Few pursuits demand the physical and mental commitment of ballet. But does that explain why so many movie ballerinas are mentally unstable?
From Moira Shearer's eggshell-fragile dancer in Michael Powell's and Emeric Pressburger's The Red Shoes (1948), torn between the possessive composer she loves and the possessed impresario she dances for, to Claire Bloom's suicidal ballerina in Charlie Chaplin's Limelight (1952), to Jessica Harper as the aspiring prima ballerina who suspects that the corps de ballet are witches in Dario Argento's Suspiria (1977), to the possibly delusional Natalie Portman in Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan (opening next week), movie ballerinas are not pictures of mental health. (About the only healthy ballerinas in movies are Leslie Caron in An American in Paris and Neve Campbell in The Company.)
With the exception of George de la Pena as the certifiably schizophrenic Vaslav Nijinsky in Nijinsky (1980), male movie ballet dancers tend to be stable types, like Robert Helpmann in The Tales of Hoffmann (1951) , Mikhail Baryshnikov in The Turning Point (1977) and White Nights (1985) and Jamie Bell in Billy Elliot (2000).
Another thing ballet movies are about is female rivalry. Dance, Girl, Dance (1940), The Unfinished Dance (1947), The Turning Point (1977) and Black Swan each pivots on, as it were, female competition: Lucille Ball and Maureen O'Hara have a hair-pulling catfight in Dance, Girl, Dance. Dance pupil Margaret O'Brien contrives to injure the prima ballerina so that her idol Cyd Charisse can become a principal dancer in Unfinished Dance. The Turning Point focuses on the personal competition of old friends Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine, one who became a ballerina and the other a wife and mother, and on the professional competition of the aging dancer (Bancroft) about to be replaced by a younger model. That theme is echoed in Black Swan, where older dancer Winona Ryder makes way for Natalie Portman, herself worried that Mila Kunis might be a better dancer to play Odette and Odile in Swan Lake.
In the 1930s through 1950s, ballet represented high art, pretentious and inaccessible to the masses, which is why Petrov (Fred Astaire) in Shall We Dance? (1937) dreams of tap-dancing with Ginger Rogers, why Judy (Maureen O'Hara) in Dance, Girl, Dance realizes that ballet can be about factories as well as swans, and why Tony Hunter (Astaire again) in The Bandwagon (1953) invites ballerina Cyd Charisse to extend her repertoire to tap dance.