Dancing in the dark

Black Swan is one of a vast number of dance films, but few give such an insight into the darker world of ballet.

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BLACK SWAN, Natalie Portman
Black Swan - 2010
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Black Swan is one of a vast number of dance films, but few give such an insight into the darker world of ballet, writes Jessica Holland

Dance movies are huge right now. You know the drill: a well-behaved girl - perhaps a ballerina, a stickler for the rules or someone who can't dance at all - meets a hunky guy who teaches her a more glamorous version of her art, and a little something about life along the way.

The British film StreetDance 3D, which came out earlier this year, is typical of its kind, although the gender roles are reversed. A street dance crew loses their rehearsal space and are forced to practise in a ballet school, on the condition that they incorporate five ballet dancers into their act. Mutual loathing turns into respect, the group win a competition with their hybrid act, and Thomas, a ballet dancer, finds romance with his hip-hop counterpart Carly.

We've seen this sort of story plenty of times before - the success of the 2006 street-dancer-meets-modern-dance student movie Step Up has already spawned two sequels, and a third has been planned for release in 2012. Before that there was Save the Last Dance, with Julia Stiles as a ballerina who teams up with hip-hop dancer Sean Patrick Thomas and eventually falls for him.

It's no surprise that dance movies are so popular: they've got elements of the classic underdog story, spectacular song-and-dance sequences, conflict and romance, and we all know that everything's going to be all right in the end.

While the street dance movie is relatively new, the 1980s was the time when dance movies ruled the world, with films such as Flashdance, Footloose, Dirty Dancing and Fame showing dance as a way to express yourself, realise big ambitions, find out who you really are and - yes - find love, too.

But alongside this tradition, there runs a darker, deeper seam of films about the world of dance that explore more ambiguous themes: the fragility of the human body; the agony, discipline and competitiveness; fear of ageing.

Darren Aronovsky's Black Swan, it should be made crystal clear, is no feel-good ballet flick, and it's unlikely to inspire hordes of young women to sign up for dance classes. Hitting screens around the world from mid-January, it stars Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers, an obsessively disciplined dancer who is promoted to prima ballerina and given the role of the Swan Queen in Swan Lake.

Caught between her own desire for perfection, the jealousy and mind-games of another dancer who wants her role and her choreographer's demands for more than she can give, she spirals into madness. Shot on claustrophobically close handheld cameras and with surreal hallucinated scenes of horror, it brings to the world of dance the same bleakness and violence that its director brought to his previous films Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler.

This isn't dance as free expression or as a release from the tedium of life; this is dance as gruelling, repetitive rehearsals, bloody bandaged toes, backstabbing ambition and immense psychological strain. (If only there was a nice breakdancer from the wrong side of the tracks who could teach Nina to loosen up a little.)

While few have been as uncompromising as Black Swan, the dark dance movie has a history too. Powell and Pressburger's 1948 classic The Red Shoes ends in disaster, and shows the demands the strictly regulated work of ballet can make on a performer.

"A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love will never be a great dancer. Never," says the choreographer Lermontov to his prima ballerina, who shuns love and eventually gives up her life in the struggle to be a perfect performer.

And, of course, there are some brilliant movies that are somewhere in the middle, without the gore and terror of Black Swan, or the perfectly predictable plot of Step Up 2: The Streets. At their best, dance movies are a metaphor for life, showing that if you put in a lot of boring, difficult work and take a few risks, you might achieve something that you're proud of.

Dance movies

Shall We Dance (1937)

One of 10 films starring Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, this one is about a male ballet dancer who wants to incorporate jazz dance into his shows and the tap dancer he falls for.

The Red Shoes (1948)

A woman is torn between love and her ambition to become a prima ballerina in this Powell and Pressburger classic that borrows from Hans Christian Andersen.

Saturday Night Fever (1977)

John Travolta tears up the disco by night as a temporary escape from his deadbeat job and dire home life in the film that made him a star.

Flashdance (1983)

Jennifer Beals plays Alex: a welder by day and table dancer by night, who dreams of going to dance school.

Footloose (1984)

Kevin Bacon shakes things up when he moves to a small town where dancing has been banned. Ridiculous, but great fun.

White Nights (1985)

Gregory Hines as an African-American tap dancer and Mikhail Baryshnikov as a Soviet ballet dancer team up in this feel-good dance-a-thon.

Dirty Dancing (1987)

Patrick Swayze shows Jennifer Grey the moves in this coming-of-age film set in a summer camp.

Hairspray (1988)

John Waters directs Ricki Lake as the "pleasantly plump" Tracy Turnblad, queen of a TV teenage dance show. It's set in the 1960s so expect plenty of twisting and jiving.

Strictly Ballroom (1992)

Paul Mercurio shakes up the stuffy world of competitive ballroom dancing in Baz Luhrmann's first film.

Billy Elliot (2000)

Stephen Daldry's film about a young miner's son growing up in the 1980s with a passion for ballet was nominated for three Oscars and made a star of its lead, Jamie Bell.