Laurents and director Herbert Ross brought together Hollywood pros Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine to dramatize the perennial conflict between family and career in the lives of women who pursue the arts professionally. Deedee (MacLaine) and Emma (Bancroft) both chose careers as dancers early on, but Deedee gave it up to raise a family while Emma chose to forego family life to continue her career. When Emma's ballet company gives a performance in Deedee's hometown, the reunion of the two women opens old wounds, as each realizes that she is envious of the choice made by the other.
Naturally, ballet does not represent the full scope of dancing on the screen. In fact, most of the dancing you'll see in movies is just plain old broadway hoofing without a tutu in sight. Next week we'll look at movies about dancers in other styles and traditions.