- Ballerinas figure prominently in movies and TV, with depictions ranging from spot-on to unrealistic.
- We sat down with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, to discuss 11 of the most well-known ballet scenes, drawing from dance movies like “Suspiria” and “Black Swan” and TV shows like “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.”
- Isabella gives us her thoughts on what makes ballet and hip-hop such a great match onscreen, from movies like “Step Up” and “Save The Last Dance” to music videos like Kanye West’s “Runaway.”
- Having danced for Jennifer Lawrence in “Red Sparrow”, Isabella talks about the important role that ballet doubles play in making A-list actors look like professionals on the big screen.
- Plus, she talks about why ballerinas’ intensive training requires them to be world-class athletes – not the self-destructive, troubled artists you often see in Hollywood movies.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Following is a transcript of the video.
Isabella Boylston: Hi, I’m Isabella Boylston, and I’m a principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre.
We showed Isabella 11 dance scenes from different movies and TV shows and had her dissect them.
Save the Last Dance (2001)
This is the movie that made everyone ask me if I went to Juilliard. [laughing] Oh, my God. Oh, yeah. Bring out the chair, everybody. Bring the props out. Oh, dance double. Oh, my God. Little samba action there, OK. Oh, an aerial. Put some gymnastics in there. They were trying to meld some classical ballet moves with some hip-hop elements. I would say with varying degrees of success. You can tell definitely in this scene when they used the dance double versus not. She does a big jeté, and that’s clearly a professional. Those are called fouettés, when you, like, whip your leg around and pull it in. And those are a pretty iconic and challenging step. You can tell, like, Julia Stiles, her movement is a little more limited. I’m all for a prop if it enhances the choreography. She’s definitely got the attitude.
Step Up (2006)
Little violin action. Well, yeah, I mean, I think they achieved their goal of creating a fusion dance. Is that some, like, coffee grinders? And, like, ballroom, a little jazz chassé. A cabriole, which is a ballet move. That’s when you, like, jump up and, like, beat your legs together in the air. The coffee grinder. You’re, like, down on the ground, and then you, like, send your leg around and, like, jump over your own leg, basically. It is actually really common for us to dance in heels. What’s amazing about ballet is it gives you such crazy control of your body, so I think that makes us pretty versatile. Basically, like, you’ll just rehearse in whatever you’re gonna wear. This is a pas de deux, where there’s two people dancing together. Like a duet, basically. When you’re really synced up with somebody, it’s, like, the best feeling ever. I would say chemistry’s very important. It’s also something that you can fake because you’re a professional. You know, you just have to work a little harder, I guess. One thing that also helps is, like, time with a partnership. I’ve noticed there are dancers now that I’ve been paired with for, like, 10 years, and that’s amazing ’cause you get so comfortable with each other. It just becomes really intuitive.
Centre Stage (2000)
Dance teacher: And one, two, three, four, five, six.
Isabella: Oh, my God. [laughing] It seems a little high budget for most dance academies. It’s just very, like, Hollywood. And they used top-level dancers, so the dance scenes are really well executed. So good. I mean, yeah, that dancer, Ethan Stiefel, Cooper Nielson in the movie, he’s, like, one of my all-time-favourite dancers. Him and Sascha Radetsky also, Charlie, they’re both just phenomenal dancers. Super fun to watch. Oh, my God. The tutu reveal. That’s amazing. It’s pretty typical, like, a lot of ballets have costume-change elements that happen either onstage or offstage. But, yeah, tear-away tutu. That really is iconic.
That’s called a bourrée. When you go up on pointe and your feet are, like, shimmering. It’s a staple of classical ballet. Makes it look like you’re, like, skimming the floor and, like, floating. It’s very ethereal. They appear to be classically trained ballet dancers. The choreography is definitely incorporating, like, modern and jazz. Ballet has very shaped positions of the arms. Like, how many are there? One, two, three, four, five. Basically, everything that we do in ballet, you’re always going through those positions. They’re not doing, like, traditional ballet positions. Those women are not wearing pointe shoes. They’re just wearing flat shoes. The, like, more featured ones are on pointe. I’ve worn flat shoes for more contemporary ballet. Especially, like, the juxtaposition of the more, like, classical movements in front and then the more modern group dance in the back. Ballet is really edgy, in that it’s extreme physical expression of emotions and music. The virtuosity of ballet when combined with another virtuosic artist, it’s a really good match. Especially when, you know, they get real ballet dancers to do it.
