Beyond 'Black Swan': Underrated dance movies that deserve a second chance
Dance movies are officially cool again thanks to "Black Swan," the nightmarish thriller starring Natalie Portman that is set in the world of New York's classical ballet. The Darren Aronofsky film has been racking up award nominations while proving to be a surprise box-office success since its release this fall.
Does this mean Hollywood bosses will be greenlighting more projects involving demented, sexually repressed ballerinas who crave the spotlight but can't handle the pressure?
Don't bet on it. Dance movies of all varieties occassionally break through to the mainstream -- "The Red Shoes," "White Nights" and "Center Stage," to name just a few. But for every popular hit like "Black Swan," many more fly under the radar and are barely noticed by the general moviegoing public. To that end, we've compiled a list of dance and ballet-themed movies that either didn't get their proper due on release or that deserve to be revisited.
Our list deliberatly omits popular hits (e.g., "Billy Elliot," "The Turning Point"), dance documentaries (Frederick Wiseman's "Ballet") and filmed versions of stage productions ("The Nutcracker" galore). Most of the titles are available on Netflix. As always, feel free to add your own favorites in the comments section.
"Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary" (2002)
Guy Maddin, the quirky Canadian auteur, directed this 70-minute ballet version of the Bram Stoker novel, featuring dancers from the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. Beautifully photographed in retro black and white (with touches of blood red), this expressionist exercise in silent-era style proves that ballet can be a purely cinematic experience. The dancing is choreographed by Mark Godden and uses music by Gustav Mahler.
Sally Potter's follow-up to "Orlando" was this highly idiosyncratic movie about one woman's obsession with learning the tango. The director plays a fictionalized version of herself who is suffering from creative block and decides to travel to Argentina, where she begins a relationship with Pablo Verón, a star tango dancer. You may also want to check out Robert Duvall's "Assasination Tango," another cinematic foray into Argentina's national dance that was largely ignored by moviegoers.
Natalie Portman looks like a lock for an Oscar nomination for "Black Swan," but for our money, the gold standard for a dance performance by a non-dancing actress is Vanessa Redgrave in "Isadora." Redgrave plays Isadora Duncan, the taboo-breaking ballet-dancer-turned-modern-dance-provacatrice who famously bared her breasts on stage and scandalized the public. Redgrave's physical commitment to the role is extreme to the point of being scary, and she deservedly received an Oscar nomination as well as the best actress award at Cannes. The movie isn't available on DVD in the U.S., making it a rarity worth seeking out.
"The Company" (2003)
Robert Altman's penultimate feature film isn't one of his best, but it deserves to be seen for the way it observes the backstage social nuances of a ballet company. Mostly devoid of drama and narrative, the movie is content to simply observe dancers rehearsing, chatting and lolling around. Consider it a low-key alter-ego to the hot-house melodramatics of "Black Swan."
Special mention: "Showgirls" (1996)
Paul Verhoeven's much-maligned camp spectacular, set in the world of Vegas dancers, has undergone a quasi-rehabilitation in the years since its initial release. Like "Black Swan" -- except with a sense of humor -- the movie tells the story of one dancer's rise through the ranks of an ultra-competitive company. Elizabeth Berkley's athletic performance as Nomi, the frequently topless heroine, is so many shades of awful while also being never less than mesmerizing.
-- David Ng
Photo (top): Natalie Portman in "Black Swan." Credit: Niko Tavernise / Fox Searchlight
Photo (bottom): A scene from "Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary." Credit: Tartan