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Dying Swans and Madmen

Dying Swans and Madmen: Ballet, the Body, and Narrative Cinema

Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Dying Swans and Madmen
    Book Description:

    From mid-twentieth-century films such as Grand Hotel, Waterloo Bridge, and The Red Shoes to recent box-office hits including Billy Elliot, Save the Last Dance, and The Company, ballet has found its way, time and again, onto the silver screen and into the hearts of many otherwise unlikely audiences. In Dying Swans and Madmen, Adrienne L. McLean explores the curious pairing of classical and contemporary, art and entertainment, high culture and popular culture to reveal the ambivalent place that this art form occupies in American life.Drawing on examples that range from musicals to tragic melodramas, she shows how commercial films have produced an image of ballet and its artists that is associated both with joy, fulfillment, fame, and power and with sexual and mental perversity, melancholy, and death. Although ballet is still received by many with a lack of interest or outright suspicion, McLean argues that these attitudes as well as ballet's popularity and its acceptability as a way of life and a profession have often depended on what audiences first learned about it from the movies.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-4467-0
    Subjects: Performing Arts, Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Introduction: Ballet in Tin Cans
    (pp. 1-33)

    The 1953 MGM musicalThe Band Wagonstars Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse as professional dancers named Tony Hunter and Gabrielle Gerard. He is an aging hoofer, she a young ballerina, and it has been decided that they must dance together, perform together, in a new Broadway show. The idea is mutually terrifying: each thinks the other the more brilliant, the greater artist; each thinks the other opposed to the partnership; each believes that they will look ridiculous together. He is afraid that at the very least she is much too tall for him. So when they meet for the...

  5. 1 A Channel for Progress: Theatrical Dance, Popular Culture, and (The) American Ballet
    (pp. 34-61)

    When I first began to study dance history several decades ago, most books on the subject presented the history of ballet as a sequence of more or less cause-and-effect events involving various influential people and a few important dance works. From these books I learned that ballet was European, elite, and popular among the aristocracy from at least the time of Louis XIV, who loved to dance himself and who founded his own ballet schools so that ballet could move from being something performed by amateurs in a ballroom to a form of professional theatrical exhibition. Another of ballet’s many...

  6. 2 The Lot of a Ballerina Is Indeed Tough: Gender, Genre, and the Ballet Film through 1947, Part I
    (pp. 62-103)

    What do the following actors have in common: Donald Cook, Greta Garbo, Eleanor Powell, Fred Astaire, Vera Zorina, Ann Miller, Vivien Leigh, Maureen O’Hara, Maria Ouspenskaya, Loretta Young, Cyd Charisse, Stan Laurel, Tamara Toumanova, Ivan Kirov, and Margaret O’Brien? The answer, for the purposes of this book, is naturally that they all played ballet dancers in Hollywood films. Some of the names on the list are those of actual or erstwhile ballet dancers—Vera Zorina, Tamara Toumanova, Cyd Charisse—who had backgrounds in theatrical concert dance. Fred Astaire, Eleanor Powell, and Ann Miller are also dancers, although they are not...

  7. 3 The Man Was Mad—But a Genius!: Gender, Genre, and the Ballet Film through 1947, Part II
    (pp. 104-132)

    The number of classical Hollywood films with male ballet artists as protagonists can probably be counted on one hand:The Mad Genius(1931), with John Barrymore and Donald Cook, explicitly “based in some respects upon the life and work of Serge Diaghileff”;Shall We Dance(1937), a Fred Astaire–Ginger Rogers vehicle in which Astaire plays a tap-dancing American ballet dancer masquerading as a Russian; andSpecter of the Rose(1946), written, produced, and directed by Ben Hecht, about an American dancer who is purportedly “a genius” but who is also psychotic. In addition, as discussed in the previous chapter,...

  8. 4 If You Can Disregard the Plot: The Red Shoes in an American Context
    (pp. 133-171)

    Hollywood films were representing the profession of ballet with considerable iconographic consistency by the late 1940s, marking it as a form of highbrow art to which its practitioners were fanatically devoted and dedicated, their overriding ambition, whether male or female, to dance and keep dancing. But, as we have seen, often Hollywood’s ballet protagonists either danced not at all (Grand Hotel[1932],Days of Glory[1944]), only a little (The Mad Genius[1931],Waterloo Bridge[1940]), on “hastily tutored toes” (Maureen O’Hara inDance, Girl, Dance[1940], Margaret O’Brien inThe Unfinished Dance[1947]), or with the help of trained...

  9. 5 The Second Act Will Be Quite Different: Cinema, Culture, and Ballet in the 1950s
    (pp. 172-214)

    On October 9, 1949, the Sadler’s Wells Ballet opened its first American season ever at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, with its own opulent full-length production of Tchaikovsky’sThe Sleeping Beauty. Ninette de Valois’ British company was presented by impresario Sol Hurok, who had long been a supporter of ballet as popular entertainment but who had lately been having some bad luck with the companies he handled in the United States. According to one eyewitness chronicler of the event, dance historian Mary Clarke, the “Sadler’s Wells in New York was more than a smash hit. It was...

  10. 6 Turning Points: Ballet and Its Bodies in the “Post-Studio” Era
    (pp. 215-258)

    In 1965 and again in 1968,Timemagazine devoted cover stories to ballet.¹ In the first case, the focus was on Rudolf Nureyev, who had defected in 1961 and had rapidly become one of the biggest male ballet stars the world had seen. His partnership with Britain’s reigning but “aging”prima ballerina assoluta, Margot Fonteyn, made them “the hottest little team in show biz,” the article reports, he a “glittering young prince in the first bloom of creative life,” she the “alabaster beauty of elegant refinement,” a “dying swan in the last flutter of a shining career.” As superstars, Fonteyn...

  11. NOTES
    (pp. 259-290)
    (pp. 291-296)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 297-304)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 305-306)