Alex Owens: Can I start again?
Isabella: I think that’s kind of unlikely. They don’t really have time for you to be, like, starting over again. You kind of just get that one shot and really hope you’re on that day. Oh, they’re bored. So fierce. I mean, so iconic. This looks like…jazz-ballet-ish. This is definitely not, like, strictly ballet. Leg warmers are not just a cliché. We wear them all the time. In order to, like, not get injured, you have to be so warm all the time, and so that’s why we wear so many layers. Also, love the director or whoever, smoking a cigar in the studio. You can’t do that anymore.
Black Swan (2010)
What she’s doing right now, that’s called a piqué manège. You’re pushing off of your left leg and you do, I don’t know, so many piqués. By the end of the Black Swan pas de deux, you, like, cannot feel your left calf ’cause everything’s just on that leg. They did an amazing job researching the dance elements. The ballet is called “Swan Lake.” In the ballet, the same ballerina plays two different characters, which is, it’s so fun ’cause it’s this dual role. You have the white swan, Odette, who’s very, like, pure and passionate and soulful, and then you get to play the black swan later in the ballet, who’s, like, super flashy and sexy and evil and does these incredible virtuosic feats. So, yeah, it’s, like, the ultimate challenge for a ballerina to play the two roles. Music’s amazing. Tchaikovsky. So, this music is the music for the coda of Black Swan, where you do the, like, iconic 32 fouettés, which is, like, you stay on that one leg and do 32 revolutions. I think “Swan Lake” is still my hardest ballet. It’s a career-long journey. Actually, Natalie’s dance double is a dancer with American Ballet Theatre as well, Sarah Lane. I think you can tell that Natalie did do a lot of work to study ballet, get in shape, and get into the psyche of a dancer. But yeah, you can definitely tell when it is Sarah, the double, dancing. It would be super annoying to dance with wings on your arms. It’d also make the partnering, like, impossible. You’d be, like, slapping your partner with the wing. We wear, like, a tutu that has feather-inspired and, like, feather-ish things on your head. In ballet, I love to see, like, the body. Ballet’s all about, like, lines, and you wanna have, like, long, extended lines. Then you don’t want anything to be cutting and breaking your line. In “Swan Lake,” there’s, like, a special technique that you have to work on with your arms where you emulate the swan with your actual arms. I think “Black Swan” is an amazing horror film, and it’s a fantasy. It’s not a documentary about what it’s like to be a dancer. It’s not that interesting to watch the movie about the, like, happy, well-adjusted ballet dancer. It’s more interesting to watch a movie about, oh, you know, someone who’s, like, falling apart or unhinged. It’s important to remember that ballet dancers are world-class athletes, and in order to do that, like, you have to just, like, take care of yourself.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (2018)
Oh, I know that dancer from Instagram. I’ve seen, like, water onstage before. It looks like it was inspired by a dance film that I saw from a few years ago. A similar wet look. ‘Cause it’s a lot more, like, grounded, a lot more plié, which is bent legs into the ground. Yeah, you can tell that Kylie is, I mean, she has beautiful lines. It’s super impressive that he’s not a dancer. He definitely looks like it. He’s ripped. Looks like he’s been working out. The partnering mainly involves her using his body to hold her own weight up. So the partnering is almost more coming from her, which probably made it easier for him to execute as not a professional dancer. But it looks really good. It makes ballet more accessible to, like, a new audience, and, obviously, they used a professional dancer and made something really beautiful.
Frank Reynolds: I get it.
♪ Take me to emotion, I want to go all the way ♪
Isabella: Oh, did Carly Rae Jepsen do the music? I am obsessed with Carly.
♪ Take me all the way ♪ ♪ I wanna cut through the clouds, break the ceiling ♪ ♪ I wanna dance ♪
Isabella: Oh, my God, I love this song.
