Ballet is one of the most elegant art forms of entertainment since the 1500s, being one of the most graceful and popular genres of dance throughout the centuries. However, its unfortunate association with prostitution is often swept under the rug and is not as well-known as ballet itself. The short 2D animated film Louise was released in late 2021 at the Visual Communication and Art University Les Gobelins’ YouTube channel. This popular channel releases independent French animated shorts produced in the school. The film was directed by graduate students Constance Bertoux, Camille Bozec, Pauline Guitton, Pauline Mauviere, and Mila Monaghan. The story includes the darker side of the ballet industry in 1895 between the performers and attending patrons, which supports themes that are more controversial to be represented in the animation field. Yet, Louise beautifully and respectfully portrays this taboo topic. For example, the term “behind the scenes” derives from the 17th- and 18th-century theater industry where much darker actions such as murder or violence occurred backstage (Behind). This post investigates the darker themes of live entertainment recognized as taboo and normalized amongst the performers and the community by analyzing the lighting and colors used to contrast the character’s feelings in the animation.
The plot of the film surrounds one of the ballerina performers in a show, as well as the contrast of her relationships with the other ballerinas on her team and the prominent underground prostitution scene between the girls and much older patrons attending in the audience. The main character of focus, Louise, is a young ballerina unable to return her loan of money from another performer, which leads her to resort to prostitution with an interested patron. The specific digital 2D style chosen for this short initially stands out in contrast to the popularity of generic computer-generated imagery (CGI) used today in most entertainment media. The clean line art combined with paint brush textures, as well as the compositions of color and light give the entire short a similarity to a simplified rendition of the impressionist painting style, popular in the 1800s. The employment of this particular style in this animated short replicates the atmosphere and culture represented during the late 1850s. The careful usage of light and dark composition that is consistently used throughout the film is subtle, yet completely persuasive and powerful. The uplifting parties, other ballerinas, and private dressing room scenes are bright and colorful, while the sinister scenes of the short are almost entirely black to highlight the small nuances of hope and the main character.
The uncomfortable sequences of prostitution that occur towards the end of the film are heavily foreshadowed within the progression of Louise’s attempt to repay her ballerina friend. The attitude of the characters as well as the complementary style of lighting treat the subject of bantering with the patrons as a despicable job. The relationships between the ballerina performers and patrons are exceedingly different from one another. The young ballerinas treat and communicate and even laugh with one another as if they were a close family. The scenes encompassing their relationships are full of warm lighting and gentle pastel colors from their costumes, and they constantly appear to be extremely comfortable with one another, expressing their friendship through casual conversation through venting their true thoughts, sharing food, kissing cheeks, and hugging. The scenes depicting the older male patrons, instead, lack color and light. The conversations between the patrons and ballerinas are demeaning and forced, and most often consist of the subscribers flirting with the ballerinas. For example, the expensive suits that the patrons wear are a simple black and white, and the halls branching from the main after-party become increasingly darker the further Louise progresses in search of her assigned patron.
The short film’s inspiration was a direct tribute to the tragic history of the ballerina industry. Erin Blakemore’s article “Sexual Exploitation [Being] the Norm for 19th Century Ballerinas” released on History states that ballerinas were accustomed to this lifestyle and were instructed to cater to the audience rather than themselves during their performance routines. Their costumes were much more revealing than the average female attire in the late 19th century, which drew in a wide audience of wealthy subscribers. These patrons often had enough power over the ballet to make decisions over which ballerinas were able to stay or which ones were fired and were able to help potential talents break into the industry if they were lacking the funds to do so (Blakemore). Famous paintings of performers and patrons by the artist Edgar Degas (1834-1917) provide a real glimpse into the darker window of ballet – many of his paintings depict the subtle abusive gaze of the subscribers and the dancers. Julia Fiore in her article about the French painter states that “although the artist was known to reject the advances of his models, his callousness manifested in other ways. To capture the physicality and discipline of the dancers, Degas demanded his models pose for hours at a time, enduring excruciating discomfort as they held their contorted positions…”. Even Degas himself abused the dancers for his craft, which inadvertently displayed the true emotions of his own desire and objectifying behavior that the patrons possessed (see Fiore).
The darker, lesser understood and known themes such as prostitution in popular and glamourized industries have always been present in society. The contrast between the more familiar and lighthearted side of the industry is usually perceived as the standard lifestyle for the performers, but the darker reality of the business is often dismissed or unheard of. Why is this to be expected? Why are these patrons accustomed to the sexual exploitation and abuse of these young girls in an industry that was not originally intentionally designed to be exploitative? Perhaps the most frustrating issue raised by the animation is a call to reflect on the industry’s current state and its similarities to this darker past. As suggested by the directors of the animation, the ballet industry still hosts these themes of prostitution and sexual exploitation between younger girls and older men with power. Louise sheds light on the controversial topic that needs to be addressed while simultaneously providing the audience inspiration to research the rich history of ballet and the intricate stories of its talented performers.
“Behind-the-Scenes.” The Free Dictionary, Farlex, https://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/behind-thescenes#:~:text=The%20term%20comes%20from%20the,backstage%20(behind%20the%20scenery).
Blakemore, Erin. “Sexual Exploitation Was the Norm for 19th Century Ballerinas”, History.com, A&E Television Networks, 5 Jan. 2018, https://www.history.com/news/sexual-exploitation-was-the-norm-for-19th-century-ballerinas.
Fiore, Julia. “The Sordid Truth behind Degas’ Ballet Dancers.” CNN, Cable News Network, 6 Jan. 2021, https://www.cnn.com/style/article/edgar-degas-ballet-dancers-artsy/index.html.
“Louise – Graduation Short Film 2021.” School of Images GOBELINS: Digital Design, Animation, Print Media Industry, Video and Sound, 17 Nov. 2021, https://www.gobelins-school.com/louise-graduation-short-film-2021.
Poppy Smith is an undergraduate student in the school of Arts, Technology, and Emerging Communications at the University of Texas at Dallas.