Since the video became a ubiquitous part of popular music nearly forty years ago, it has sometimes struggled as an art form. The marriage has not always been harmonious: sometimes you have great songs with mediocre videos and vice versa. What I have always appreciated about it, when it does approach art, is that a story or message can be conveyed without the constraint of a script, spoken word, or even the lyrics of the song.
Madonna, who rose to prominence during the early years of the music video, has produced a stunning body of work in both video and song. However, in the last decade, this has not been case; she seemed more occupied with cannibalizing younger recording artists and profitable touring than producing thoughtful work. Mercifully, she has returned to peak form with “Dark Ballet.”
The song and video are essentially a pop version of the opera by Tchaikovsky, The Maid of Orleans, which tells the story of Joan of Arc. Interestingly, this is not Madonna’s first time exploring Joan of Arc in her work: in her last album, Rebel Heart, she had a song titled “Joan of Arc.” In my review, I noted it as the most irritating song because she was essentially complaining about being famous and I questioned what that had to do with Joan of Arc.
“Dark Ballet” is told from Joan of Arc’s point of view. In the brilliant bridge of the song, set to a pulsating electronic arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Reed-Flutes” from The Nutcracker, Madonna speaks:
“I will not denounce the things that I have said
I will not renounce my faith in my sweet Lord
He has chosen me to fight against the English
And I’m not afraid at all to die ’cause I believe him
God is on my side and I’ll be his bride
I am not afraid ’cause I have faith in him
You can cut my hair and throw me in a jail cell
Say that I’m a witch and burn me at the stake
It’s all a big mistake
Don’t you know to doubt him is a sin?
I won’t give in”
The video is book ended by quotes, with one by Joan of Arc and another by queer poet and activist Mykki Blanco, who was cast as Joan of Arc in the video. Madonna is surprisingly absent except for a very brief cameo. Blanco gives us some incredible acting here. I also can’t heap enough praise on the cinematography, production, and direction by Emmanuel Adjei (he is one to watch).
And while the song and video is about Joan of Arc, it feels as if Madonna and Adjei are also addressing the toxic mix of bigotry and religion that pervades the world: too many people use religion to justify their prejudices and fears.
Madonna’s pop version of the opera The Maid of Orleans is “Dark Ballet.”