American Ballet Theatre’s greatest gift to the world is live performance. But not everyone can come see the Company, and many aren’t familiar with the magic that awaits onstage. Films about dancers, though, are a bridge to new audiences: The Red Shoes dazzled audiences in the Golden Age of cinema; The Turning Point introduced a real ballet family and backstage life and films like Step Up mixed ballet and jazz with hip-hop.
When ABT’s stars cross over into popular culture, the impact can be felt not just for years, but decades, as former Principal Dancer Ethan Stiefel knows from starring in the 2000 film Center Stage, now a modern classic for bunheads everywhere.
“We’re talking nearly 20 years later, and it still comes up—within dance and outside of dance,” he said.
Center Stage—a coming-of-age story that mixes teenagers, romance, and the challenges of ballet—featured several leads from American Ballet Theatre. Stiefel had a starring role as the hot-shot, rebel choreographer. Julie Kent was an icy superstar, and Sascha Radetsky was a charming up-and-comer. Gillian Murphy and Sean Stewart danced in the film as well.
Directed by Nicholas Hytner, who would go on to take over London’s National Theatre in 2003, the film captured the urgency of dancers starting out and trying to find their way.
It even made an impression on ABT’s current roster.
“I saw it when I was in high school,” said Principal Dancer Sarah Lane. “Sascha, Ethan and Julie were really stars to me.”
Many years later, Lane herself would wind up on film, too. For the 2010 ballet-horror flick Black Swan, Lane danced as the body double for the central character, played by Natalie Portman, a successful ballerina struggling against mental demons.
Lane’s exposure to the film world—with sets, filming and multiple takes—deepened her love of ballet’s musicality and the excitement of live performance.
“I was able to see the difference of who I am as an artist as opposed to who a film actor is as an artist,” she said. “As a dancer, the thing that helps a lot is music. In the bigger ballets, the music is a driving force in your emotion.”
Ballet films, though, do tend to portray aspects of the profession that aren’t so glamorous or positive. Bloody toes are featured in plenty of close-ups. There’s always a reference to bad dieting habits. And usually, someone is out to steal someone else’s role—or their life in general.
For Lane, the hyper-competitive version of ballet, which is often ramped up for drama on film, doesn’t feel right compared to her reality. “I don’t like the whole cutthroat stereotype where there is this hugely negative competition between dancers,” she said.
Rivalries, though, are minor compared to the dark, twisted flair found in Flesh and Bone, a 2015 miniseries, which though it is not a film was shot so cinematically that it was more than a television show.
The drama, about a talented but troubled runaway with an overly attentive brother, lasted only one season. That, however, was enough to launch the acting career of former ABT Principal Irina Dvorovenko, who played an outrageously sinister Russian prima ballerina.
Flesh and Bone also featured a central ballet with choreography by Stiefel, and it brought Radetsky back to the screen.
More recently, the Russian spy thriller Red Sparrow features ABT Principal Dancer Isabella Boylston, who serves as the body double for Jennifer Lawrence. Though the film is more of a spy flick than a ballet movie, it opens with Lawrence as a Bolshoi-style ballerina who is felled by a horrendous onstage injury and then goes to a super-creepy spy school.
Boylston also gets to dance as herself at the end of the film, when Lawrence’s character comes back from a complicated double-crossing mission and attends the ballet, this time as an audience member.
For the body double work, Boylston danced a version of The Firebird choreographed for the film by Justin Peck. While Russian ballet style is somewhat different than ABT’s, Boylston said she simply tried to convey the character: “Jennifer Lawrence was playing a prima ballerina so I just had to be a prima ballerina. I tried to make it authoritative.”
In the dance sequence, the viewer sees Boylston’s body and Lawrence’s head and shoulders. But still, the actor had to train for nearly four months and learn to dance the entire sequence. That way, her upper body could be added by technology to Boylston’s to make for a believable, convincing scene.
“There was a lot of attention to detail so that it is portrayed with accuracy and integrity,” said Boylston.
In the final scene, Boylston is clearly visible as herself, wearing a beautiful wide tutu and dancing a pas de deux as Aurora from The Sleeping Beauty. It’s a short scene, but the grand opera house adds glamour and richness to the film.
The opera house is actually located in Budapest, but within the film, the setting is Russia. Which in a way connected Boylston back to a dance film that captured her imagination when she was little: The Children of Theatre Street, a 1977 documentary that illuminated the inside world of the Vaganova Academy, associated with the Mariinsky, or then Kirov Ballet, in St. Petersburg.
“That was the most influential on me,” said Boylston. “I was about the same age as the kids who are featured.”
While a documentary about young dancers is inspiring, the addition of ballet into major studio films with popular actresses, like Lawrence, is important because it “brings ballet to a bigger audience,” said Boylston. “People have the idea that ballet is just little girls in pink tutus or they don’t really understand the seriousness of it, the beauty or depth.”
Which is also a reason why she believes body doubles for ballet dancers on film are a good thing. Showing film audiences what ballet looks like at the highest level has been known to spark interest and ticket sales, as it did after Black Swan.
But expecting film actresses to be able to execute the work that ballet dancers spend decades perfecting isn’t going to produce quite the same results.
“No one would think you could become a concert pianist in six months,” said Boylston. “So why is it believable that you could be a ballerina in six months?”
One upcoming film likely to reach children, and ballet lovers, everywhere is Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, a take-off of the classic loaded with effects. Principal Dancer Misty Copeland has the lead dance role, and judging from the preview, the magic of a little ballet will go a long way.
Pia Catton is a writer and editor covering the performing arts. She has written for The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, The New York Sun, the New York Post, and more. Follow her on Instagram @DanceDriven5678.