Music videos get a kick out of ballet


SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- Episode 1578 "Bryan Crantson" -- Pictured: Kayne West -- (Photo by: Dana Edelson/NBC) (Dana Edelson/DANA EDELSON / NBC UNIVERSAL, INC.)

Brutal vocals and thrashing hair are staples in the music videos of the hard-driving rock band Shinedown. But for his swooping, emotional ballad “Second Chance” — the band’s biggest hit — lead singer Brent Smith wanted something else.

He wanted a ballerina.

“I dreamed about it. I kept seeing a young girl dancing,” Smith said in a recent phone interview from Thousand Oaks, Calif., where he was working on Shinedown’s fourth album. “Seeing she had an amazing talent as a dancer. . . . And she decides she’s going to go for it, no matter what.”

The result is a startlingly different frame for both ballet and the rock band — and one that refreshes them both. In the video, Smith appears as a kind of grungy guardian angel for a teenage girl who contemplates leaving home to pursue a dance career. Wearing black leather and a nose ring, he bellows about independence and resolve, while she’s in toe shoes and leg warmers, turning crisp pirouettes in a dusty garage.

“It was kind of [gutsy] when we did it,” Smith said. “Everyone was like, ‘You’re going to do what for the video? O-kay.’ ”

Rockers live to provoke, so getting grief in the planning stages of the video was red meat to Smith and his bandmates. It’s a good thing, too; Shinedown turned its most successful song into a moving exaltation of ballet — and created one of pop culture’s most attractive ballet moments in recent years.

And there is more where that came from. Ballet fans, meet your guitar heroes. Pop musicians, unbound by the traditions that confine ballet as much as preserve it, are increasingly turning to the art form for inspiration and finding new ways to do what so many ballet companies yearn to do in their quest to keep audiences: plug it in to contemporary life. At least for three minutes.

The “Second Chance” video came out in 2009. Since then, ballet dancers have cropped up in pop music videos and live concerts of all genres, adding instant theatricality, class and a whiff of mystique to the usual glitzy, highly produced showcases.

A few examples: This winter, American Ballet Theatre soloist Misty Copeland joined Prince at Madison Square Garden and New Jersey’s Izod Center to dance during his “Welcome 2 America” concerts. (She had also been featured in his “Crimson and Clover” fever-dream video.)

A throng of tutu-clad ballet dancers surrounds rapper Kanye West as he reflects on what a cad he’s been in the song “Runaway,” in his short film of the same name; it’s as if the dancers’ purity draws the confession out of him.

Dressed in trailing chiffon and satin toe shoes, British pop star Cheryl Cole ups her glam factor with some bendy, arm-fluttery moves in her “Promise This” video. A winged ballerina joins the eclectic indie band MGMT on the surreal set of “It’s Working.” And last week at Verizon Center, backup dancers in ballet garb performed with hip-hop and R&B singer Nicki Minaj, in her supporting act for Lil Wayne.

What we’re seeing is a turning of the tables. In pop music’s realm of the outrageous, ballet’s highbrow conventionalism has come to seem attractively alternative. There is a certain surprise factor in seeing a ballerina in a music video. That has to do with what ballet symbolizes in the broader public — high culture, money, old fogies. But the most provocative uses of the art form capi­tal­ize on ballet’s ability to express the ineffable. If your song is deeply emotional, if it describes yearning, regret, unrequited love or tragedy — well, that is ballet’s native ground. Any ballet dancer worth her salt can up the ante on yowled pain.

West, no stranger to high fashion and fine arts, knows something about this — the pitfalls of being a volatile celebrity, the balm of beauty. Explaining why he wanted ballerinas in his video, West told MTV News: “I was just moved by the classic dance, and I just wanted to crash it against the pop music.”

But there is more than irony at work in West’s “Runaway” minimovie, his 30-minute reverie on persecution and escape. As in the “Second Chance” video, West captures a view of ballet you rarely see in the theater — a raw, honest, unvarnished side. The ballet sequence was filmed in the cracked cement surroundings of a Prague airplane hangar. But even though the dancers — barelegged, no makeup — are a world away from the opera house, there’s still something dignified and elevating about them. With their silent labors as his backdrop, and perhaps his conscience, West pours out his heart.

