Adventures in silent pictures

Makin’ Whoopee, part of Susan Stroman’s Double Feature, from

We haven’t had enough ballet here on The Bioscope. So, just opened at the New York State Theater is Broadway choreographer Susan Stroman’s “Double Feature”, performed by the New York City Ballet. The two parts of the ballet, which was first commissioned in 2004, are “The Blue Necklace” and “Makin’ Whoopee”. Both are inspired by silent movies, blending melodrama with slapstick comedy.

Silent film would seem to be a natural source of inspiration for ballet, and there are examples dotted around. Matthew Bourne’s dance company Adventures in Motion Pictures indicates some of its inspiration by its name, and Bourne has drawn on silent film for sets (Caligari helped inspired his “Cinderella”) as well as dance.

Amy Moore Morton, artistic director of the Appalachian Ballet Company, created and dances the lead in “With Chaplin”, which is none too surprisingly centred on Charlie Chaplin.

In the silent era itself ballet does not seem to have featured that often, but there are some notable exception. René Clair’s sublime Entr’acte (1924) was created as an interlude to feature between the acts of Francis Picabia’s ballet “Relâche”, performed by the Ballets Suédois with music by Erik Satie.

Also from the avant garde, Fernand Léger’s Ballet Mécanique is ballet in cinema form, even if it doesn’t feature dance as such, except the dance of objects and machines (plus a Chaplin figure). It was was created by American composer American composer George Antheil and Léger, though music and film did not come together for many years. So, in that spirit, here’s a clip from the film with music by guitarist Gary Lucas (a Bioscope favourite). Sorry about the faux scratches at the start.

Gary Lucas playing to an extract from Ballet Mécanique

Returning to Chaplin, don’t forget the dance (ballet) of the rolls from The Gold Rush (1925). And indeed you could argue for any number of Chaplin films for their balletic qualities.

Moving to modern silent director, Guy Maddin’s Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2002) is a ballet version of the Dracula story with German Expressionist decor and choreography by ballet director Mark Godden.

A modern oddity is Le Sacre du Printemps (2005), a film by Oliver Hermann which bills itself as a “‘Silent Movie’ to Stravinsky’s ballet score”. Sir Simon Rattle conducts the Berlin Philarmonic on the DVD release, and to judge from reviews it’s something of a challenging experience:

…a pair of albino men in tutus, a godlike black female figure baking tiny people like cookies in her kitchen, nuns, voodoo rituals, walls of neatly-mounted Polaroid snapshots being broken thru with an axe, or people endlessly lost in a giant green maze. Not to mention some very sexual scenes and a roomful of naked figures writhing around which disturbingly hovered between Dante’s Inferno and a Nazi death camp ‘shower’.

Hmm. Let us turn instead to Anna Pavlova, greatest of all ballerinas, who appears in three extant silent films, Lois Weber’s The Dumb Girl of Portici (1916), a feature film drama in which she acts rather than dances; Anna Pavlova (1924), which is a non-fiction film depicting her in various ballet sequences filmed in New York in 1924; plus there is a fragment of film of her dancing ‘Columbine’ on the set of Douglas Fairbanks’ The Thief of Bagdad (1924).

Lastly, it’s worth noting that many of the silent film pianists of today help earn their daily bread by playing for ballet and dance classes. Carl Davis has written for ballet as well as his renowned silent film scores, and it would be interesting to know how silent film musicians view accompanying dance or accompanying the screen, and what the interelationships might be.

Any more examples? Just let me know.

2 responses

  1. Ballet in silents:

    Excelsior, 1913, shown in Pordenone (I played the original music written for the 19th century ballet)
    Mad Love, Bauer (aka The Dying Swan), featuring the eponymous solo danced by a ballerina who unfortunately gets mixed up with a deranged artist who is looking for a really good death to paint.
    And don’t forget Carol Dempster prancing around in SALLY OF THE SAWDUST.


  2. Pingback: The ballet and the film « The Bioscope

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