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Dying Swans and Madmen

Ballet, the Body, and Narrative Cinema

Adrienne L. McLean

Publication Year: 2008

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.

Published by: Rutgers University Press

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pp. ix-xi

I suppose my first awareness of ballet as something I wanted to do occurred when I saw a performance of Swan Lake in Cairo, Egypt, in the mid-1960s; my English teacher’s daughter was a member of the corps de ballet, and soon afterward I began to listen compulsively to ballet music, especially anything by Tchaikovsky, and to demand ballet lessons. My first lessons took place at ...

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Introduction: Ballet in Tin Cans

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pp. 1-33

The 1953 MGM musical The Band Wagon stars 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...

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Chapter 1: A Channel for Progress: Theatrical Dance, Popular Culture, and (The) American Ballet

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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...

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Chapter 2: The Lot of a Ballerina Is Indeed Tough: Gender, Genre, and the Ballet Film through 1947, Part I

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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...

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Chapter 3: The Man Was Mad—But a Genius!: Gender, Genre, and the Ballet Film through 1947, Part II

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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...

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Chapter 4: If You Can Disregard the Plot: The Red Shoes in an American Context

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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...

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Chapter 5: The Second Act Will Be Quite Different: Cinema, Culture, and Ballet in the 1950s

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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’s The 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...

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Chapter 6: Turning Points: Ballet and Its Bodies in the “Post-Studio” Era

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pp. 215-257

In 1965 and again in 1968, Time magazine 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...


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pp. 259-290


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pp. 291-296


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pp. 297-304

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About the Author

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pp. 305

ADRIENNE L. McLEAN obtained her M.F.A. in Dance as a Meadows Fellow at Southern Methodist University in 1981 and, after an interval of “normal” life, returned to school and acquired an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Film Studies and American Studies from Emory University in 1994. She is currently a professor of Film and Aesthetic Studies at the University of Texas at ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780813544670
E-ISBN-10: 081354467X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813542799
Print-ISBN-10: 0813542790

Page Count: 320
Illustrations: 50 illustrations
Publication Year: 2008