Anna Biller’s short Fairy Ballet could perhaps be considered an outlier among the American independent filmmaker’s body of work. Most known for films that take on cult and genre cinemas, upending their conventions to infuse a female gaze and perspective not commonly shown, Biller has been hailed by critics and audiences for her features Viva and The Love Witch, as well as a body of short filmmaking.
But Fairy Ballet emerges from a feature film project that was abandoned and transformed into a stage production. The White Cat was a planned feature musical adaptation of French fabulist Madame d’Aulnoy’s conte de fée of the same title, in which an enchanted princess is turned into a cat. Realising the project’s outsized ambitions, Biller eventually adapted it for the stage instead. This production, titled The Lady Cat, was performed at several underground theatres in Los Angeles to acclaim, and was followed by the short Fairy Ballet in which a scene of the unrealised film was shot.
The fragment of The White Cat which survives in this film begins with a brief introductory scene of the Prince confessing his love for the White Cat. He pleads for her to change into a woman, or else transform him into a cat. She demurs, instead serving him “the afternoon tea of spring” and suggesting a walk through the garden. There the pair witness the awakening of spring, symbolised through a fantastical musical revue, with flowers, bees, fairies, nymphs, satyrs, Cupid and young lovers all prancing and frolicking around the soundstage.
This seemingly saccharine scene is beset with amorousness and sublimated sexuality. But besides this latent feminist revisioning of traditional forms— in this case the music hall opera—another element of continuity between Fairy Ballet and Biller’s larger oeuvre is her careful control over all aspects of the production. She not only writes and directs her films, but also crafts music, costumes, sets and production design herself, creating the worlds which her characters inhabit, and in turn bringing the low culture of populist genre cinema into the realms of the art film. — Herb Shellenberger