by Portland Green & Michael Carlson
Traditionally, film has found it difficult to deal with successful women. As the American film scholar Jeanine Basinger pointed out in her seminal study A Woman’s Way, the ‘crackpot plots’ of women’s films in the golden age of Hollywood served to ‘unintentionally liberate’ the audience. ‘When the end of the movie came along,’ she writes, ‘the surrogate woman was usually dead, punished, or back in fold, aware of the error of her ways.’ It was a ‘perfectly safe form of pseudo liberation.’
And when it comes to dance feature film, we’ve moved further backwards, to before the 1940s! Liberation, even unintentional, today seems unattainable. Why is it that whenever contemporary mainstream film encounters dance, female dancers suffer? In re-examining the potential for dance in feature or long format films, we found ourselves comparing their fates to an observation about women’s health made by another American, the feminist and political activist Barbara Ehrenreich, in her book, Smile and Die. ‘In some versions of the prevailing gender ideology, femininity is by nature incompatible with full adulthood — a state of arrested development.’
We see this message espoused by some of the most successful dance films of industrialised cinema, many of which are perennial staples of holiday television. In these films, featured and supporting female dancers are portrayed as fragile of mind, sylph-like of body and pink of dress. When the feature film Black Swan, opened in a London in 2010, The Guardian asked five outstandingprofessional dancers what they thought of it. All found it clichéd, bearing little relation to the professional world they inhabit. Not only was the film’s star, Natalie Portman, not a professional dancer; she always wore pink! Critic Anne Billson noted “Movie stars should earn their spurs in vaudeville, then next time a Black Swan comes around, the lead can do her own fouettés.”
The contrast with actual dancers’ lives is important because of the message Portman’s dancer conveys. It’s an echo of Adrian Lyne’s 1983 film Flashdance, where Jennifer Beales’ character Alex, danced by three doubles; ostensibly celebrates the liberation of flashdancing; but in actuality her liberation is restricted by the reinforcement of images of her sexual unattainability to the men who pay to watch her flashdance, and the continual inclusion of close-up ‘money shots’. This lack of authenticity in films like Black Swan and the lack of female agency in films like Flashdance work together to deny a sexual, indeed an adult, identity to the female dancer. Does this demonstrate the power that is exerted through control of the camera, control which in both Black Swanand Flashdancewas held by men?
And in the American TV series Bunheads, Sutton Foster plays an ex-showgirl from Vegas who finds herself married to a ‘square’ and moving to the all-American town of Paradise, where her new mother-in-law runs a ballet school. Bunheads appears to want to offer ironic comment on Black Swan, but the idea of the show’s four young dancers in pink (the ‘bunheads’ of the title) being exposed to a ‘real’ dancer loses most of its irony when that dancer, while talented, has made a mess of her life on her own. Indeed, it shows that Hollywood remains determined to repeat the psuedo-liberation template on the small screen.
In fairness, it’s not just Hollywood. It wasn’t so long ago that every January, with the holiday season over, London’s billboards displayed peeling, posters for live, Christmas commercial dance productions starring female dancers often clad head to toe in pink and rhinestones, leaning for support against their princes. Although in live, contemporary dance practice explorations of gender are common, which begs the question, what responsibility does dance itself bear for its depiction in feature film, a depiction which perpetuates the myth of a professional dancers’ life? How is this ballerina-pink, infantilisation of women in dance in cinema related to dance in contemporary culture? Is dance as an art form and female dancers themselves to blame for their portrayal in cinema? Does dance not have anything else to say on film, other than to put its be-pinked, continuously-in-rehearsal, female sylph forward as both content and subject? Can a film be made truly dance driven, without such stereotyping?
Wim Wenders’ documentary Pina was a loving look at a formidable dance icon, but broke little new ground in portraying dancers, though its use of 3D re-ignitedthe debate about the filming of dance in relation to its meaning,a question asked of dancers from Fred Astaire onward. Dancing Dreams, another feature length documentary about Pina Bausch, released at the same time, presented a touching portrait of the power of her work on one group of teenage performers. It suggests an approach reminiscent of Clio Barnard’s The Arbor, where the line between documentary subjects and actors was blurred; it also suggests a difficulty, in that people off the street are no more able to walk into dance roles than are actors. But were any of those performers to become successful dancers, how much changed would they find themselves portrayed in a later film?
Perhaps this reliance on the tropes of traditional drama is not something forced on film-makers by dance itself. Commercial film nearly always finds the characters’ stories more interesting than the circumstances which drive the narrative. In fact, Black Swan’s parallels to Robert Towne’s 1982 film Personal Best, nominally about athletics, are striking. In each case, the driving device is not the subject itself, be it dance or sport, but the demands competition places on the limited drive to success which women are assumed to possess. In both films, the talented young woman is tempted by an already-successful woman, with seduction the aim, and in both cases she needs to be ‘saved’ from lesbianism by a hard-edged and merciless male figure, who is the only one who can force the woman to channel her inner drive into her chosen field without turning to ‘perversion’.
Similarly, Black Swan can be seen as yang to director Darren Aronofsky’s earlier yin film, The Wrestler. Again a talented performer battles against the demons his performance draws from him, denying him his maturity. Mickey Rourke’s wrestler seems fated to destroy his most meaningful adult relationship, to his daughter, which he sacrifices for drugs and sex. Its prurient voyeurism falls right into line with Black Swan, which might be summed up in unintentional liberation terms as ‘she plays with herself, she kisses a woman, she has to die’. Rourke’s wrestler, whose ‘sport’ is as ritually scripted as Swan Lake, ‘takes drugs and sleeps with a groupie, he has to lose, at least his daughter.’ You could trace this performer’s trope all the way back to Josephine Baker starring in the 1934 French film Zou-Zou, directed by Marc Allegret, where she is both centre stage and the film’s heroine; but for that pays the price of being left alone at the film’s end.
