Everett Collection (2); Niko Tavernise/Fox Searchlight
Onstage, ballet has captivated audiences for centuries; it should come as no surprise that it makes for brilliant drama at the cinema as well as the opera house. Ahead, we’ve picked out twelve narrative and documentary films that have captured the art of ballet from the toil of rehearsing to the intrigue of casting to the incomparable thrill of performance. Check them out in five, six, seven, eight…
A Ballerina’s Tale (2015)
In 2015, Misty Copeland was promoted to principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre, making her the first black ballerina to hold that title at a major international ballet company. Nelson George’s documentary traces the arc of Copeland’s historic career in the traditionally Eurocentric world of ballet, and follows her everyday life as a dancer attending daily class and taking care of injuries — while also dealing with the pressure that comes with breaking down barriers.
Celebrated choreographer Angelin Preljocaj stepped behind the camera for the first time to make Polina, which he co-directed with filmmaker Valérie Müller. Mariinsky Theatre dancer Anastasia Shevtsova makes her big-screen debut in the title role, as a young Russian ballerina who decides — after being invited to dance with the famed Bolshoi Ballet — to leave her home country behind to study contemporary dance in France. When her highly classical training doesn’t serve her well in her new discipline, she must learn to find herself as an artist somewhere in between the two.
Niko Tavernise/Fox Searchlight
Natalie Portman won Best Actress in 2011 for her performance in Darren Aronofsky’s acclaimed psychological thriller, in which two ballerinas compete for the principal role in Swan Lake. Portman’s perfectionist ballerina, well-suited to play the lovely Odette, is threatened by a new arrival at the ballet company (Mila Kunis) who is a perfect fit as Odile, the “black swan” half of the dual role. Stunning though the dancing — much of which the actresses did themselves — may be, the film finds true horror in the obsessive discipline and cutthroat competition that exists under the surface of the ethereally beautiful world of ballet.
The Weinstein Company
While Carly Rae Jepsen’s practically perfect pop song “Cut to the Feeling” is admittedly wildly anachronistic for the grand finale of Leap!, an animated movie about a girl who wants to become a ballerina in 19th-century Paris, it’s no less infectious for its historical inaccuracy. The sweet family film follows Félicie (Elle Fanning) and her friend Victor (Nat Wolff), who dreams of being an inventor. Jepsen voices the part of a former prima ballerina who teaches Félicie to dance and encourages her to follow her dreams.
Jody Lee Lipes’ documentary puts the spotlight on the choreographer, chronicling the development of the New York City Ballet’s 422nd repertory piece. Justin Peck, a dancer in the NYCB’s corps de ballet, is an up-and-coming choreographer tasked with crafting a new ballet for the company. While the doc provides unparalleled access and extraordinary insight, there’s no juicy backstage drama to be found. But the incredible amount of effort and talent that goes into what is ultimately a small piece within a huge catalog — one out of 422, to be exact — is deeply compelling in itself.
Set against the unlikely backdrop of the UK miners’ strike in the mid-80s, Stephen Daldry’s uplifting dramedy stars Jamie Bell as the title character, an 11-year-old boy who wants to become a ballet dancer despite the disapproval of his father and brother, both miners on strike. The film was nominated for three Oscars and later adapted into a successful stage musical, the original Broadway production of which won the Tony for Best Musical.
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s gorgeous classic stars Moira Shearer in her film debut (and her first of three collaborations with Powell) as Vicky, a young dancer who stars in a ballet called The Red Shoes, based on the fairy tale of the same name. When Vicky falls in love with a young composer, her devotion to ballet, and to the role that made her famous, threatens to tear them apart. Just like the girl in the fairy tale, once she puts on the red shoes, they can never truly come off — and nothing and no one can make her stop dancing.
Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller’s documentary pieces together the thrilling, fascinating history of the Ballet Russe and its later incarnations, the Original Ballet Russe and the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Dozens of former dancers, now in their 80s and 90s, sit down for the camera to reminisce about their youth spent traveling the world, working with legendary choreographers, and performing some of the most beautiful works of art of the 20th century.
Shirley MacLaine plays Deedee, a dancer who quit ballet to start a family, while Anne Bancroft is Emma, Deedee’s former best friend who went on to become a principal dancer, in Herbert Ross’ drama. When Deedee’s teenage daughter (Leslie Browne) finds success as a ballerina, it’s a painful reminder to Deedee that she abandoned her passion — and to Emma that she’s rapidly aging out of her career. The film scored 11 Oscar nominations, including nods for MacLaine, Bancroft, Browne, and a certain supporting star who makes an indelible impression: Mikhail Baryshnikov made his big-screen debut as a dancer at the company who seduces Deedee’s daughter.
With no conventional plot or protagonist, Robert Altman’s ballet drama gives a rhythm to the often thankless discipline dancers put into their work. As career-ending injuries are given about as much screentime and dramatic emphasis as dancers lacing up their pointe shoes, the film rolls along as steadily as a series of eight-counts. The cast consists primarily of real Joffrey dancers (whose stories inspired the script) with the Hollywood additions of Neve Campbell (who also co-wrote and produced the film) as Ry, a dancer at the company; Malcolm McDowell as its eccentric director; and James Franco as Ry's boyfriend.
You can’t become a ballet dancer if you don’t start young, and the subjects of Bess Kargman’s documentary First Position have trained their bodies to perform amazing feats of strength and grace before most of them can even drive. The film follows six young dancers who are competing in the Youth America Grand Prix, the largest international youth ballet competition in the world, which awards full scholarships and dance company contracts to students from ages 9–19. The stakes are high, and the young artists’ diverse stories are as inspiring as their dedication is astounding.
While the argument has been made
that Nicholas Hytner’s Center Stage
is the greatest dance movie of all time, make no mistake: Center Stage
is a fairly ridiculous, outrageously clichéd teen drama. But the dancing is genuinely great! Amanda Schull stars as Jody Sawyer, a student at a prestigious ballet academy, who competes and commiserates with various classmates and falls in and out of love with various others, all to a killer ‘90s soundtrack of Jamiroquai, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Mandy Moore.