♪ You and me alone ♪ ♪ I wanna cut to the feeling ♪
Isabella: They wanted to cut to the feeling in the 1880s.
Victor: That really is my girlfriend.
Isabella: That’s what my husband says when I’m up there.
♪ I wanna cut to the feeling ♪
Isabella: Yes, layouts. That was really cute. I’m feeling the white tights with the red shoes. Very festive. Those animated ballerinas had major style. They were really, like, bending with their bodies and, like, leaving their head back. Just very full-bodied movement, not stiff and rigid. They must’ve based that off of a real dancer, I would imagine. They’re really flexible, too. Like, more than me. [laughing] I love to see that when I go to a performance, and I think they definitely captured that. Must’ve been the inspiration from Carly. At the time of the 19th century, I would think ballet was purely to classical music. I think nowadays people are used to seeing, like, ballet to pop music or anything.
It’s definitely modern dance. It’s not classical ballet. But I think a lot of modern dance techniques, like, there is, like, a real classical rigour to that training. So, yeah, it might look casual or abstract, but there’s actually so much training that went into that as well. It looks to me as though they had a dance double for her for some of the, like, the solo. I don’t think someone who wasn’t trained for many years in dance could execute it like that. You can’t become a concert pianist in six months, so why would you think that you could become a classical ballerina in six months? When, you know, we’ve been training our whole lives for this and it’s still hard for us. One thing, also, that I related to in this movie was the dancers pushing themselves to the brink. I do shows, and it is just sheer willpower to get through it. Basically, the curtains come down, and then I’ve been, like, throwing up in the trash on the side from exertion. Stuff I’ve rehearsed a ton is still, even for the best dancers in the world, it is a true challenge to get through the classics. The choreographer did a really good job making really, like, hard shapes to kind of depict that aggressive witchcraft. What I did like about “Suspiria” was the idea of how dancing could be used to, like, cast a spell or, like, invoke power. ‘Cause I think that is definitely something I’ve experienced in, you know, when you’d really find your flow in a performance. It feels like tapping into something, like, a greater power. I loved that. And then it got real weird. I think they did a great job. They obviously, like, did their research and were very respectful.
Red Sparrow (2018)
Yeah, so I was actually Jennifer Lawrence’s dance double in the movie “Red Sparrow.” That’s my dancing. So this is, like, on YouTube now. I haven’t seen this since, like, the movie came out. Oh, my God. So nasty, ugh. This was inspired by “The Firebird,” which is a great ballet and a role that I’ve done a lot. And the music is by Stravinsky. It’s a Russian folktale, and it’s about, the firebird is a mythical creature. Basically ends up, like, giving a feather to this guy that she meets in the forest. You can see I do, like, fluttering hand movements that I think evoke bird imagery. One move that you can see is called an entrechat six, which is where you jump up and you beat your feet. You jump, it’s, like, a fluttering move with your feet. That’s an arabesque. It’s a very famous ballet move. It’s when you, like, lift your back leg. I mean, it’s more technical than that, but. Kick. That’s a grand jeté. You could do it partnered. Like, there it’s a partnered grand jeté. Jennifer Lawrence did, like, train for a few months, and she basically had to, like, learn the choreography. We would alternate takes. So I would do it, and then she would go just to have her arms and head, like, in the positions where they needed to be. She definitely had to, like, go outside of her comfort zone, but she, like, took it all in stride and was super fun to work with. That is grotesque. So, they had a prosthetic leg. Both of us did that shot to just seamlessly get it all. It’s literally every dancer’s worst nightmare. So, yeah, it definitely made me a little squeamish. I have never heard of that happening in a show. I have seen some pretty heart-wrenching injuries go down onstage. I’ve seen people tear their ACL. I’ve seen calf tears, sublux to knee, shoulder, blown-out ankle ligaments. It’s more common for dancers to have overuse injuries. Dancers are really bad at taking time off when they need to. It was really fun seeing, like, the making of a movie. The tutu was so beautiful. I had, like, three brand-new tutus in case anything happened to the one. The costume budget was a little different than what we’re working with at the ballets. The discipline that you need to be a dancer would probably serve you really well as a spy. I’m not a spy, not yet. Maybe when I retire. Career transitions for dancers.