Perhaps this indicates, as we suggested at the start, little more than the idea that feature film has moved its gender roles backward in the past seven decades. Indeed, compare Black Swan et al to the classic Hollywood film dance partnerships: Astaire or Gene Kelly with, say, Ginger Rogers, Rita Hayworth (herself, pace Anne Billson, a talented dancer before being transformed, once out of the dance role, into a sex goddess), Anne Miller, Cyd Charisse or even Debbie Reynolds. Even when the female character is sometimes, portrayed as a ditz, and often needing the (non sadistic) guidance of a man, the dances themselves provide heraway of asserting authority, if not always full equality. She takes centre stage and flourishes; she is not compelled to meet a nasty end.
And while dancer and choreographer, Charlotte in Georgia Parris’ 2018 film Mari does takes the central role, the character spends a significant portion of the film again in dance rehearsals, when she can escape the family drama emanating from her ailing grandmother. These films are no more ‘about’ dance than the recent sports film Moneyball is about baseball, or The Ides of March is about politics. In the former, the sport serves as a means of portraying an innovator at odds with conventional wisdom, and makes the personal dilemma boil down to the conflict between job and family. In the latter, the world of politics merely is a tool within which characters also choose between ambition and love. Without wanting to reduce cinema to the glib formulae of Robert McKee, dance almost inevitably serves as a vehicle for forcing women to make the same choice, between love and career, between living a ‘normal’ adult life and being an artist. Occasionally thatchoice maybe forced on men,especially if they dance; in Saturday Night Fever, artistic happiness lies across the East River in the discos of Manhattan, forcing Tony to give up his security in Brooklyn. But it is not simply a matter of genre and gender.
The point is that in this clichéd view, all dancers, but in particular female dancers are ultimately infantilised and robbed of sexual agency so that they cannot participate fully in the world in which they are placed. It is a world where someone else makes decisions for them. A world where their role is to dance and smile, and sometimes (as in Red Shoes), dance and smile and die. This dilemma was met directly by the Belgian director Lukas Dhont, in the 2018 dance film, Girl. Transgender Lara’s ambition to be a ballet dancer is ostensibly stymied by hermale body. But it becomes obvious that herdreams require herto give over agency to an idealised ballet-body, that while literally torturous to transform her own body into, is one that is not naturally possessed by any female-bodied dancereither. Meanwhile, as she desires to become an adult woman, she is trapped in a classical repertoire that continues to propagate stories of fairies and princesses from the romantic era, controlled by male characters, denying the ability to grow and change; perpetuated, ironically, by a female ballet coach. Too young to be eligible for the operation longed for to complete hersexual identity, Lara finally must force the issue, and only when she emerges an adult woman, does she finally appear on screen happy, apparently freed of the obsession with thathighly artificial feminised world of dance.
If dance wants to be a part of a contemporary film culture, it needs to be capable as an art form of addressing something more than the portrayal of dance and dancers, which as we have seen is almost by definition infantilising. The continuous representation of rehearsal creates a sports-film metaphor without offering the ultimate reward of the win (or agony of loss) that sport provides. Dance needs to extend the possibilities for itself in film. We long for films driven not by what lazy creators perceive of as ‘audience demands’ for familiar tropes of conflict and resolution, love and sacrifice, control and submission. We need films driven by unique choreographic ‘intent’.
Surely there is conflict and dynamic resolution enough in the world of dance. Surely we can show how performers can move audiences without their being reduced to the level of children.
Mainstream Hollywood has created films in which dance becomes the driving force of the film, where a director like Busby Berkeley turns his camera into a participant in a dance, producing moments of almost abstract beauty. In the classic Hollywood musicals, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly turn the screen into a vehicle through which dance expresses and moves the story along, and female dancers move it just as strongly. Outside Hollywood, in films like Rhumba and The Fairy by writer-performers, Fiona Gordon, Dominique Abel and Bruno Romy and in Clara Van Gool’s The Beast in the Jungle, Lloyd Newson’s Cost of Living or Wim Vandekeybus’ Blush choreography is the driver. While neither Cost of Living or Blush are quite feature length (40 and 63 minutes respectively) they all offer an idea of what is possible.
Imagine if Black Swan were about the struggles of a dancer to interpret familiar material in a contemporary way. Imagine if the relationship between dancer and choreographer were illuminated through choreography, and imagine if the roles were danced by dancers. If we want to stop the infantilization of dancers, especially female dancers, in art and popular entertainment, we might want as parents, to think twice before we buy that Angelina Ballerina product or pink leotard for our children who want to dance. But that may be unfair, not to contemporary cinema, but to Angelina. We might simply convince ourselves that dance need not destroy the dancer. But as we saw in Girl, Angelina may need to aspire to be a woman first, and a ballerina second in order to survive.
Portland Green is a Producer, Director, Curator and former dancer. Michael Carlson is the author of three books on film directors and has contributed on film and art to outlets as varied as the BBC, TLS, Headpress, Boston Phoenix, FT, Telegraph, and Spectator. They are creating a live, lecture performance of Why does Angelina have to die?
© Michael Carlson and Portland Green