Inside Amazon Studios’ New Dance Drama, “Birds of Paradise”
In the cutthroat world of ballet, ambitious dancers compete to the near-death for a plum contract, a starring role or the hottest hottie, and someone goes a little bonkers—that’s the plot of dance movies from The Red Shoes to Center Stage to Black Swan. Birds of Paradise will add a contemporary twist to the canon when it premieres September 24 on Amazon Prime Video.
Adapted by director Sarah Adina Smith from the A.K. Small YA novel Bright Burning Stars, Birds follows two top-level Paris Opéra Ballet School students—privileged ambassador’s daughter Marine (Kristine Froseth) and working-class scholarship recipient Kate (Diana Silvers)—as they prepare for the year-end concours under the stern supervision of teacher Madame Brunelle (Jacqueline Bisset). At stake: a POB contract for one boy and one girl in the class.
Along the way, the girls go from besties to frenemies while experimenting with sex and psychedelic drugs, coping with grief and loss, and establishing themselves as artists. And, of course, playing Black Swan–style mind games. “I imagine that people in the world of ballet, they must look at ballet movies and go, ‘They really think we’re all crazy,’” Smith said with a laugh during a Zoom press interview this week.
Fans of the book will recognize the main characters and the basics of the story, but Smith had the author’s blessing to go far afield with her adaptation, which was shot on location in Hungary. “I used the book as a jumping-off point to explore the things that were really interesting to me—ambition and libido, grief and pain, and the possibility of peace and redemption.”
The director also wanted the film to reflect a diversity that real-life ballet is still striving for. Her international cast includes actors and dancers of color, as well as Israeli transgender actress Stav Strashko as school administrator Valentine Louvet, a cisgender woman in the novel. “I was interested in exploring gender expectations and identity in this movie, and contrasting the way in which traditional ballet has fairly rigid boxes,” Smith said. “I wanted to see what that would feel like for two characters coming of age, who don’t maybe neatly fit into one box or another and are trying to figure themselves out.”
Choreographer Celia Rowlson-Hall played a crucial role in making Froseth and Silvers convincing as ballet dancers. “My priority was working on their upper body as much as possible, how they held themselves,” Rowlson-Hall said in an interview of the actresses’ two-week, preproduction “ballet boot camp.” “This was the first time they were learning to count music! It was a tall order, and they really gave it their all.” Dance doubles also filled in seamlessly in several scenes.
A supporting cast of professionals like Osiel Gouneo, Eva Lomby and Anastasia Shevtsova enhances the effect, as does savvy partnering by the likes of Daniel Camargo, as romantic interest Felipe, and Solomon Golding, as classmate Luc. “It was really about making sure that the actor felt very guided by the partner, taking it beat by beat,” said Rowlson-Hall. “I make sure that the dancer they’re partnering with is a step ahead, so the actor is being led into the next movement and it really looks like they are dancing together.”
The result is a fun escape and an indulgently guilty pleasure, even though we already know where the story’s headed. “Cinematically, there is something really intriguing about the world of ballet,” said Smith. “It makes for really fertile storytelling.”
Birds of Paradise premieres on Amazon Prime Video on Friday, September 24. Rated R for strong language, drug use, sexuality and violence. In English and French, with subtitles; 93 minutes.