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Tutu frocks and Kanye videos? Ballet flexes its style muscle

In Black Swan, the new Darren Aronofsky movie that opened in theatres yesterday, Natalie Portman plays an ambitious ballerina determined to rise to the top of her profession.

While preparing to play the diabolical Black Swan role in Swan Lake, she embarks on a journey into her own heart of darkness, determined to outdance, if not outsmart, any and all competitors who stand in her way. As a psychological thriller, the film is as compelling as the Tchaikovsky score accompanying it. The fact that it's set in the ballet world is just as noteworthy, reflecting how a usually rarefied pastime is suddenly back on the pop-culture radar, from film to fashion to advertising, after decades of languishing behind the scenes as, let's face it, an effete, elite high art.

"Ballet is hot again," declares Alberta Ballet choreographer and artistic director Jean Grand-Maître, who is currently at work on a new Canadian ballet based on the music of Sarah MacLachan. That work, which is set to debut in May, will have costumes by acclaimed Calgary-based designer Paul Hardy.

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"Ballet is flesh, sensuality and the human spirit writ large. At a time when the world has become technology-obsessed, people are back to celebrating the human body. It [ballet]is the complete antithesis of a life spent in front of a computer monitor."

Originally the pastime of kings and queens, who learned it as a courtly art, ballet is today flexing its newfound proletarian muscle across a wide spectrum of pop-culture forums, including pop-music videos (the latest by rap artist Kanye West features a bevy of ballerinas who bourrée in time to his music), in gyms and fitness centres (where barre exercises are among the latest workout crazes) and on fashion runways (in the form of tutu-inspired dresses and slipper-style shoes). "Tulle, I am happy to tell you, is the new black," says Eleanore Rosenstein, co-owner with her sister Carole of Toronto's Hugo Nicholson, a luxury dress shop where tutu-inspired frocks by Vera Wang and Elie Saab are pirouetting out the door.

The ballet look "is all about fashion's swing back to glamour after all that edginess of the past few seasons," Rosenstein continues. "Many of our customers are wearing it to all the latest parties," she says, citing the A-list David Foster fundraiser for the city's Sick Kids Hospital last month, when the best dressed women in the room were a whirl of tulle and satin.

Ballet hasn't been this popular since the 1970s, when the high-profile defections of Soviet dancers Rudolf Nureyev, Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov, among others, sparked a worldwide dance boom. More recently, its return to the mainstream is once again drawing record numbers to the medium in studios and theatres across the country.

Diane Thomson, artistic director of the ballet program at Toronto's Matty Eckler Community Centre, says enrolment this year has skyrocketed, to 195 students from 24 students in 2005, when the program first started. "This year we've had to add 19 new classes due to demand," says Thomson, whose Virtually Human company has created 3D dance moves for popular gaming systems like Sony Playstation. "So You Think You Can Dance has popularized dance and given a new perspective and understanding to many who might not have thought of doing ballet before."

All this new attention is also creating boffo business at the box office for classical dance troupes in Canada. The Royal Winnipeg Ballet, presently touring its choreographer Jorden Morris's new production of Moulin Rouge, the biggest box-office seller in the company's 71-year history, reports that individual ticket sales are up 50 per cent over last year. The same is true at Alberta Ballet and Vancouver's Goh Ballet, directed by recently retired National Ballet of Canada ballerina Chan Hon Goh.

"The allure of ballet is stronger than ever, and films like Black Swan and dance TV programs are really bringing this art form back to the forefront," says Goh, a guest artist with the Royal Danish Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, among other distinguished companies. "A new generation is able to participate in, enjoy and access ballet."

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That new affinity among younger fans may be why edgier fashion chains like BCBG and American Apparel are using ballet themes in ad campaigns and younger-skewing retailers are awash in ballet flats this season. The fashion house of Moschino has just designed a new line of bow-tie plastic ballet flats. For the mass market, sister companies Banana Republic and the Gap offer sparkly versions in leather and satin; company spokeswoman Tara Wickwire calls the ballet slipper the key accessory for the holidays.

"The ballet flat serves a real purpose during party season: It's a lightweight shoe you can stash in your bag for cocktail gatherings in the middle of slushy Canadian winters," Wickwire says. "It makes for a simple transition from parka to party dress."

Although ballet is more than a style statement for her, Goh can appreciate why its trappings have appeal. "Ballet is the epitome of timeless elegance," she says. "And the look is classic, feminine, graceful - qualities the fashion world has once again taken note of."

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