Published: Princess (second series) #13, 17 December 1983 to #18, 21 January 1984.
Episodes: 6, but a double episode in #18
Artist: Photo story
Translations/reprints: ‘Het spook van de balletschool’ [The ghost of the ballet school], Tina #14, 6 April 1984. https://www.catawiki.nl/catalogus/strips/series-helden/doebidoes-de/77156-1984-nummer-14
At the National Ballet School, Clare Thomas lives for ballet. So she is devastated when she is told she has to leave the school because her dancing isn’t up standard and she’ll never make it as a ballerina.
Then a mysterious ballerina, Arabella Hood, appears to her. Arabella demonstrates she is a superb dancer and says she has the power to make Clare dance equally so. But she says the price is high, and it includes total obedience to her. Clare accepts and is stunned to suddenly find herself dancing brilliantly. Later, Arabella also seems to be able to just disappear into thin air, and she’s already beginning to frighten Clare. It does not take long for Clare to realise that Arabella is dancing through her, and nobody can see Arabella except her. Yes, Arabella’s a ghost.
The director and Dame Anna see Clare’s incredible dancing and can’t understand why they never saw Clare dance so well before; they think it must be hidden talent or something. They give her the principal role in the upcoming gala and plan a huge publicity campaign for it. But this upsets Clare’s best friend Sonja, who had the role originally, and she and Clare fall out. This is the first sign of something Arabella hinted at earlier: “There is no room for friends in the future I have planned for you!” Clare asks the director and Dame Anna to give Sonja the role, but they decline, and can’t understand why Clare is so upset when she’s on the rise to stardom.
Meanwhile, a famous dancer named Anita Stanton says she suddenly wants to quit ballet. The director and Dame Anna can’t understand why she’s doing so when she’s still at the top. They comment on how history seems to be repeating itself: Anita used to be a poor dancer but one day, bang, she was brilliant.
Clare discovers that Anita can see Arabella too. Anita says the same thing happened to her, and to another famous dancer, Stepnova. She explains that Arabella was a Victorian ballerina who died in a fire when she was on the verge of success. She seeks the success that was denied her by targeting mediocre dancers and dancing through them. But the price you pay for dancing brilliantly through Arabella is too high: no friends, no self-respect, and no true success because Arabella is the one who is really doing the dancing. All you do is provide the body. The applause and accolades you receive are not truly yours because you are a fraud, and the fame that comes your way through Arabella brings you nothing but misery. But none of that matters to Arabella: she is ruthless and doesn’t care about how you feel. You are just her puppet who has to do as she says. Anita advises Clare to get out fast.
At first, Clare is too tempted by the ghost’s promises to make her a great dancer who would stay in the world of ballet. But it isn’t long before Clare realises what Anita means. At home, Clare’s parents congratulate her on her victory and can’t understand why she isn’t feeling happy about it. That night, Clare has horrible nightmares of Arabella. Worse is to come when Arabella demonstrates even more frightening powers: she can read your mind and inflict pain on you if you don’t obey her. And she threatens to do even worse to Sonja if Clare doesn’t do as she says.
Terrified for Sonja, Clare pretends to snub her and says it’s best if they are not friends anymore. However, this has Sonja wondering if something strange is going on. Her suspicions grow when she overhears Clare shouting at Arabella after the gala performance. Clare yells about how she used to love ballet even if she wasn’t much good at it, but now Arabella’s ideas of turning her into a famous ballerina are destroying her love of ballet.
Anita has been watching Clare’s brilliant performance at the gala and knows exactly how Clare feels: the ghost is controlling her and all that applause is nothing because you haven’t really earned it. Nobody else understands why Clare is in tears when she should have been happy at such a magnificent performance at the gala. Anita repeats her advice to get out before it is too late, but Clare explains that Arabella has threatened Sonja if she does not obey.
Arabella sees Clare talking to Anita and thinks they are plotting against her. In retaliation, she carries out her threat against Sonja, who gets hurt in an accident. It is only a sprain, but Sonja tells Clare she felt as if someone was controlling her. When she recounts the other strange things she has noticed, Clare decides to tell her everything (despite Arabella warning her not to).
They discuss what to do and realise the reason Arabella haunts is bitterness over being denied fame because she died prematurely. Therefore, the solution must be to give Arabella fame, so they look at a ballet about Arabella’s life story. Arabella not only jumps at it but also says she will choreograph the ballet, which will be called “Arabella”, through Clare.
When the ballet is performed it reveals the full tragic details of Arabella’s story for the first time. She started out as a street urchin in Victorian London, stealing food to survive. Then she went through years of imprisonment in a workhouse with only her love of dancing to keep her going. One day a rich woman spotted her, adopted her, and sent her to ballet school. On the night of Arabella’s debut, fire broke out, and both she and her dreams went up in flames. However, her ghost lives on, dancing through others. The director and Dame Anna particularly like that last bit. (If only they knew!) Clare dances the lead, but the reason the ballet is so successful and convincing is because it was all done through Arabella’s power. At the end, Arabella takes the bow she has been long waiting for and says she can rest in peace now.
Clare is relieved to be free of Arabella but knows she can’t dance that way without her. So, with Anita’s help she convinces Dame Anna that it really was the power of Arabella that made her so exceptional. Sonja takes the lead for the remaining performances of “Arabella”. Clare asks to just be a corps ballerina, and is happy with it because she will still enjoy ballet and remain at the ballet school.
This was the only ballet story to appear in Princess II’s short-lived run. It was also her only ghost story and “evil influence” (girl falls under an evil power) story.
Many of Princess’s stories weren’t particularly distinguished, but this is one of her better offerings. It is pretty dark stuff, and it’s not just because we have an evil ruthless ghost who makes terrifying demands, threats, and can control every muscle in your body. It also has a strong message about how fame brings you nothing but misery if the price you pay is too high. And that can happen even without this ruthless ghost pulling your strings and bringing you fame that isn’t really yours. This is such a contrast to the true Clare, who wants to dance because she loves it, even if she is not strongly talented. She does not care about fame – it’s happiness she wants.
Come to think of it, the haunting isn’t bringing Arabella happiness either. Seeing as she keeps doing it over and over, she’s clearly not getting any satisfaction out of trying to acquire fame through others. This is because it’s not bringing her the fame that was denied her, but does she realise this? Apparently not. And so she can’t rest in peace until Clare and Sonja come up with a way to bring her true fame.
When we see Arabella’s life story in the ballet she becomes a more sympathetic character, so it’s sad to see what an evil ghost she has become. But we can understand it was the tragedy of her story that turned her into a twisted spectre. Her life story definitely is the stuff that deserves to be a full girls’ serial, or even a real-life ballet.
The photo story format has one downside: photo stories have never been a strong format for a ghost story because the models used for ghosts were not convincing, and for some reason they didn’t use SFX to make the models look more ghostly. The ghost of Arabella is no exception. Having the photo story in colour makes the model less convincing as a ghost because you can still see she is flesh and blood. Having the strip in black and white and adding more white makeup might have made the model more convincing.
On the other hand, using the photo story format guarantees accurate, realistic ballet in this ballet story because they would have had to use trained ballerinas for the models. You don’t always get well-drawn ballet in a picture story.