This week’s travel involved my friend H. and I taking ourselves on an excursion west-side. Destination: the fabulous art deco Sun Theatre to see the film ‘Black Swan’. The last time I headed across town to a deco cinema, it was to The Astor to see ‘The Red Shoes‘, a flick about…a tortured ballerina aiming for perfection. One of the scenes in ‘Black Swan’, in which ballerina Nina (Natalie Portman) is dreaming herself into the lead role in Swan Lake, reminded me of a documentary about the soccer player Zinedine Zidane. In that film, the sound design sometimes takes the viewer into Zidane’s private experience – you hear the sound of thousands of fans as the sound of an ocean’s swell from far away, infinitely softer than the thud of the ball off his boot. Similarly, in ‘Black Swan’, the sound of Nina dancing is so precise and intimate that the viewer is taken into her world. In hearing the brush of a shoe against surface, the breath of exertion – one is reminded that this ‘dancing’, or in Zidane’s case, this ‘playing’ of sport, is hard physical work. As the camera closed in on Nina’s crippled toes, I thought how bizarre it is that ballet dancers do this work en pointe, especially when most of the time it looks kind of dumb. ‘How did this tippy-toes dancing come about?’ I wondered. I turned to the interweb.
So we find ourselves once again back in the 19th Century, where most silliness seems to have originated…ballet has progressed beyond the royal courts and is being performed for the public by ballet companies. In 1832, Italian choreographer Filippo Taglioni creates the ballet ‘La Sylphide’ for his daughter Marie Taglioni, later to become so famous among Russian ballet fans that a group of them chip in to buy a pair of her pointe shoes so they can cook them and eat them with a spicy sauce. But I digress…
‘La Sylphide’ is credited as the first ballet in which en pointe dancing was an integral part of the performance and had an artistic rationale, rather than being a fun little show trick. Marie, with her father’s blessing, shortened her skirt to show off her pointe work, scandalizing the easily scandalized 19th century audiences. The point of the en pointe was to convey the will o’ the wisp ethereality of La Sylphide, the wee forest sprite of the ballet’s title. This was the Romantic era after all, when the arts were invaded by hordes of fairies, sprites, sylphs, forest nymphs and swan-women, no doubt borne along on sickly plumes of opium smoke. This was the era of Keats and Byron, Chopin and Tchaikovsky, composer of ‘Swan Lake’, whose bad girl Black Swan so derails Natalie Portman’s ‘sweet girl’ Nina.
This was also the era when ‘love as tragedy’ reached wuthering heights, when poor mortal males and supernatural females were falling like so many lemmings into the abyss of doomed attraction. One simply can’t have spooky, supernatural women plodding about on the earth as if they have some normal relationship with gravity. So as the trickle of balletic supernatural females at the beginning of the 19th Century became a flood towards its end, the tips of ballet slippers got harder and harder, in order to accommodate more en pointe work. Marius Petipa, Premier Maître de Ballet of the St. Petersburg Imperial Theatres, created many of the ballets which have formed the ballet canon still danced today: Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, Cinderella, Giselle, Coppelia. And the Russians were tough: their ballets emphasized athleticism en pointe. Petipa’s ‘Swan Lake’ included a crowd-pleasing 32 consecutive fouettes that Odile, the Black Swan, performs on her tippy-toes as an act of seduction. (A fouette is like a pirouette in which the dancer, while turning like a top, alternately extends her leg and touches her toe to the side of her knee. I’m almost certain the seductive effect works only in ‘Swan Lake’.)
In ‘Black Swan’, the physical demands upon the prima ballerina who performs the Odette/Odile, White Swan/Black Swan double role are brushed aside as artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) establishes that he has no qualms with Nina’s technique. So apart from the film’s opening scenes in which sound and vision hone in on the physicality of dance and the intimate relationship between ballet dancers and pointe shoes, the narrative quickly shifts to themes as old as Eve: virgin/whore, white/black, good/bad. Leroy and Lily (Mila Kunis), Nina’s sensual rival for the prima role, lead the innocent ‘White Swan’ Nina on her journey to find the Black Swan within. The journey is by way of several well-worn routes: drinking, drugs, smoking, wearing black and having sex. And, surprise! Being a Black Swan is a lot more fun than hanging out at home with Mum surrounded by too many soft toys. As a Black Swan, you also get to wear a black tutu that says ‘Me. Devastating.’
Personally, as a girl, I would have killed to wear that tutu. I would have been the Black Swan in a pink fit, if only for the frock. I remember that tutu from a ballet book I used to spend hours poring over at my grandparents’ house. I loved the stories – especially Swan Lake and Coppelia – and the pictures – yet classical ballet is one of the few dance forms I’ve never tried. Tango, swing, African, flamenco, contemporary, tap, Bollywood, jazz, belly dance, ballroom, bush dance, go-go…I’ve had a crack at them all but not classical ballet. I’d like to say it was because I knew, even as a kid, that those pretty pink slippers were hiding a sadistic nature. The truth is this little sister never wanted to do what her big sister done, so it was no to ballet and no to Brownies. Watching ‘Black Swan’, I was happy that I hadn’t resisted my stubborn resistance and followed in my sister’s footsteps. Would I, too, have been caught up in oestrogen-fuelled ballet bitchiness? Would I have become a purger in pink tights? Would I have actually killed to wear the black tutu? Hmmm, probably not. Like most other little ballerinas, I would have lost interest and gone on to develop a crush on horses, or, not having been tall enough/too tall/too chubby/too uncoordinated, been subtly sashayed into taking up crochet or the recorder. What did happen, is that I developed an enduring love of dance, and dance in film. Here’s some favourite scenes, with not a pointe shoe in sight.
First up, I give you Sidney Poitier in ‘To Sir With Love’, demonstrating the difficult art of red-hot daggy dancing.
Staying in the 60s, we move on to ‘The Aloof’ dance from ‘Sweet Charity’, choreographed by the legendary Bob Fosse.
Pure swing, pure insanity. Beware, you can do a hamstring just watching it.
Bob Fosse plus Liza Minnelli plus ordinary dining chair equals masterpiece.
There’s also a beautiful dance scene in the Australian film Samson & Delilah. You can see a peek of it in the trailer, about 40 seconds in.
* Thanks to www.dancer.com for its history of the pointe shoe.