Filmed versions of classical ballets have been consistently popular since the screening of Don Quixote in 1973. In contrast, the “ballet movie” that follows the staging of a ballet comes in and out of fashion. One of the earliest examples is The Red Shoes (1948), staring Moira Shearer as the ballerina preparing for her first major role. The internal politics of the ballet company, including the often-sexual relationship between prima ballerina and director, becomes the focus of the ballet movie’s plot.

Darren Aronofsky’s thriller Black Swan (2010) revisits this format. Playing on the Gothic doubling present in Swan Lake, it explores the physical and mental strains of a ballerina attempting one of the most demanding roles in ballet. This is an early example of an emerging artistic engagement with the Gothic undertones present in classical ballets, as can be seen in Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty (2012) and ballet adaptations of classic gothic texts like Nixon’s Dracula (2014) and Scarlett’s Frankenstein (2016).

Black Swan and the ballet movie alike depict the physical strain the rehearsal and performance place on the body. A notable example of this is the opening sequence of “breaking in” pointe shoes accompanied by images of bleeding feet and split or missing nails. Indeed, the connection between dance, female sexuality and bodily excess can be traced back to texts such as Anderson’s ‘The Red Shoes’ where the female protagonist is punished for wearing her red shoes to church by being forced to dance in them forever until she has to chop them off. As such, this ubiquitous depiction of bleeding and damaged feet is the visual manifestation of ballet’s Gothic heart. By examining the staging of traditional romantic ballets in conjunction with body horror and psychological thriller elements of the modern ballet movie this paper will make the case that ballet is inherently, archetypally Gothic.

About the speaker

Karen Graham has a PhD in myth and contemporary fantasy fiction from the University of Aberdeen. She has 10 years’ experience in professional services in Higher Education and is currently Senior Faculty Administrator at Strathclyde Business School. She studied ballet, tap, modern and disco from the ages of 3-17 and holds both Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing  (ISTD) and Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) qualifications.

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