If you’ve been doing home workouts during lockdown, chances are you’ve come across a ballet-inspired fitness plan from Mary Helen Bowers – the former New York City Ballet star and fitness expert.
Apart from her roster of celebrity regulars including Miranda Kerr and Alexa Chung, Mary Helen also trained Natalie Portman for her role in Black Swan (2010). Culture Trip caught up with the ballerina, who shared her recommendations for the movies that make her want to dance.
Unsurprisingly, Mary Helen lists the 2010 psychological thriller film Black Swan as her favourite dance movie of all time. It “redefined the genre, because it’s scary and creepy, but also super artistic and inspiring,” she says. “I do also have a bit of a bias because I worked on it.”
Mary Helen trained the film’s star Natalie Portman for her role as the protagonist prima ballerina Nina, who slowly unravels under the pressures of stardom. Staying true to director Darren Aronofsky’s style (as seen in Mother! (2017) and Requiem for a Dream (2000)), the movie is beautiful and surreal, yet a gritty assault on the senses.
“Natalie and I trained together for over a year to get ready. She worked so hard; we were doing five hours a day, six days a week,” says Mary Helen, “It was a wonderful experience for me, helping to make sure that her movements and dancing were reading well on camera.”
Mary Helen lists the 1977 dance-drama The Turning Point as a close second favourite. “It’s very 1970s New York dance company vibes, starring Mikhail Baryshnikov and Leslie Browne,” she says.
The movie is based on the lives of real-life ballerinas Isabel Mirrow Brown and Nora Kaye, and follows the lifelong friendship between two dancers who choose different paths – one becomes a professional ballerina and the other gives up her dancing career to raise a family in Oklahoma. The movie scooped several Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actress for a young Shirley MacLaine.
“I think this movie is so fun because it really captures a lot of the reality of the professional ballet scene at the time,” says Mary Helen. “And they hired professional dancers, so the dancing in the movie is also really good. Anyone that loves dance will adore this film.”
The 1985 thriller White Nights is about a Russian ballet dancer who defects to the USA. After his plane crashes in Siberia, he finds himself back in Soviet territory where he is forced to live with an American tap dancer and his wife. The film stars acclaimed dancers Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines, and although the plot is convoluted, the movie is worth a watch just to see the duo dance together on screen.
Mary Helen likes it because “it’s just a great snapshot of what it was like at that time for an artist, and the dancing in the film is fantastic.”
Few films can capture hearts the way British dance drama Billy Elliot (2000) does. Lee Hall’s Academy Award-nominated screenplay tells the story of Billy, an 11-year-old coal miner’s son who stumbles upon a ballet class, only to discover a raw talent that changes his life. “It inspired and empowered a whole generation of male dancers,” says Mary Helen.
Set during the coal miners’ strike of 1985, Billy Elliot is a triumph of social realism in cinema. “It’s a great story because it shows that dance is for everyone. A lot of artists struggle to find their artistic voice, and their path, so I think it’s very relatable in so many ways for so many people,” says Mary Helen.
The 1987 coming-of-age flick Dirty Dancing centres on Frances “Baby” Houseman, a girl on the brink of adulthood, who falls for a rebellious dance instructor while on holiday with her family at an upscale resort. The film seamlessly weaves some very memorable dance moves and cheesy dialogue (“Nobody puts Baby in a corner”) with the hard-hitting realities of classism and racism.
Mary Helen, who was raised in North Carolina where parts of the movie was shot says, “I grew up in the ’80s; Dirty Dancing was filmed in North Carolina, Patrick Swayze was the hunkiest, and the costumes were amazing.”
To learn more about ballet-inspired workouts, visit Ballet Beautiful.