Black Swan: The Right Attention for the Ballet World?

Posted by on 12.20.2010

The long anticipated Darren Aronofky thriller, “Black Swan” finally opened everywhere Friday.  I can now say that I have experienced this film in all of it’s glory.  In anticipation, I talked with the Miami City Ballet dancers who had already seen the movie.  Surprisingly, I would say that everyone’s opinion was split down the middle.  But here is how I see it.

Natalie Portman as the White Swan.

Natalie Portman gives a stunning performance playing a young dancer, Nina Sayers, who is cast as the Swan Queen in a new production of Swan Lake.  The New York City based company’s director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) clearly loves his job, as his adoration for females is clearly fueled by the lovely women in his company.  Leroy casts Nina as his Swan Queen, making it clear that he has faith in her ability to dance the pure, innocent character of the White Swan, but feels she lacks the inner fire she will need to give a convincing performance of the White Swan’s evil twin, the Black Swan.  Nina immediately calls her mother, crazed stage mom, Erica (Barbara Hershey), who buys her a pink cake with a ballerina on top to celebrate.  Naturally, Nina’s diet does not leave room for cake and frosting, which her mother takes personally, threatening to throw it out.  This is where we begin to get a taste of her mother’s insanity.  Nina responds to her mother’s critisism, while simultaneaously providing us with the best quote of the movie, “I’m the Swan Queen, you’re the one who never left the corps”.  So, ten years after the “Center Stage” mother-daughter quote, “You didn’t have the feet, I don’t have the heart”, cinema has created another on-screen stage mom living vicariously through her daughter’s career.

Mila Kunis and Natalie Portman’s characters form a bond.

As the premier approaches, Nina becomes obsessed with perfection.  She wishes to become like Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder), an over-the-hill dancer who is retiring at the end of the season.  In Beth’s early years with the company she had been one of Leroy’s conquests, which he rewarded with generous casting.  Now, Leroy’s attention has shifted to Nina.  Nina seeks Beth’s “inner darkness”, that according to Leroy made Macintyre a compelling artist.  Nina’s grip on reality is diminishing as she is pulling pieces of skin off her fingers and scratching at a strange wound on her back.  She finds a friendship in Mila Kunis’ character, Lily, as they spend a night out on the town.  Nina hallucinates images of Lily and in the end becomes convinced that she is out to get her part.  It becomes clear that Leroy’s doubting of her ability to dance these two rolls has affected her, as her mind tries to literally transform her into the Black Swan.  The movie ends with her opening performance of Swan Lake which pleases the audience, as well as Leroy.  “I was perfect,” Nina says in her last line of the movie.

Rest assured, though I gave you a brief overview of the entire movie, I have not spoiled anything, as there is not much to spoil.  The movie does not have much of an intricate plot line, which only became apparent to me after it was over.  The ending leaves the audience guessing, wondering what was reality and what Nina had created in her mind.

Nina’s performance as the Black Swan.

Natile Portman’s performance was impeccable.  She was convincing, as well as gorgeous. I was throughly impressed with her arm movements as she danced.  The frames were usually shot from waist up, but it was apparent that she worked tirelessly to encompass the role of a ballerina.  Her posture was strong and her frame was thin and delicate.  The full body shots were of one of her body doubles, Kimberly Prosa or ABT dancer Sarah Lane.  Portman has already been nominated for a SAG Award, Spirit Award, and Critics Choice Award for her performance in this movie.

Going into the theater, the question I could not wait to answer was, how will this movie portray ballet to movie-goers who are unfamiliar with our world? I think people may walk out of the theater thinking to themselves, “Wow ballet dancers are crazy.”  But do they really believe we are as crazy as Nina?  No, probably not, as it is made very clear than Nina has severe psychological problems.  But, would it be too far fetched for the audience to leave thinking that the ballet world causes dancers to become obsessed with perfection, to the point of causing psychological damage?

Let’s break down the ballet cliches that appear in the film and separate them from the realities that Aronofky provides.

Rehearsals with the director sometimes got a bit steamy.

No, ballet dancers do not have pink bedrooms with stuffed animals in tutus littering the room.  No, we do not fall asleep to a music box playing “Swan Lake” music, with a ceramic ballerina turning to the tune.  No, the ringtones on our phones are not the themes of classical ballet scores.  No, our mothers are not crazy stage mothers who help us sew our pointe shoes.  No, we do not have in-home studios with a resin box where we practice our turns when we get home at the end of the day.  No, we do not treat our fellow dancers with such hatred; in reality, we all spend most of our free time together, enjoying each others company.  No, every dancer does not purge after a meal; in fact, for many of us, the best treat after a long weekend of performances is a nice juicy burger with fries.  And no, rehearsals with our director do not end in make-out sessions.

