SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- Episode 1578 "Bryan Crantson" -- Pictured:… (Dana Edelson/DANA EDELSON…)
Brutal vocals and thrashing hair are staples in the music videos of the hard-driving rock band Shinedown. But for his swooping, emotional ballad “Second Chance” — the band’s biggest hit — lead singer Brent Smith wanted something else.
He wanted a ballerina.
“I dreamed about it. I kept seeing a young girl dancing,” Smith said in a recent phone interview from Thousand Oaks, Calif., where he was working on Shinedown’s fourth album. “Seeing she had an amazing talent as a dancer. . . . And she decides she’s going to go for it, no matter what.”
The result is a startlingly different frame for both ballet and the rock band — and one that refreshes them both. In the video, Smith appears as a kind of grungy guardian angel for a teenage girl who contemplates leaving home to pursue a dance career. Wearing black leather and a nose ring, he bellows about independence and resolve, while she’s in toe shoes and leg warmers, turning crisp pirouettes in a dusty garage.
“It was kind of [gutsy] when we did it,” Smith said. “Everyone was like, ‘You’re going to do what for the video? O-kay.’ ”
Rockers live to provoke, so getting grief in the planning stages of the video was red meat to Smith and his bandmates. It’s a good thing, too; Shinedown turned its most successful song into a moving exaltation of ballet — and created one of pop culture’s most attractive ballet moments in recent years.
And there is more where that came from. Ballet fans, meet your guitar heroes. Pop musicians, unbound by the traditions that confine ballet as much as preserve it, are increasingly turning to the art form for inspiration and finding new ways to do what so many ballet companies yearn to do in their quest to keep audiences: plug it in to contemporary life. At least for three minutes.
The “Second Chance” video came out in 2009. Since then, ballet dancers have cropped up in pop music videos and live concerts of all genres, adding instant theatricality, class and a whiff of mystique to the usual glitzy, highly produced showcases.
A few examples: This winter, American Ballet Theatre soloist Misty Copeland joined Prince at Madison Square Garden and New Jersey’s Izod Center to dance during his “Welcome 2 America” concerts. (She had also been featured in his “Crimson and Clover” fever-dream video.)
A throng of tutu-clad ballet dancers surrounds rapper Kanye West as he reflects on what a cad he’s been in the song “Runaway,” in his short film of the same name; it’s as if the dancers’ purity draws the confession out of him.
Dressed in trailing chiffon and satin toe shoes, British pop star Cheryl Cole ups her glam factor with some bendy, arm-fluttery moves in her “Promise This” video. A winged ballerina joins the eclectic indie band MGMT on the surreal set of “It’s Working.” And last week at Verizon Center, backup dancers in ballet garb performed with hip-hop and R&B singer Nicki Minaj, in her supporting act for Lil Wayne.
What we’re seeing is a turning of the tables. In pop music’s realm of the outrageous, ballet’s highbrow conventionalism has come to seem attractively alternative. There is a certain surprise factor in seeing a ballerina in a music video. That has to do with what ballet symbolizes in the broader public — high culture, money, old fogies. But the most provocative uses of the art form capitalize on ballet’s ability to express the ineffable. If your song is deeply emotional, if it describes yearning, regret, unrequited love or tragedy — well, that is ballet’s native ground. Any ballet dancer worth her salt can up the ante on yowled pain.
West, no stranger to high fashion and fine arts, knows something about this — the pitfalls of being a volatile celebrity, the balm of beauty. Explaining why he wanted ballerinas in his video, West told MTV News: “I was just moved by the classic dance, and I just wanted to crash it against the pop music.”
But there is more than irony at work in West’s “Runaway” minimovie, his 30-minute reverie on persecution and escape. As in the “Second Chance” video, West captures a view of ballet you rarely see in the theater — a raw, honest, unvarnished side. The ballet sequence was filmed in the cracked cement surroundings of a Prague airplane hangar. But even though the dancers — barelegged, no makeup — are a world away from the opera house, there’s still something dignified and elevating about them. With their silent labors as his backdrop, and perhaps his conscience, West pours out his heart.
Neither the rapper, who directed the film, nor Czech-Nigerian choreographer Yemi Akinyemi focuses on the fragility that is ballet’s common currency (think “Swan Lake” or “Giselle”). Instead, they show us power.