How the Classical Ballets of Amazon's 'Birds of Paradise' Mirror the Thriller's Plot

In case you were wondering what 'Romeo and Juliet' has to do with a cutthroat dance competition.

diana silvers and kristine froseth in birds of paradise
Amazon Studios

This article contains major spoilers for Birds of Paradise.

For a movie about ballet, there’s not a lot of dancing in Birds of Paradise. What there is is a lot of talk about ballet that might leave those who haven’t bandaged their bleeding feet in a dingy Parisian boarding school scratching their bunless heads.

The fundamentals of Sarah Adina Smith’s Birds of Paradise, based on the novel Bright Burning Stars by A.K. Small and streaming now on Amazon Prime, may seem familiar: two ballerinas battling for the top spot of their institution through a series of mind games and betrayals. It’s even littered with the same cliches as that other bird-named dance thriller: a brutal director (Jacqueline Bisset), a bad girl corrupting her straight-ribboned peer, an overbearing mother (Caroline Goodall) and abundant sexual tension. But while Black Swan narrates its action through one ballet (Swan Lake), Birds of Paradise stages multiple classical works over its runtime.

The dancers of Paris’s finest boarding school compete for The Prize: a contract for one male and one female student to dance with the Paris Opera Ballet. Kate (Diana Silvers) is new to the school from the US, but her fiercest competition is Marine (Kristine Froseth), or M (short for "Marionette," to the many people who puppeteer her). The young dancers are sent home one by one until only 10 remain to perform for The Prize, when students are paired up to perform a pas de deux from Romeo and Juliet.

As every highschooler across the country can attest, the plot of Shakespeare’s most popular play needs no explanation. Its implementation in Birds of Paradise, though, is a bit more perplexing. While one could call M and Kate star-crossed lovers, the relevant theme is death.

Try as M and Kate might, the school’s tournament will only reward a job to one female dancer, so M takes the metaphorical knife and sacrifices her chance at winning The Prize for Kate. Although none of the duos performing at the competition actually feature Prokofiev’s score from the Romeo and Juliet ballet (instead, it's the pulsing beat of Chromatics’ “Whispers in the Hall”), M’s solo performance does—fittingly, the track played during Juliet’s death. Kate wins, but doesn’t realize until three years later that her passion died that night next to M’s career at the Paris Opera Ballet.

diana silvers in birds of paradise
Amazon Studios

Another piece of classical dance featured in Birds of Paradise is Giselle, a French masterwork from the mid-19th century that Kate and M score box seats to halfway through the film. The girls try to distill some of the ballet’s plot to viewers through a momentary reenactment (Kate: “Giselle! My love! Don’t go!” M: “I must leave you or my heart will ache for all of eternity!”). What they leave out is that Giselle is the tragic tale of an ill peasant who falls in love with an already engaged prince. When the heroine discovers her love’s impending nuptials, she dances so hard that she dies. In act two, the prince visits Giselle’s grave where an army of undead, man-scorned women called Wilis plan to murder him. Giselle rises to protect her beloved prince to bittersweet results (spoiler: Giselle stays dead, the prince stays alive).

Love, passion, death. The classics the girls encounter while at the school repeatedly invoke the sinister spectre of loss, but unlike Juliet, Giselle’s heroine lasts a bit longer than her funeral. After all, what’s more powerful than passion? A passion that raises the dead, of which Kate and M are well acquainted. M confides in Kate that she keeps dancing to revive the spirit of her dead brother and Kate reveals she does the same for her late mother. More significantly, the two repeatedly battle the scythe of their school, their own Wilis army that massacres ballerinas’ dreams with cruelty and misogyny (“What makes a perfect prima ballerina is total submission,” a fuckboy dancer tells Kate). M manages to flee, but Kate falls victim.

When they meet again years after The Prize, M eulogizes, “Blessed is she who falls. Blessed is she who rises again.”

This platitude is delivered outside the theater after Kate performs the titular role in Firebird. This early 20th century work, scored by Stravinsky and choreographed by Michel Fokine for Paris’s Ballets Russes dance company, portrays the story of a flock of mythical birds. One is captured by a lovesick man, who plucks one of her feathers. The feather will call the bird to his service should he need it, which he does when he gets into a pickle with an evil sorcerer. She helps him defeat the sorcerer and is then released from him, but the ballet’s finale is more concerned with the fate of the man and his rekindled love.

Kate’s flame is fading, her feathers plucked by the ballet world and its cruel politics. But her stolen plumage is the consequence of what she first stole from M.

“You really forced me to face myself,” M tells Kate. “And I feel free now. I hope you find that too.”

M has moved on to choreographing at a Euphoria-esque glitter and neon club, Jungle, where partiers must consume a psychedelic worm to enter and watch ballet. The final ballet of the film is one choreographed by M, with Kate in the lead. It’s inspired by a story Kate’s father once told her about gods covering the Earth in a blanket, blocking out the sky and leaving the planet’s animals in fear. One brave bird flies toward the sky and plucks a hole in the blanket. Then it plucks a million more. The gods are impressed with the bird; they agree to only cover the Earth for half of each day with the now star-spotted blanket.

In the work, Kate flings herself on the floor and pounds the Earth for keeping her there like the corpses of Romeo, Juliet, and Giselle. Her heart beats faster and faster, eventually glowing through her skin. She floats off the ground and ascends into the rafters of the theater, finally free.

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