Cinematically, ballet dancing has always been considered the dance of the elite. Like Olympic athletes, performers of the art often sacrifice personal lives, relationships and even physical and mental well-being to perfect their craft. This is why the grace achieved onscreen has often been associated with the horror genre. There’s something about such an obsessive drive to get a dance just right that gels well with the more glorious films of the genre.
The same drive one might have to succeed serves as a perfect metaphor for the struggle against good and evil. Though there are exceptions to the rule, here are just a small collection of films that best celebrate the form – even while leading to the downfall of the protagonist. These films can be violent, or psychologically interesting, but ultimately, it’s all about the dance.
Below are the five best ballet movies in cinema history:
1. Suspiria (1977)
The dance is well on display in Dario Argento’s Italian giallo – considered a classic of the genre. If one can get past the sometimes excessive violence, the film is awash in glorious prime colours, as a young American girl (Jessica Harper) studies and practices at a prestigious ballet academy – which unbeknownst to her is run by a coven of witches.
Suspira was the first in a trilogy of films about the coven by Argento, whose entries spread over the course of three decades, with each being drastically different in plot. Suspiria is easily the best, hailed as a classic giallo. If you can get through the gruesome, terrifying first scenes (often referenced in films such as Scream), you’re in for a treat.
2. Suspiria (2018)
Yes, Suspiria is one of the best ballet movies in cinema history that it appears twice on the list! In a rare feat, the remake of the original classic holds up quite well on its own. Remakes often benefit from scripts that actually detested the original. Luca Guadigno’s remake makes no secret of the coven from the outset, as a young midwestern girl (Dakote Johnson) goes to study at the school during a tumultuous time politically in Germany.
Most notably, actress Tilda Swinton plays two characters, one a male psychiatrist who lost his family to World War II. Always the chameleon, Swinton didn’t reveal she was behind the heavy make-up until well after the film’s release, and she’s downright unrecognizable. The dancing leads way to unspeakable violence, with a twist ending you’ll never see coming.
3. The Red Shoes (1948)
Emmerich Powell and Michael Pressburger’s classic if is nothing if not gorgeous, bot in cinematography and choreography. It’s full of glorious dance performances, overly sweet scenes and a general celebration of the art form. Pressburger and Powell have served as inspiration for directors such as Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg, and their work has never been better on display than in The Red Shoes.
A kind of fairy tale writ large, it’s a glorious experience and examination of the very best of ballet. Roughly following the story by Hans Christen Andersen, it follows a woman offered shoes by dellivish figure. But shoes overtake her, persuading her to dance with every man she sees. When she tries to return them, the shoes overtake her desire to dance. On the surface, it may sound horrific, but it’s truly whimsical.
4. Black Swan (2010)
Darron Aaronofky’s character study is nothing if not a hard watch, as Natalie Portman drives herself beyond obsession trying to be the very best dancer in the world. Perhaps best known for its lesbian overtones, it’s Aaronofsky’s attention to detail – as obsessive as his dancing sprite – that make this picture a fascinating experience.
It’s also a time when Natalie Portman desperately needed to prove herself, after attending Harvard and disastrously having to repeat awful dialogue written by George Lucas in the Star Wars prequels. This is truly a marvel of a film and known as one of the best ballet movies of all time.
5. The Company (2003)
Robert Altman has always explored new territory in interesting ways – films that you never thought could come from the director of MASH and The Long Goodbye. Every film is different and intricate, with a deep personal interest in character more than story. The Company is about a series of stories set among a dance troupe, each completely different from the other.
Producer and star Neve Campbell certainly had an impact on the plot, but the Altman’s matter-of-fact, overhead conversation style of filmmaking makes this one particular earnest and unique. Watching an Altman film is very much like stumbling upon overheard conversation, and this is no exception, allowing an earnestness you wouldn’t get from any other filmmaker.