Nothing quite says classical ballet better than two esteemed Academy Award-winning actresses spanking the living daylights out of one another. The unexpected fanny slapping cat fight that breaks out between Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine outside the Lincoln Center in The Turning Point should say just about everything there is to say about ballet films. In other words, the best can be surprisingly entertaining, scintillating and funny.
In honor of Garden City Ballet’s annual production of The Nutcracker we offer six of ballet’s more memorable films. And don’t worry—there may be plenty of pointe shoes and puking, er, eating disorders in these selections, but all of them come equipped with as much plot as performance.
The Turning Point (1977)
This seminal backstage-to-center stage drama was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, making it The Godfather of dance films. That would, I guess, make the aforementioned Bancroft/MacLaine showdown sort of like the “I know it was you, Fredo” confrontation. Sort of.
The Turning Point centers on two old colleagues, Bancroft and MacLaine, who went their separate ways long ago—Bancroft pursued dance and MacLaine her family. Now, they meet again when MacLaine’s on-screen daughter (real-life dancer Leslie Browne) is ready to audition for the company where an aging Bancroft still reigns. Enter into the mix a boyish Mikhail Baryshnikov making his feature film debut as the ultimate predatory playboy and there’s the perfect recipe for an authentic, time-tested classic.
White Nights (1985)
Footloose had Kenny Loggins. Flashdance had Michael Sembello’s “Maniac.” And White Nights had maybe the best of all: Lionel Richie’s “Say You, Say Me.”
The ’80s were to cheesy dance movies what the ’50s were to musicals, what the ’60s were to Westerns, and what the ’00s are to Dane Cook. Perhaps the only redeeming effort from this genre during such a saturated era was the Cold War-inspired, East-meets-West, old-meets-new, black-meets-white tale featuring a defected Russian ballet dancer (Baryshnikov) and an exiled American tap dancer (Gregory Hines).
Name the cliché and White Nights tried to incorporate it. But when the plot turns lazy, the dancing picks up the slack. In one memorable scene, Baryshnikov and Hines show their feathers, each trying to one-up the other in a small rehearsal space. In another, a young Helen Mirren reminds Baryshnikov of his roots in an empty theater, prompting him to break into a fiercely athletic solo. The entire opening is Roland Petit’s dramatic ballet La Jeune Homme et la Mort. For those who’ve never seen Baryshnikov at his peak, the dances are stunning.
Center Stage (2000)
“I’m not dancing for them anymore—I’m dancing for myself!”
Already, you get the picture. Let’s run down the checklist for ballet movies real quick: Small-town dancer trying to make it in New York? Check. Competitive bun-heads blocking her path? Check. Overbearing backstage mothers? Check. Egomaniacal company czars? Check. Bulimia? Check. Untimely injuries? Check. Salacious affairs? Check. Climatic final dance involving an on-stage motorcycle and a quick costume change that goes from virginal pink leotard to cherry red hooker attire? Um, check.
Center Stage is “Gossip Girl” in pointe shoes. Somehow it’s impossible to turn away.
The Company (2003)
“Party of Five” starlet and Wild Things vixen Neve Campbell is arguably a pretty decent actor. Screenwriter, producer and prima ballerina? Not so much.
The Company is Campbell’s baby. She worked for years to get it made by working with established writer Barbara Turner (Pollack), investing thousands of her own dollars to finish the project and eventually convincing legend Robert Altman to direct. Unfortunately, it was mostly for naught.
Nothing happens in this film—even less than the typical Altman study (see Short Cuts). It’s supposed to be an intimate look at a day in the life of a dancer, only the dancer is Campbell and she’s hardly very convincing. Watching the former real-life ballerina dance alongside true pros is sort of like watching Kevin Costner in any baseball film—Campbell doesn’t suck, but she ain’t no principal either.
The saving grace comes in the form of Altman’s extraordinarily intricate ballet sequences. He spends an inordinate amount of time filming performances, including one spectacular segment staged at an amphitheater in the rain.
Ballet Russes (2005)
This is the most earnest inclusion, mostly because it remains, even in dance circles, tragically under the radar. Told through spirited first-hand accounts from the now-elderly dancers who made the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo the world’s preeminent company, the documentary ends up chronicling the origins of modern ballet. Dance fanatics will cherish the history and archival footage, but even the thickest meathead may crumble at the vigor and giddiness conveyed by these pioneering artists, most of whom were Russian exiles after the Russian Revolution. In one scene, two 80-somethings, still striking despite their age, recreate a duet they performed more than 50 years prior. Still one of the most affecting scenes I’ve ever seen on film.
Garden City Ballet presents The Nutcracker at UM’s Montana Theatre Friday, Dec. 14 at 7 PM, Saturday at 2 and 7:30 PM and Sunday at 2 and 6 PM. Evening shows are $20, matinees $18.