Neither the rapper, who directed the film, nor Czech-Nigerian choreographer Yemi Akinyemi focuses on the fragility that is ballet’s common currency (think “Swan Lake” or “Giselle”). Instead, they show us power.

Here is the grandeur of a dancer: Rising on pointe with her arms in full sail, she seems to swallow space. The camera zeroes in on the muscular force it takes to lift a leg to the ear and hold it there. It brings us face to face with the ballerina’s seriousness and strength.

What’s especially rewarding in the videos I’ve seen is how pop music gets ballet right. It treats it with respect, and enlarges it. It shows us something the ballet world doesn’t always seem to realize: Ballet is big. It can tell a lot of stories and speak for all kinds of people.

Ryan Smith, who directed Shinedown’s “Second Chance” video (and is not related to the band’s Brent Smith), auditioned more than 100 dancers on the Gulf Coast of Florida before picking ballet student Alanna Massey to star in it. What he liked best about Brent Smith’s concept was the idea of “empowering a 17-year-old girl to do what she wanted.” Using an iron-willed dancer was a way to get away from “the broken, emaciated, heroine-chic thing — the clothes-hanger kind of girl” so prevalent in popular culture, he said.

And considering that the song is autobiographical — Brent Smith wrote it about his own experience of leaving the nest — a strong character with a solid work ethic was key. Maybe it was Smith’s memories of seeing “Nutcracker” as a child in Knoxville, Tenn., or the ballet he sometimes chanced upon on hotel-room TV while on tour — but the headbanger known for his aggressive sound wanted his alter ego to be a dancer.

“I really wanted to see this girl dancing for her life,” Smith said. “I wanted to tap into the everyday individual, who lives life for the fullest and works really hard.”

Back in 2005, the punkish band My Chemical Romance featured a ballerina (actually, a burlesque dancer in ballet attire) in its Victorian-chic “Helena” video, which takes place at a dead girl’s funeral — a wonderfully over-the-top affair, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” meets Busby Berkeley. Toward the end, the lovely — and extremely hot — corpse rises from her coffin to dance down the church nave, becoming, in effect, a modern-day Giselle, the heroine of the eponymous 19th-century ballet who dies in the first act and returns as a consoling ghost in the second. (Though this was a Giselle who was going to have a lot more fun in the afterlife.)

For MGMT’s “It’s Working,” Paris-based director So Me, known for his highly detailed, stylish work, riffs on the fairy images in so many ballets with a winged apparition of his own, a ballerina who descends from the clear blue sky as if she has dropped out of a music box. This is a fairy with hipster appeal: As the vocals get dreamy, she dances on her toes and comes to rest on the guitarist’s shoulders, while he sports a quizzical look.

And witness West, backed up by a multiracial group of dancers in white tutus for his shortened version of “Runaway,” which he performed on “Saturday Night Live” in October. He achieved what few company directors have dared to do — put black women alongside whites in a clear reference to the “Swan Lake” ideal. You won’t see that in a theater near you. The ballet world has yet to embrace a black swan queen.

But on YouTube, you can watch West accomplish that for the length of a song. It’s gorgeous.

The view of ballet “is very mixed in Kanye’s video, and that’s more relatable to the audience that’s viewing those videos,” said ABT’s Misty Copeland, the dancer who performed with Prince. “But then again,” she said, “if they do come to a ballet, they’re probably expecting to see that, and they’re not going to.”

As ABT’s first African American soloist, Copeland knows something about breaking down barriers in ballet, and she praises West for “opening that door.”

“I think that there’s so much history when it comes to classical ballet — it’s not going to change overnight,” she said. But by “inviting people in and exposing them to the fact that classical ballet doesn’t have to be uptight, I’m hoping that change can happen.”

Ballet out of context can only be a good thing, as the art form tries to find its way in a world in which so much of its tradition can feel foreign and so many of its customs are outmoded. If pop musicians can help sew this esoteric art form into the social fabric, so much the better for ballet’s future.

And ballet can return the favor. At the very least, it helps boost the image of women in general in the pop arena.

As Copeland put it, “In that whole culture, girls are looked down upon. Especially in the hip-hop videos.” In contrast to the usual “video girls,” she said, ballet dancers can’t help but look strong.

“We’re not shaking our butts or doing anything like that.”

Pop music may give ballet sex — but ballet gives pop music class.

Staff writer Chris Richards contributed to this report.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, black boxes, folding chairs and dive bars, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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