Celluloid Swans

A ballet is a living, human text, and its language a silent, abstract system of movement. For an art form that has historically been handed down from dancer to dancer, or from “leg to leg” as Russians say, the filming of ballet has been met with both welcoming acceptance and serious skepticism. It is an ongoing challenge to translate an ephemeral three-dimensional art form into a two-dimensional one (though Wim Wender’s 2011 3D dance film “Pina” shows great promise for the future of dance on film).

When coming up with the Fall 2012 Slavic film series “Celluloid Swans,” I was interested in these tensions between ballet as a live, fleeting, centuries-old art and film as a “fixed” and relatively young artistic medium. While filmed ballets tend to pale in comparison to the thrill of live performance, they are nevertheless an extremely useful tool for both dancers (to learn choreography) and scholars (to study dance history).

My own background as a ballet dancer and my current academic interests in dance history came together in the theme for the film series. I attempted to show a variety of genres of what could be considered a “dance film”: from documentaries (Geller’s “Ballets Russes”), to filmed full-length ballet productions (Ratmansky’s “Bolt”), to feature films (Uchitel’s “Giselle’s Mania”). I also tried to strike a balance between films with which a general audience would be familiar, such as Powell’s beloved “The Red Shoes,” and those perhaps less familiar, like Bauer’s bizarre and haunting early silent film “The Dying Swan.” If I could do the film series again, I would probably include fewer documentaries and would try for greater thematic coherence amongst the films.

- Elizabeth H. Stern