The two main characters of the new ballet drama “Birds of Paradise” make a pact to be friends and win a competition together or not at all – a promise that gets tested mightily as the big day nears.
The actresses at the center of the movie kept a similar bond through COVID-delayed filming – and various injuries – that never wavered. “We just had each other's backs,” says Kristine Froseth (“Looking for Alaska”).
Her co-star Diana Silvers (“Booksmart”) calls it an “unsaid pact."
Based on the A.K. Small young-adult novel “Bright Burning Stars,” “Birds of Paradise” (streaming on Amazon Prime now) features Silvers as a young American dancer named Kate who arrives at a prestigious French ballet academy led by the intimidating Madame Brunelle (Jacqueline Bisset) and competes for a major prize: a contract to join the Opéra National de Paris. Kate’s main rival is Marine (Froseth), a fiery and talented performer grieving her twin brother Ollie's suicide.
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Their first meeting ends in a fistfight – in tutus, no less – but the young women grow closer as friends, even intimately so, though their heated competition spawns trust issues, bitter feelings and regretful decisions.
Ballet movies such as “The Company,” “Center Stage” and “Black Swan” have covered similar ground over the years. But with “Birds,” writer/director Sarah Adina Smith wanted to explore issues important to young people today, including identity, gender fluidity, sexuality and diversity in a tale “about ambition and libido colliding. And is redemption possible even when you've done something perhaps that feels unredeemable?” the filmmaker says.
“It was such a cool chance to tell a coming-of-age story of these two characters who are still truly finding out who they are, who they love, who they want to be.”
In terms of sexual awakening, the current generation is "a lot more open and comfortable exploring ourselves and not labeling anything,” Froseth, 26, says. “The movie does a good job at not making such a big thing of it.”
Adds Silvers, 23: “Exploring sexuality through the idea of being attracted to someone's soul rather than their sex is something that I feel lucky to be a part of and representing on a screen. It's really easy to sexualize sex, as weird as that might sound, but you strip that away and it's so much deeper.”
“Birds of Paradise” gave Froseth and Silvers roles that were complex physically, too: They spent nearly three rigorous months in ballet training before production started in Budapest before getting shut down for five months because of COVID with a week left to film of a 30-day shoot.
Froseth recently posted a video on her Instagram of them stepping into their tutus for the first time while singing Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer." “That was the first time each of us really felt like a ballerina,” Silvers says.”
Marine has a line in the movie that ballerinas "are warriors of pain,” and it rang true for both actresses as they navigated partnered and solo dancing scenes.
Froseth’s character has a key sequence where she performs a dance “with the ghost of her brother and it is visceral and raw and violent even,” the director says. Although both actresses had dance doubles, most of the scene was done by Froseth. “To the point where on the day when we were shooting that, she started bleeding because she was throwing herself on the ground so hard. I had to stop her and be like, 'I need you to not severely injure yourself. We still have some shooting to do.’ But she was so committed and so soulful.”
Silvers watched on the side and “every time I just cried,” she says of witnessing the scene unfold.
Because Marine’s symbolically dancing with the specter of her late twin, Froseth explains, “it was a lot emotionally to get into.”
Before starting her own ballet training, Silvers had a background in tennis, which helped with Kate’s competitive mind-set. “For me, it was life or death on the tennis court,” she says. “You're like 13 years old, hormones raging, like, ‘I need to win this match!’ ”Dancing ballet tweaked her old rotator cuff and ankle injuries, plus caused new ones, including slipping a rib the day before filming an important dance (“It’s horrible,” she reports of the pain).
And the day before she was supposed to leave for Budapest to restart filming last August, Silvers’ dog Frankie peed at the top of her stairs, causing to her to slip and fall and severing a bit of her third toe when it got caught on a step going down. It was in a “weird spot” so the actress couldn’t get stitches and instead taped her toes together and wore a boot for two weeks. (A mandatory quarantine period let her heal before strapping on pointe shoes again.)
“At a certain point I was like, ‘I am a warrior of pain,’ but it gave me so much more respect” for ballerinas, Silvers says. “They go on stage with a dislocated rib and they're amazing. I was like, ‘This is part of it. Use it. This is you being in this world. You're not gonna complain, just do it.’ ”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Birds of Paradise' finds Diana Silvers, Kristine Froseth on pointe