Yes, when we get out of bed in the morning every body part pops and cracks.  Yes, we tend to receive shameless attention from men in bars, as they are intrigued by the fact that we are ballet dancers.  Yes, the physical therapists sometimes pull on our feet in order to get all the bones to re-align.  Yes, there are pressures in ballet, but there are healthy ways to deal with it, which are not explored in this film.  Yes, there is always someone waiting in the wings for your part, but not in such a malicious way.

In conclusion, I think this movie has provided the ballet world with a lot of attention, but is it the right kind?  I don’t think so.  Though I generally enjoyed my movie-going experience last night, I did get the giggles a few times in the beginning, where most of the cliches resided.  I think this film paints ballet in a tainted light and when people think of “Swan Lake”, they will always be reminded of Darren Aronofky’s “Black Swan”, instead of the centuries old masterpiece danced on stages around the world.  To me, that is a shame.

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  1. I think you make some excellent points in this article – especially when you "explain" the stereotypes often connected to ballet.

    I, neither, don't like the attention given to ballet through this movie, or, more correctly, the consequences of it! I love for ballet to get the boost it deserves, and on that matter, the film IS doing a lot of good. But unfortunately, people get fed with even more of the stereotypes and prejudices connected with ballet, which is a shame, because frankly, only the minority of the viewers are "checking with the truth" to see if the picture is correct or not – most people just believe it, or don't even give it much thought at all..

    Great review!

  2. I found ‘Black Swan’ only moderately interesting, and the horror elements made me laugh, & I wasn’t alone. I found the psychology very heavy-handed, and thought it unlikely that such a frail-minded person would be chosen to dance a leading role. The basic 'Swan Lake' story (odd enough in itself) is a difficult one to transpose, and it's also a pity this version could not be combined with a ballet world that dancers I've heard talking on the subject can recognize. I’m sure the ballet world requires tougher personalities, but also shows more camaraderie. Certainly not a film to take little girls to see if one wants there to be ballet dancers in the future!

  3. As a ballet teacher and someone who has experienced great joy from dancing ballet and being called a "ballerina" most of her life, I've chosen not to see this movie due to it's evil depiction of the ballet world. I do appreciate reading your "take" on the movie and helping to inform and educate others on the ballet world. I agree with your final statements. Again, thanks for sharing.
    Miss Mary

  4. A small group from Miami City Ballet caught an advance screening of Black Swan several days before it opened in South Florida. I was sitting next to Edward Villella at the time and to say that he hated the film would be the understatement of the millennium.

    I was disappointed with Black Swan as I loved Aronofky's Requiem for A Dream and The Wrestler. Instead of high art, which were my expectations, I saw a film that reminded me of the Times Square grindhouse fare I grew up watching back in the late 70s and early 80s.

  5. Dan: I have no idea how Balanchine would perceive this movie. All I can say is that his former dancers who have seen the movie have not been fans, so I can only imagine that he would feel the same. I think these exaggerations we have been talking about would not go over well.

  6. Lorry: What a wonderful point! I am sure that movies over exaggerate most jobs, with out us even realizing. But with this movie, we all noticed it.

    Cathy: I think most people saw this movie because it is directed by Aronofky. With out him, I don't think a ballet thriller would have done very well. The movie needed his direction in order to make it something that will interest a broad range of audiences. I would have to say a really wonderful ballet film is "Turning Pointe." The main roles are played by actual ballet dancers, making the acting much less intriguing as the acting in "Black Swan." But check it out, and let me know how you enjoyed it!

  7. I haven't seen the movie yet, but I want to see it because I am always in the quest of "weird and different."

    Aronofky always has a tendency to sensationalize aspects of his movie-topics; for instance, I remember the scene in which the mother receives ECT (electroconvulsive shock therapy) in the hospital in "Requiem for a Dream." ECT today is nothing like the horrorshow, evilly-lit, conscious event he portrays, but how many people know that? Instead of a useful therapy, it seems more like a worse-than-death-case-scenario. Not much educational value or truth there. So!!! I will not be surprised to see truth liberally altered in Black Swan.

    In the meantime, I watched Bertrand Normand's "Ballerina" in an attempt to learn more about the real ballet world. Do you have any recommendations of good documentaries or films about ballet?

  8. Thank you for the wonderful review!

    I do consulting work with TV & movies for my field and I can tell you that it can drive you crazy because the industry takes such liberties with everyone's reality. And there is such thing as bad press because my field is suffering the consequences of people having bad information about the job. Different scenario (very different study) but it is possible to have people become interested in your work through the magic of movies and it NOT be a good thing.

