Monday, December 13, 2010

Black Swan

Nina is under an enchantment. She has been held by a sorcerer and kept innocent, alone and pure. She lives in a world that is white and pink, trapped in an eternal childhood. Her sorcerer is not Von Rothbart, but a mother who keeps her close through webs of guilt and control. Nina is a “sweet child”. She isn’t allowed to be anything more.
In many ways Nina is the archetypal, romantic ballerina. She is so thin she could balance on a rose without breaking the stem. She looks as though she was born to play the sylph, the wili or the white swan. She is so wrapped up in everyone’s conception of her that she has no voice of her own.
In these tales is usually a prince who arrives to rescue the princess, but for Nina there is no prince. Instead, her hope of salvation lies in the role of a lifetime, the lead in Swan Lake. Though she is perfect for the white swan, one senses that it is the more difficult role of Black Swan that allures her. Her restraint, her timidity, and her inexperience prevent her from being able to fully embody the Black Swan, but Nina persists in chasing after the character. All she has to do is let go, but letting go means loosing the identity that has been created for her.
In many ways the film is about control. Nina’s choreographer wants to control her transformation. If he yells at her enough, plays with her, and pushes her in the right direction, maybe he can take credit when she finally flies. Nina’s mother wants to control her daughter and keep her as a portrait of innocence and a symbol of success. Nina thinks that if she can control her body, then she can control her life. All are desperately scrambling to maintain control, but in the end each is powerless. Only Lily seems to have any semblance of power and that might be because she doesn’t care as much as the others. She is the Black Swan and she leaves a darkly illuminated path for Nina to follow.
Nina does follow. She finds her prince. She gains her perfect moment and finally transforms into the role of the Black Swan. The darkness was underneath her skin the whole time. That was why she had spent her whole life scratching to get down to it.
But, the Black Swan leaves Nina just as the prince betrayed Odette. Nina’s body and mind cannot maintain the level of intensity and psychosis required to hold onto the character. The world shifts around her and she cannot separate reality from fantasy. Horrors unfold, fears loom, she defeats them all, breaks the enchantment, and then collapses. At the end of everything, her face is a mask of wonderment. She knows that she has achieved her goal. She is willing to accept the cost. One wonders if she knew all along what it would be.
The tragedy is that, even at the height of her accomplishment, the greatest praise her choreographer can muster is to call her his “little princess”. Not so different from a “sweet child”.
Black Swan is a smart, well-cast film. It is a bit of a melodrama, but once you step into the world it creates, all of the drama is well placed and vital to the story. Black Swan is a Jekyll and Hyde version of a dark fairytale where every room holds the potential for a nightmare. The dance scenes are beautifully and intelligently filmed. It is clear that Natalie Portman spent her training time focusing on port de bras and epaulement. The audience didn’t have to watch her stumbling around trying to create a clear facsimile of extension and hip placement. Instead, her upper body told the story and (from someone who has seem many films with actresses trying to dance) this was a smart, smart choice. Even if it was hard to watch in many places, I really enjoyed the film and loved seeing how respectfully all the details of the dance world were portrayed.
The journey to becoming a well-balanced and powerful dancer is not a painless one. It is a road filled with sacrifices, where it all too easy to become obsessed or dejected. In my time as a dancer and teacher, I’ve experienced the struggle and seen many battle their personal demons in the classroom and onstage. That’s why a supportive community is so important in the dance world, as is a healthy dosage of the real world.
Terrible Things - April Smith and the Great Picture Show


  1. generous and intelligent digestion of a dark and somewhat baffling movie. I agree, Natalie did an awesome job. Also, recommend for persons with strong stomachs, only. Aside from those moments, it was a beautiful spectacle, portraying an example of the intensity required of one in search of perfection.

  2. Definitely for those with strong stomachs. I would never recommend this for my younger students. The film has a way of knowing exactly what will make the view shudder. Some of the more disturbing moments (broken legs, bloated toes, peeling skin, empty theaters) seem especially geared to freak out dancers. They play on the neurosis that we in particular share.