Dying Swans and Madmen: Ballet, the Body, and Narrative Cinema

Dying Swans and Madmen: Ballet, the Body, and Narrative Cinema

Dying Swans and Madmen: Ballet, the Body, and Narrative Cinema

Dying Swans and Madmen: Ballet, the Body, and Narrative Cinema


From mid-twentieth-century films such as Grand Hotel, Waterloo Bridge, and The Red Shoes to recent box-office hits including Billy Elliot, Save the Last Dance, and The Company, ballet has found its way, time and again, onto the silver screen and into the hearts of many otherwise unlikely audiences. In Dying Swans and Madmen, Adrienne L. McLean explores the curious pairing of classical and contemporary, art and entertainment, high culture and popular culture to reveal the ambivalent place that this art form occupies in American life.


I have never yet given a lecture on ballet, especially in the provinces, when
someone has not asked me if the films could not make an important con
tribution to ballet. It is a natural question since there is more demand
than supply, and ballet in tin cans could reach the smallest village.…
This is not a question that can be answered very easily.
-Arnold Haskell, 1951

Ballet stands like a colossus bestriding the world of dance.

-Wendy Buonaventura, 2003

[I]n general, people don't know about ballet from seeing it.… People
know about ballet from the movies.

-Joan Acocella, 2004

The 1953 MGM musical The Band Wagon stars Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse as professional dancers named Tony Hunter and Gabrielle Gerard. He is an aging hoofer, she a young ballerina, and it has been decided that they must dance together, perform together, in a new Broadway show. The idea is mutually terrifying: each thinks the other the more brilliant, the greater artist; each thinks the other opposed to the partnership; each believes that they will look ridiculous together. He is afraid that at the very least she is much too tall for him. So when they meet for the first time, at a cocktail party, he covertly examines her feet and says, “Pretty shoes—do you always wear high heels?” To which she responds, “No, not always. Sometimes toe shoes.” He mutters under his breath and changes the subject.

I am a big fan of The Band Wagon as a classical Hollywood musical, as a Fred Astaire film, or as part of the oeuvre of auteur-director Vincente Minnelli, but this scene has always made me cringe. Partly it is just because I

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