When COVID-19 shuttered the United States, the performing arts were hit hard, especially ballet. Few dancers have space to dance if they’re unable to go to studios or theaters, and they can’t practice a “pas de deux” (partnering dance) while social distancing!
Unfortunately, some noteworthy anniversaries landed in 2020, like American Ballet Theatre’s (ABT) 80th anniversary. Its spring-summer and fall seasons, which were to feature special performances and events, were canceled. Virtual events can’t replace dancing for ballet dancers.
In honor of ABT’s tragically canceled 80th anniversary season, I am exploring two classic ballet movies: “The Unfinished Dance” (1947) and “The Red Shoes” (1948). Although one is American and the other British, both films show that ballet dancers must dance.
In “The Unfinished Dance,” a ballet company school student, young Meg Merlin (Margaret O’Brien), prefers watching prima ballerina Ariane Bouchet (Cyd Charisse) dance to going to class. When famous ballerina La Darina (Karin Booth) arrives to star in three productions, Meg hates to see her beloved Ariane outshone. She decides to shut off the lights during a performance to humiliate Darina. However, she accidentally opens the trapdoor instead, causing a horrible accident that teaches Meg, Ariane, and Darina about dancing, love, and forgiveness.
In “The Red Shoes,” composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring) learns that his professor stole his music for a ballet score. However, after telling impresario Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) that he is the real composer, he is hired as the Ballet Lermontov’s orchestral assistant. Meanwhile, lovely ballerina Victoria Paige (Moira Shearer) meets Lermontov at a party, and he hires her. After the prima ballerina (Ludmilla Tcherina) retires to get married on tour, Vicky stars in the new ballet “The Red Shoes,” and Julian writes the score. Vicky’s performance launches her career, yet Lermontov resents her romance with Julian. She must choose between dancing and love.
British Versus American Classic Films
Before 1968, Hollywood had no rating system. From 1934 to 1968, the Motion Picture Production Code dictated the decency of American films. The Production Code Administration (PCA), which enforced the Code, determined acceptable content. No film could be released in the United States without a PCA Seal of Approval, which ensured acceptability for everyone. This standard was maintained from 1934 to 1954, when Joseph I. Breen, the head of the PCA, effectively enforced the Code.
Not all 1934–1954 movies achieved these decency standards. Only American films were self-regulated by the PCA. British films were supervised by the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC), a panel of filmmakers formed in 1912 as industry self-regulation to avoid uncontrolled censorship. With no written guidelines, the BBFC was vague about what it allowed and what it forbade. After T.P. O’Connor became the BBFC’s president in 1916, he clarified by listing 43 issues that frequently required deletion.
Although both the PCA and the BBFC were created to self-regulate the industry, only one truly did. Since America’s PCA reviewed films pre-production, eliminating objectionable content, post-production editing was minimal. In contrast, the BBFC rarely reviewed content pre-production (although more filmmakers began seeking advice about scripts after World War II). The BBFC usually just screened and cut completed films. Even when regulated by an industry-created board, this practice was censorship, which never creates the kind of decent entertainment that self-regulation can.
Although the PCA approved many foreign films for American distribution, these do not contain the level of decency found in American films. The difference is obvious in these ballet films. Beyond moral objections, the British film’s general darkness sets the movies apart.
Toe Shoes on Celluloid
“The Unfinished Dance” was one of Hollywood’s first ballet films. Leading lady Cyd Charisse began studying ballet at age 6 to bolster her health and loved it immediately. At 12, she began studying in Los Angeles with ballet greats Adolph Bolm and Bronislava Nijinska. At 14, she auditioned for the Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo, was hired, and toured with the company in Europe. In Paris, she married dancer and choreographer Nico Charisse, who had taught her years earlier in Los Angeles. They relocated to Hollywood when the Ballet Russe disbanded during World War II.
Karin Booth, though, was not a ballerina, so a double was used. However, she had “always danced a little” and once took a lesson with Mia Slavenska. She trained daily with David Lichine, the film’s Russian choreographer, to look convincing in close shots, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Nine-year-old Margaret O’Brien had danced since she was a “baby.” She took to the Russian dancers’ instructions eagerly, especially enjoying working with Mr. Lichine. She did all her own dancing, including the pointe work.
“The Red Shoes” is acclaimed for featuring real ballet dancers. Leading lady Moira Shearer was an up-and-coming ballerina at England’s Sadler’s Wells dance company. Robert Helpmann, the Australian dancer who played Ivan Boleslawsky, Ballet Lermontov’s “premier danseur,” recommended her to filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Having worked with her at Sadler’s Wells, he knew she possessed the beauty, acting talent, and ballet technique required. After a year, Moira reluctantly accepted the part, according to Adrienne L. McLean’s 1987 article in Dance Chronicle.
The Ballet Lermontov’s resident choreographer and character dancer, Grischa Ljubov, was played by Leonide Massine, a renowned Russian dancer and choreographer who choreographed his part in “The Ballet of the Red Shoes.” The rest of the 17-minute ballet sequence was choreographed by Helpmann. The company’s original prima ballerina, Irina Boronskaya, was played by Ludmilla Tcherina, a French ballerina whom Michael Powell cast, history and media scholar Mark Connelly says, because of her “unconventional beauty.”
Dancers Must Dance
To professional ballet dancers, dancing is more than a job. It is their life. Both these movies emphasize how vital dancing is to ballet dancers. In “The Unfinished Dance,” Mr. Paneros (Danny Thomas), Meg’s temporary guardian, tries to convince Meg that she should quit ballet. She solemnly says, “If a dancer can’t dance anymore, she just dies.” In “The Red Shoes,” upon first learning that Vicky is a ballerina, Lermontov asks her, “Why do you want to dance?” She responds, “Why do you want to live?” Lermontov answers, “Well, I don’t know exactly why, but I must.” Vicky simply replies, “That’s my answer, too.”
Compare these two films to observe their artistic and moral differences. While “The Red Shoes” features more classical ballet excerpts, its lack of self-regulation is obvious. “The Red Shoes” shows a ballerina torn between art and love, ultimately driven to self-destruction. The tragic conclusion darkens the whole film, turning a story behind ballet curtains into a melodrama that influenced later films about disturbed ballerinas.
In contrast, “The Unfinished Dance” depicts a ballerina who overcomes a devastating accident to find fulfillment in teaching. While in a foreign film, Darina might have gone mad or killed herself, this Code film shows her finding contentment in mentoring Meg. While one ends with bleak symbolism, the other shows the redemptive powers of forgiveness.
“The Unfinished Dance” begins with the following dedication: “Long before people sang, they danced. Out of their dancing grew a new world, strange and wonderful—the world of ballet.” I hope that, while stages remain empty, viewers can instead enjoy classic films about dance and that today’s ballet dancers, like Darina, can find contentment in other aspects of ballet besides performing until they can take the stage again!
Tiffany Brannan is an 18-year-old opera singer, Hollywood historian, travel writer, film blogger, vintage fashion expert, and ballet writer. In 2016, she and her sister founded the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society, an organization dedicated to reforming the arts by reinstating the Motion Picture Production Code.