Rittenhouse Square has that look of deep summer—unlighted windows, lots of foot traffic, and heavy heat hanging just outside the restaurant windows. I’m at a table, the second one offered to us, sharing a casual summer dinner in town with neighbors. We discuss the usual things—the heat, the menu, the service, the heat, and our discussion turns to the fall when, as Fitzgerald wrote, it gets crisp and everything starts all over again. So we look to next season’s Pennsylvania Ballet schedule—and it gets interesting.
None of us is a ballet expert. Yet, because we have been fortunate to have the Pennsylvania Ballet in residence within walking distance of our center-city homes, we have become enamored with ballet and are all surely now balletomanes. We’ve seen some great ballets there: Dracula, one Halloween, as well as two different productions of the lovely classic, Serenade. My friends fill me in on this season’s Balanchine and Beyond and I relive an ultra-romantic Romeo and Juliet, with the company’s Romeo proposing to Juliet at the ballet’s curtain. That made for an impossible encore.
I always get this inebriated “it is glorious to be human” feeling at the ballet. How can they do that? I mean could a corps de ballet be more beautiful? I can also get that feeling when I go to the opera—but only during the arias. I’m overwhelmed that the human voice can produce such beautiful sound; I don’t know the language, yet I know where the aria is going because the sound is so right going forward, and I am enraptured; then come the recitatives—and I am lost—I fall back to earth. But there is no recitative at the ballet—dance is beauty upon startling beauty—and I am ecstatic because a ballet on stage is climax upon climax. I am able to remain in constant anticipation at the ballet as the dancers continually excite and surprise me with their gorgeous movements—Arabesque, Tour en L’air, Grande Jeté—posing, flying, and soaring.
What to do between ballet seasons? In the summer heat. Although the movies haven’t been able to replicate that elevated feeling of attending a ballet, there are some fun ballet movies. The underlying logical fallacy in Waterloo Bridge—“Since I can’t be a ballerina, I’ll have to be a prostitute”—makes for a flabbergasting plot device and the hippo ballerinas in Disney’s Fantasia are charming—and chaste. The Red Shoes’ frantic drive mirrors the intensity of ballet, albeit knowing director Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom is just around the corner makes that movie’s intensity a bit uncomfortable. Anne Bancroft, obviously one of the movies’ finest actresses, and as obviously not a dancer, is as commanding as Baryshnikov, a ballet genius, in The Turning Point. The Black Swan tends to be overwrought, but has its moments.
Ballet scores its most compelling screen experience in Billy Elliot because the final ballet sequence is unmitigated movie: Billy’s father and brother ride the tube to his performance, cut to Billy’s father ascending from the tube on an enormous escalator, their wonder, their hurry to be seated in the theater, their past anxieties (Michael), and present anticipations. Narrative movement further compels crosscutting between Billy in the wings and his family in the audience. Since Hermione Baddely was Oscar-nominated for about 2 and a half minutes of screen time in Room at the Top, Adam Cooper already deserves the nomination for the fifteen-second sequence of his back. When we see his face—upside down…“Billy, your family is here”…then pensive, posing to go on stage…determined…the dream…inspired…Billy becomes the magnificent swan. Then admired…his costumed legs…Motion…those two shots of Billy’s bare foot—his foot: “Approach”—Strength to Power; his foot: “Take Off.” Cooper should have gone home with that golden statuette besting both Judi Dench and Beatrice Straight straight into screen history with his leaping one-minute love letter to Ballet.
Because Cooper is as mesmerizing on screen as he is on stage, our watching Billy’s family watch him triumph on screen is just as electrifying for us as for them. When Matthew Bourne’s superstar becomes Stephen Daldry’s Billy Elliot and flies onto the stage and into the film’s conclusion, the final frames of Billy Elliot soar in mid-air. The camera not only translates the exultation of ballet into movie, but also, because this ballet is cinematic, the camera captures and savors it. For Billy—and for us. Bravo!