‘Birds of Paradise’: Young Ballerinas Are Sucked Into a World of Sex, Drugs and Competition
In the spirit of films like “Center Stage” and “Black Swan,” YA drama “Birds of Paradise” immerses the viewer in the world of ballet dancers, a world in which a dance studio is a battleground of sorts. Written and directed by Sarah Adina Smith, the film follows Kate Sanders (Diana Silvers), a former basketball player from a humble background in Virginia who has received a scholarship to study at a prestigious Paris ballet school. There, she experiences baptism by fire, and is immediately pitted against the resident queen bee, Marine Durand (Kristine Froseth), the glamorous but troubled daughter of the American ambassador to France (Caroline Goodall).
Marine, or M, as she’s called, has her own demons. After being at the academy since she was eight, she has recently taken a leave of absences due to a mental breakdown triggered by the suicide of Ollie, her twin brother and dance partner. She initially doesn’t take too kindly to Kate being assigned to her room, but the two quickly become close. Although M’s star has been tarnished somewhat by the time she meets Kate, she’s still poised to win the school’s top prize at the end of the school year, an invitation to join the Opéra National de Paris. Although the head of the academy, the deliciously wicked Madame Brunelle (Jacqueline Bisset), says she can only give “the prize” to one boy and one girl, M makes Kate promise that they will stick together and both win, no matter what. While Kate, an outsider, can use all the help she can get, there’s such a thing as too close.
Although Smith herself does not have a dance background, when it came time to make her third feature, she was inspired by the novel “Bright Burning Stars” by A.K. Small. During a recent Zoom interview with Entertainment Voice, she explained, “I was looking for something that would hook in a wider audience and be a bit more commercially accessible, and at the same time, allow me to explore some deeper themes and still have my artistic stamp.”
A self-described method director, Smith took ballet classes before filming. “I really think it is the pinnacle of athletic achievement that humans can do. It is absolutely stunningly beautiful, and obviously in ballet, the goal is to make it look effortless and graceful, but the process of getting there is anything but. It’s so much pain and so much discipline, and so much focus and control, so I have really deep respect for dancers.”
Through the characters, we see the trials dancers go through, and not just the blistered feet and eating disorders. Kate gets sucked into doing drugs in order to keep up. Sex is also a part of this world, and Kate finds herself becoming involved with Felipe (Daniel Camargo), the academy’s star male dancer and one of the few straight guys the young women come in contact with on a daily basis. He’s also M’s ex, which complicates things, but not in the ways one would think, as Smith has a way of being refreshingly subversive with her characters.
Not all of the excitement takes place at the academy. Early on, Kate and M visit a club called Jungle, which seems more like something out of a fever dream than an actual club that exists in the real world. The scenes in Jungle are among the most striking in film, almost otherworldly.
“I knew I wanted to contrast the world of traditional ballet, which is so much about perfection and control, with something wild, and something free, and something feral,” explained Smith “When I was first looking at ballet as an outsider, it looked to me like these strange mating rituals that reminded me of nature documentaries of birds of paradise, where it’s more often the male bird who has the big tutu and is dancing around the female bird. I thought it was interesting that sometimes in human relationships, it’s flipped on its head, and it’s the females who are adorned and are wearing the feathers and whatnot. I thought it was interesting and curious, and a jumping off point for me to explore human sexuality.”
Smith previously worked with Froseth on “Looking for Alaska.” “I felt like the two of us really tapped in in a deep way together. I was able to help her find confidence in her craft in that piece,” she said of the experience. “It was exciting for me to get to continue that journey with her and write the character of M specifically for her. I wanted to both write to her strengths and get her to the next level in her craft as an actor.”
As for Silvers, Smith was blown away by what she calls “a fire in her belly.” “She was so hardworking and so determined.” Like she did with Froseth, she wrote the role of Kate in a way that was tailored to Silvers’ strengths. Like a real-life dance teacher, she worked overtime to get the best possible performances out of her actors. ”I’m so proud of the craftsmanship of this movie, but the thing I’m most proud of is the work the actors and I did together.”
Although Madame Brunelle isn’t as nurturing as Smith, she has effective methods, even if she is borderline sociopathic at times. She tries to keep Kate in her place by calling her Virginia, reminding her of her working-class background, but she grows to have respect for her determined young pupil, and it’s an intriguing dynamic to watch unfold as this seasoned instructor who we assume has seen it all watches the students she treats as minions defy her expectations.
“Jacqueline Bisset is such a legend,” gushed Smith. “She brings such wisdom, but also sensitivity and creativity to the set. She felt so deeply in touch with her character, to the extent where she was even very involved in picking out her own costumes and even bringing her own costume pieces. She’s just a dedicated craftswoman, and it was inspiring to all of us, particularly the younger cast.”
Watching “Birds of Paradise,” the viewer can see how the last generation’s big YA ballet film, “Center Stage,” served as an inspiration, while also being reminded of the recent series “Euphoria” and even the classic film “All About Eve.” But when asked what inspired her, Smith gave a surprising answer. “The Talented Mr. Ripley’ was probably the movie that I thought about the most, in terms of character, particularly when it comes to issues of class and privilege and obsession.”
All of the drama leads to the climatic dance recital, in which we see not only Kate’s big number with Felipe, but also M strike out on her own for a daring original solo performance. Smith worked with choreographer Celia Rowlson-Hall, whom she praised for being a visionary. “She and I both really speak a similar language of channeling and letting the emotions lead in a very visceral, raw way… For [M’s solo], I told Celia, ‘Choreograph a dance that M does with the ghost of her brother, and let that pain be made plain for everyone to see.’ It’s a violent dance. It doesn’t go easy on the audience.”
Continued Smith, “Hopefully the moral of the movie, and something I’ve learned in my life over time is that you can really only be the best version of yourself. You can’t compare yourself to others. You can’t be someone else’s best version. In fact, we can lift each other up rather than tear each other down in competition.”
“Birds of Paradise” begins streaming Sept. 24 on Amazon Prime Video.