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The Power of the “Dream Ballet” in Film

NDEO’s Guest Blog Series features posts written by our members about their experiences in the fields of dance and dance education. We continue this series with a post by Daw Davis Loring, Independent Dance Writer. Guest posts reflect the experiences, opinions, and viewpoints of the author and are printed here with their permission. NDEO does not endorse any business, product, or service mentioned in guest blog posts. If you are interested in learning more about the guest blogger program or submitting an article for consideration, please click her

It is an act of unparalleled artistic bravery to allow an audience to make of your work what they will. The audience has a burning desire to “get it” and quite often they will rifle through the attics of their experience (or the basement) to search for the lost piece of the puzzle, the piece they are certain will make sense of the rest. Amongst the jigsaw pieces scattered throughout the new Netflix original film I’m Thinking of Ending Things, I found the connection that brought director Charlie Kaufman’s movie into sharper focus and led to a deeper understanding of the work: the “Dream Ballet.” More than just an homage to the musical Oklahoma, Kaufman’s dream ballet sequence is the icy core of the film.

The “Dream Ballet” is a clever device utilized by 20th century choreographer Agnes de Mille in 1943 to solve the practical problem of actors who couldn’t dance and dancers who couldn’t express themselves verbally. Her “Dream Ballet” nimbly replaced the actors with idealized dancer versions of themselves, who could work out their own meaningful solutions without the burden of words. De Mille, the niece of director Cecil B. DeMille, and a dancer/ballet choreographer, came to the attention of the creative team Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein when they were looking to create their first joint show, Oklahoma.

Screenshot from the film Oklahoma!

Amidst the ubiquitous Broadway musical revues of the time, which featured a disconnected collection of song and dance numbers (a formula popular since the vaudeville era), the Broadway show Oklahoma (1943) distinguished itself by unifying all of the performative elements in order to serve the story. The show combined dramatic action with songs and dances that expressed character motivations and desires. And Agnes de Mille’s groundbreaking choreography used dance to explore the psyche of lead character Laurey, and to decisively move the plot forward. De Mille’s “Dream Ballet,” filled with Freudian imagery, neatly encapsulated Laurey’s quandary – choosing life with Curley or life with Jud. Curley represented marriage, social approval and a hopeful future, while life with Jud resembled a staircase to nowhere, a choice which would prostitute her – a fate she was desperate to escape. In the climax of the ballet, Laurey’s internal distress manifested itself as a visible storm as she helplessly watched Curley’s murder by Jud during a fight. Shattered, Laurey awakened from the dream as her dream self was carried off by dream Jud, only to find the real Jud ever-present and towering over her rocking chair on the porch of her home.

Like choreographer Agnes de Mille did all those years ago in Oklahoma, Charlie Kaufman uses dance to unify the pieces of his unruly film and to express the life-changing choice facing the main character in I’m Thinking of Ending Things. The film unfolds disjointedly, like a dream. In the claustrophobic car-bound first act of the film, a couple are driving in a snowstorm to visit his parents on their farm. The man, Jake, mentions that he has seen multiple productions of the musical Oklahoma, and that it is one of his favorites. The second act finds his girlfriend, Lucy, uneasily wandering through the barn and farmhouse, which represent the lonely rooms of Jake’s house/mind, intruding upon scenes already underway, laced with meaningful conversations she cannot understand, a worm’s-eye point of view. Pigs feature prominently in most of the spaces as figurines, gruesome farm stories, or even as a ham dinner. Before they leave, Lucy descends the farmhouse staircase multiple times in quick succession, going nowhere as she realizes her only role is validating Jake.

It is in the second act of Kaufman’s film that the audience first sees a glimpse of dancers from a high school production of Oklahoma; teenagers performing a snippet of the love duet between leads Curly and Laurey, rehearsing a series of three lifts as Curley vaults Laurey in increasingly larger and higher leaps – a nod to Agnes de Mille’s choreography in the movie version of Oklahoma (1955). Except, in this rehearsal, performed in a hallway lined with lockers, the teenage cowboy falters and the couple runs into the lockers, all while the aging janitor slowly passes by with his cleaning cart.

Back in the car on the dark ride home, Jake reveals empathy for another movie character he describes as ‘powerful and horribly wronged,’ as he attempts to communicate with Lucy, who by now just wants to go home. She misunderstands or ignores many of the clues he reveals to her, and Jake chooses what he hopes will be the comfort of a familiar ice cream stand, yet another ploy to prolong the evening, as uncomfortable as it remains. Jake, like Jud, wants to be known and resists feeling like an outsider. Both of them want to fulfill the dreams that are ‘dancing in their heads,’ but Jake knows that, contrary to Curley’s claims earlier in the musical, no one mourns for Jud Fry when he falls on his own knife.   