    I don't think this movie is going to do much for the world of ballet. It supports the existing ideas that dancers are nuts and are inaccessible people. I love ballet. I wasn't enticed to see a ballet because of the movie. I went to see the movie with people who, in fact, dislike ballet very much. They loved the movie. They were not enticed to go to the ballet at all.

    Here in Los Angeles, people show up for the red carpet event and then duck out of the event itself. Most people who went to the premiere of the movie here, didn't even see the movie, I doubt they are going to see an actual Swan Lake! On the industry side, people are talking about Aronofsky and Portman, not ballet; I've already worked 1/2 doz photoshoots with Black Swan themes, but its the movie they are cashing in on, not the art of ballet. They want images from the movie because they recognize that most people aren't going to know images from the ballet itself.

    I wish that more people could enjoy ballet for the incredible art that it is and not need celebrities and films to direct them to try it out. If it actually worked, it would be better than nothing, Unfortunately, most of the time, it doesn't.

    Thanks, Lorry

  9. Great discussion…actually I had more fun watching the "Dance Moms" in the audience pointing the finger at each other after the movie 🙂

    Rebecca: What would Mr. B say ? it appears that 2010 may be the year of ballet ? Two movies, several TV commercials portraying Ballerinas, and Tom Cruise in the audience for NYC Nutcracker made the news tonight…If Lady Gaga shows up in the audience ? Who knows ?

  10. Mia: Let me know how it is!

    Paul: The make up changes could never have been done in a 20 min intermission! I was thinking that too. As far as age goes, I was wondering that too. They make it clear that she is a younger dancer in the company, so I would say between 20-25. Does that seem reasonable?

  11. How long did Nina have to change her makeup during costume changes? How much older do you think she was supposed to be than you, Rebecca? I got tired of hearing "mommy.."


  12. well, i'm off work as of tomorrow for the holidays after one more nutcracker performance, so i'll make sure i see it then, after that. you are an inspiration to me and even my little sister at ten (i've shown her your pics and blog). you are a perfect ballerina my friend! you love it and live it. merde!

  13. Mia: Well the way it turned out is clearly up to interpretation. You need to see it! Would love to hear your thoughts!

  14. Dan: I agree. I hope that this can make people become more interested in ballet.

    Eric: You are so right about cliches. I was having a discussion tonight with other Miami City Ballet dancers who have seen the movie and I was saying how there are some elements that are realistic mixed in with elements that are over exaggerated. They seem to think that the audience can separate the realistic aspects from the exaggerations. Do you agree?

  15. wow, that is a fantastic review…and i've not seen it, only read the script. but i was worried about us being portrayed as nutbags just waiting to mow down any dancer in our way…glad it didn't turn out that way.

  16. C'mon, who wouldn't want their own resin box? The problem with cliches is they exist for a reason, and, where there's smoke…. We've all heard of companies where the Artistic Director uses the corps like a harem, and "everyone knows" that this or that principal got ahead by sleeping with the boss. I mean, it happens. Not every ballet mother is frighteningly overbearing, but we all know examples, like Madame Toumanova. Or Suzanne Farrell's mother in Elusive Muse, encouraging her to be friendly to the nice Mr. B who comes visiting night after night. My skin crawls reading it, but if it wasn't for Farrell's mother, we'd never have had one of the century's great ballerinas. We all know dancers who have great technique, but no fire. How perfect is it that one of Portman's doubles is Sarah Lane, who made a brilliant debut in Theme and Variations with Herman Cornejo five or so years ago, yet, somehow, is still a soloist?

    There's a creepy fantasy land voyeurism to Black Swan, and Aronofsky's not afraid to belabor the obvious, or create a sadistically screwed-up life for his "heroine." The only place Nina's life doesn't absolutely suck is onstage; she finds the freedom there that Aronofsky's so cruelly removed from her real life. It's the biggest cliché of all to depict a dancer who finds her true self when she's performing, and Aronofsky paints it with particularly lurid brushstrokes, but are there many dancers who don't, at least occasionally, feel more alive onstage?

  17. You know what they say "no such thing as bad press", I think that bringing Ballet awareness to the public through this medium can't be a bad thing, it would cost a fortune to buy that kind of advertising ! I wish they could have left some of the cliches out, but they have to add drama and effect in there somewhere. I am always so very surprised at how little people really do know about ballet…

  18. Really? Well that is a good thing! I am very surprised to hear you say that, as I felt that going to the ballet was not promoted in a positive way. Do you agree?

  19. Very well said…the best part for me was leaving the theater and overhear somebody say "Yes, I would go see the Ballet" …


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