The Music Video as Art: Dark Ballet by Madonna

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 collaborating/cannibalizing younger recording artists and touring than producing thoughtful work. Thankfully, she has returned to 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.”

Celia and Isadora


The only way one legend can pay tribute to another is brilliantly.

Isadora Duncan and Celia Cruz

Isadora Duncan and Celia Cruz

The Queen of Salsa, Celia Cruz (1925-2003), had a long career that encompassed several genres of music and lasted a remarkable six decades. She recorded more than 70 albums and won two Grammy and three Latin Grammy awards. Cruz, in spite of her recording achievements, reminds me of Tina Turner in that both, in my humble opinion, are better live singers than studio singers: their energy almost seems diminutive in the studio, while on stage it can not be contained—making for a memorable music experience!

I was fortunate to have seen Cruz sing live at Carnegie Hall in the early 1990’s with her musical brother, the legendary Tito Puente. To understand what I am trying to convey, check out this video of Cruz, at the height of her powers in 1974, performing in Zaire: . While I adore Cruz live, my favorite song by her is a brilliant studio recording of her tribute to dance legend Isadora Duncan.

Isadora Duncan (1877-1927) was an American dance pioneer known as the “Mother of Modern Dance.” She was a revolutionary because her dancing eschewed the stringency of ballet while advocating the notion of free-spiritedness and the ideologies of ancient Greece (beauty, philosophy, and humanity). Duncan created a completely new way to dance. Cruz’s song captures Duncan’s spirit and creativity, lyrically and musically.

Isadora formo la liberacion (Isadora formed the liberation)
Isadora Duncan leyenda que no murio (Isadora Duncan your legend did not die)

Lyrically, the song tells of Duncan’s life and career and makes a brief reference to her very dramatic death.

y violento tu final (your end was violent)
Isadora Isadora Duncan
yo te tengo que cantar (And I have to sing to you)
para ti va mi cancion (I give you my song)

On September 14, 1927, in Nice, France Duncan went for a drive in a convertible and as she drove off purportedly shouted, “Goodbye my friends, I go to glory!” Moments later, her long shawl was tangled with a rear tire and her neck was broken.

While the lyrics are exultantly poetic, what makes the song exceptional is the arrangement created by master Johnny Pacheco.

The song opens with lush Classical strings playing a few chords of “Once Upon A Dream”, which was, fittingly, based on based on Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Sleeping Beauty (Duncan is now our sleeping beauty). It then launches into a 1970’s Salsa arrangement featuring a stalwart horn section. The song’s bridge marvelously combines the Classical strings with the Salsa horn section. The best surprise is during the final verse when a Rockabilly guitar is combined with the Salsa arrangement. The song climaxes, bringing in the best of the Classical strings and the Salsa horns. Even if you don’t speak Spanish, listen to the song because the arrangement will not fail to impress.

After all of my years of listening to music, the only word I can think of to describe this song is unique. It is truly one of a kind.

A regular feature of this blog will explore a favorite song. My first foray into writing about a favorite song was in February 2014 when I wrote about the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ classic, “Under the Bridge.” I was inspired to write this entry after hearing the song on my iPod’s random play earlier this week.

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