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Pop culture is a short term defining what the mainstream public deems popular. Specifically, songs, plays, visual arts, movies, television shows, celebrities, and so many other artistic and innovative ideas and attitudes can fall into the realm of “pop culture.”

We would like to take a look at some points when ballet and pop culture collide.


1. Billy Elliot

This movie from the year 2000 is a story surrounding a family of men living without any female influence during the 1984 strike against the closing of the British coal mines. Young Billy, age eleven, is forced to take boxing classes at the local community center but soon he realizes he would much rather be in the ballet class. When he is found out he is ridiculed and his sexual nature comes into question even though he is only a boy.

The community center dance teacher recognizes Billy’s natural abilities and convinces his father to let him compete for a chance to attend the Royal Ballet. This sweet film never touches on the sexual orientation of Billy even after he is a successful ballet dancer.


2. White Nights

Mikhail Baryshnikov, the very face of the marriage of ballet and pop culture, plays ballet dancer Nikolai Rodchenko who has defected from the Russia to the United States. While on his way to perform in Tokyo his plane has engine trouble and he is forced to land in Siberia. Once Nikolai is recognized by the KGB as a defector of Russia, the chief officer contacts American dancer Raymond Greenwood, who is living there after he defected to the Soviet Union.

The friendship between the two men takes times to develop but once it does they are thick as thieves. Raymond learns that his wife is going to have a baby and he decides he doesn’t want that child to grow up in Russia. So the trio plan to escape and two are successful while one gives up their freedom to save another.


3. Black Swan

One of the most famous movies about ballet in the last few years Black Swan has received critical acclaim. Natalie Portman plays a ballerina who dances for the New York City Ballet. Like most dancers, Nina, Portman’s character, lives for the dance and not much else.

This dancer lives with a pushy mother who also was once a ballerina. When the new season approaches Nina becomes the director’s choice to play the lead in Swan Lake, yet he meets a new dancer to the company Lily, who is played by Mila Kunis. Leroy, the ballet company director is impressed with Lily and her abilities to create the Black Swan side of the main character in Swan Lake. Here is born a rivalry and a friendship that allows Nina to investigate the darker side of herself.


4. Center Stage

Also released in the year 2000 this teen movie centers around the art of ballet and this film introduces us to twelve young dancers auditioning for a coveted spot with the American Ballet Academy. The best dancer, Cooper is rivals with the school’s director and choreographer Jonathan. This feud is based on the fact that Jonathan stole Kathleen, another dancer, from Cooper.

Maureen who is impeccable struggles with an eating disorder. Jody is driven but has bad feet that get in the way of her dreams of stardom. The movie follows the ballet dancers through love and tough decisions. Maureen leaves the ballet and settles for a quieter life at a University, Jody is offered a spot in the American Ballet Company, while Cooper starts his own dance company with the backing of a wealthy female humanitarian of the arts.


5. First Position

This work that made its way into pop culture is the first on our list that tells a ballet story in documentary form and not fiction. The makers of First Position take us on a journey through the world of children’s ballet to follow six young dancers as the get ready to compete in the Youth America Grand Prix. This is a yearly contest where dancers between the ages of nine and nineteen do their best to earn a position in an influential ballet school or company.

We watch as these six children, all hailing from diverse backgrounds, train to be the best. The films name First Position is a standard position of the feet during ballet dancing.


6. The Red Shoes

Released in 1948 this film is the story of Vicky Page, loves ballet and she is smitten with a composer rising in the world of dance Julian Craster. We also follow the life of director Boris Lermontov. Boris promises Vicky that she will dance but he will have control of the rest.

So Vicky becomes a famous prima ballerina but one Lermontov finds out Vicky and Julian have been romantic he gives her an ultimatum, it is either the ballet or Julian. Vicky chooses her love and they marry, much to the dismay of Lermontov. After she is married Vicky starts to miss being a dancer and is given a chance to dance “The Red Shoes” show once again.

Even though Vicky tries to resist but she is eventually sways by Lermontov and this decision subsequently causes strife in her marriage with Julian.


7. The Company

Another work that converges the world of ballet with the silver screen is The Company, released in 2003. It stars Neve Campbell and James Franco who play lovers. Loretta, played by Campbell, hopes to become a primary ballerina with the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago.

Still, being a professional dancer is a lot of work and the requirements wear on her. She begins dating Josh, played by Franco, who has no ties in the world of ballet. This dramatic film touches on other character’s lives including the director.

Original members of the Joffrey Ballet dance in the numbers seen in the film.


8. Mao’s Last Dancer

This Australian film released in 2009 is set in a Chinese village. Li Cunxin is an eleven-year-old who has been selected by the Communist Party to study ballet in Beijing at Madame Mao’s Dance Academy. This opening takes our hero on a journey and Li finds himself years later in Houston as part of an educational curriculum focusing on ballet and the arts.

He meets ballet dancer Elizabeth Mackey and they fall in love. When the Chinese government requests Li to return he marries Elizabeth and defects to the United States. Li and Elizabeth move to Florida but their marriage falls apart. Li eventually returns to China to perform and Li finds himself coming full circle when he visits the village where it all began.  


9. The Turning Point

Released in 1977, this film stars Shirley MacLaine who plays DeeDee, a professional dancer who is forced to quit her position at the ballet company. Having been dancing with the company for quite some time, when realizes she has become pregnant with fellow dancer Wayne’s baby, played by Tom Skerritt.

The two get married and move to Oklahoma City to run a school of dance. Anne Bancroft plays Emma, who stays in New York and achieves status of prima ballerina. When the company comes to Oklahoma City DeeDee takes her children to go see the performance. Emma and DeeDee become enemies throughout this film and each struggles with life choices.


Cover photo is of Chaplin, the German fusion of the pop culture character with ballet – click here for more information!

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