It is in the final act that the film reassembles the fractured pieces of Jake’s personality and the film crystalizes as a Jud’s-eye-view of Oklahoma. In the Rogers and Hammerstein musical, Jud’s world is filled with folks who would prefer he hang himself, and the girl he wants likens his attentions to a pig salivating over a meal. Jake, too, feels the world’s coldness toward him, he regrets his wrong turns and no longer believes that things will get better or that anyone will make an effort to understand him. It is the “Dream Ballet” that makes it possible to communicate the conflicts and decisions Jake cannot bear to verbalize.

Lucy finds herself in a high school parking lot, abandoned in Jake’s freezing car. Unexpectedly, after she seeks refuge from the blizzard inside the high school, she finds herself and Jake replaced by their idealized dancer selves. Dancer Lucy flings herself willingly into Dancer Jake’s arms. He lifts her into the same multiple leap sequence and dip practiced by the high schoolers, this time performed smoothly and expertly as the metal water fountains shoot streams into the air and the music swells. Hands clasped, they continue their romantic duet, traveling down an abandoned locker-lined hallway, pausing only briefly to diligently shut the open lockers as their arms endlessly whip overhead in excited loops. Dancer Lucy extends a leg to the side and lunges, reaching across Dancer Jake with both arms. He tenderly lifts her arm to embrace her and carefully lifts her curled form across his body, ending the phrase on his knee in a proposal. Mirroring Oklahoma’s “Dream Ballet,” they are wed as the bridal veil drops into place on her head, but their first kiss is interrupted by a younger version of the high school janitor, standing in for Jud as he roughly pulls her away. The janitor attempts the same dance phrase, except Dancer Lucy’s response is to desperately reach away with both arms taut with fear. He grabs one of her outstretched arms and she breaks away from him only to be slung across his body before she escapes to the gym, where it is snowing.

The two men fight amidst the blowing snow, pushing and kicking each other away as Dancer Lucy watches helplessly. The janitor brandishes a knife and stabs Dancer Jake, killing him, and pulls the distraught Dancer Lucy away to an unknown fate. The original Lucy and Jake slowly approach the dead man on the floor of the gym, covered in snow, having bled red scarves, and they walk away in separate directions. The modern-day janitor dispassionately sweeps up the slaughtered remains as one would collect a mess destined for the trash.

Although connections to Oklahoma are placed throughout the film (the farm, the pigs, the staircase), it is not until the “Dream Ballet”  that it becomes clear the characters of Jake and Lucy are warring aspects of the protagonist’s personality and that the film has been building to this battle, played out in dance. There is a decision that needs to be made, a life-changing decision, and the ineffable beauty of dance allows the protagonist to face his fearsome choice. Just as Oklahoma’s “Dream Ballet” helped Laurey puzzle through her decision, the “Dream Ballet” in I’m Thinking of Ending Things clicks the jigsaw pieces into place for the audience, who realizes that the protagonist of the film is actually the aging janitor. His dream of being loved or understood is lying dead at his feet. He has no other choice but to give in to the welcoming cold.

If you are a fan of Oklahoma, go back and watch it through new eyes, then consider the applications below to help students experience the power of the Dream Ballet in their own work.

I have often used the dream ballet in Oklahoma to connect choreography students with aspects of de Mille’s artistry and to demonstrate how she crystallizes the heart of the movie – Laurey’s choice – in dance. De Mille’s knack for storytelling is further bolstered by her ability to solve problems using dance, in particular, substituting dancers for singers, using movement to indicate horses, and creating compelling choreography for dancers and non-dancers. She seamlessly combined ballet and modern dance elements in her choreography, demonstrating the influence of early modern dance pioneer, Martha Graham, and her training in both techniques. The juxtaposition of de Mille’s Dream Ballet with the condensed version in Kaufman’s film can prompt fruitful discussions about choreographic choices, homage, comparison/contrast, and cinematic framing. Taking the experience further, one could have students create their own Dream Ballet that condenses a story, choice, issue, or problem into a few minutes of choreography. Both remote and live students could practice storyboarding and film their own project to present and discuss.

Dawn is a white woman with shoulder length light hair, wearing glasses, a blue shirt, and is pictured before a wooden background.Dawn Davis Loring has been writing about dance since 1998 and has published articles and reviews in The Boston Globe, The Dancing Times magazine (UK), the Austin Chronicle, and the Journal of Dance Education. She is looking forward to the publication of Dance Appreciation, expected in January 2021, by Human Kinetics, and she also publishes the daily dance history nugget, Today in Dance. She performed professionally in Texas and Massachusetts and directed the dance/theatre company, Mosaic Dance Body (MDB), for over 10 years and she has taught dance for 20 years to adults, youth, and children in situations raging from university technique, live and online dance lecture courses, in-school classes from K-12, to studio classes in several states. As an administrator, she served as the Marketing & Events Oicer for the Step into Dance Program at the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) in London, held the position of Executive Director for the San Antonio Dance Umbrella, and managed the dance program for a private school.

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