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The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2011

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FEB 2011 Issue

BIRD BRAIN: Reflecting on Black Swan, and Ballet’s Maybe Moment

In mid-August, I received an e-mail (subject line:“train wreck”) from a friend, inviting me to watch the trailer for Black Swan. Corny, melodramatic, and menacing are all adjectives that come to mind, and when Natalie Portman’s character pulls a feather from her bloody back, I laugh. Is this a drama, horror film, or cautionary tale for the avian flu?

“Black Swan” by Linnea Paskow (2011). Acrylic on paper.
“Black Swan” by Linnea Paskow (2011). Acrylic on paper.

Fast-forward a few months and the dance world is buzzing about The New Ballet Movie That Nobody Knows How to Define. Eventually, “psycho-sexual dance thriller” sticks. At an advance screening of Black Swan at the Paris Theater in midtown, I listen to the murmurs around me. “This is gonna be sick,” says a guy behind me.

He was right. Portman’s character is sick, literally. And so is Portman’s performance. Setting aside the actress’s devotion to the creative process (the year of ballet training, the severe weight loss, and apparently breaking a few ribs during the filming), her portrayal of Nina Sayers, a ballet dancer who has just been cast as the lead in Swan Lake in New York’s most prestigious company, feels frighteningly genuine. Like one of the characters in the movie says, she is a “frigid little girl” about to be catapulted to stardom. Vulnerable, fragile, and innocent, she embodies Odette, the white swan at the ballet’s center. She has none of the aggression, sex appeal, and viciousness of Odile, the black swan.

The film’s director, Darren Aronofsky, is known for immersing audiences in the psyche of his characters and revealing their descent into madness. Given how shaken I was after seeing Requiem for a Dream (note: do not watch that film alone on a rainy day), I couldn’t completely dismiss Black Swan based on its messy, laughable trailer. Though Nina’s downward spiral is predictable, Aronofsky’s choices regarding how she copes with the pressure of a big debut—and her ultimate desire: “I just want to be perfect”—are fresh. Rather than focusing on physically destructive coping mechanisms, such as bulimia (which she has, along with an obsessive urge to scratch at her skin), Aronofsky explores Nina’s psychological turmoil by showing nearly constant hallucinations that suggest a battle with being judged: She repeatedly sees herself in others—in a glimpse of a girl on the subway, and later in a stranger on the street—and the portraits that her mother paints menacingly laugh at her. During a rehearsal, she panics upon seeing her mirror image take on a life of its own. Aronofsky takes us to some terrifying places in Nina’s head.

Yes, parts of the film are just downright campy. Nina pulls a feather out of her back; the whites of her eyes turn blood red. While submerged in a bath, she looks up to see Lily, the up-and-coming dancer who Nina believes is out to get her, staring back at her (they later share the obligatory hallucinated sex scene). And at the film’s most gruesome moment, Nina’s knees abruptly snap backwards before she collapses onto the floor of her pink, stuffed animal-laden bedroom (pink, naturally, represents all things innocent: Nina’s sparkly cell phone, the chiffon skirt she wears during rehearsals, the grapefruit that her overly protective mother serves her for breakfast). It’s both cheesy and disturbing: Aronofsky is trying to scare us, even as he makes us laugh. And he succeeds, to a remarkable degree.

“My sweet girl, I’m not sure if I just saw a comedy or a drama.” I laughed at my friend’s text message (Nina’s mother repeats “my sweet girl” ad nauseam throughout Black Swan) as I pondered the same thing.

A week after I saw the film, I found several piles of the Village Voice in a building near Union Square. Portman’s heavily made up Black Swan eyes glared at me from the front of each copy. The advertisement wrapped around the newspaper, with excerpts from reviews on the back. Online ads and interviews with the movie’s stars were ubiquitous. Never had I seen a so-called dance film get so much buzz. Is this a win for ballet? Will it rise in popularity like ballroom dancing, thanks to shows like Dancing with the Stars? Or will the film leave everyone thinking that all ballet dancers are constantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown?

My Facebook feed was cluttered with opinions: “Truly freaked out.” “Newfound phobia of swans and the ballet. Thanks, Black Swan.” “Whoa, that was crazy!”

A friend summarized his thoughts with a scrunched up face. Translating the face into words, he said, “It made me feel icky.”

Many well-respected dancers waded into the debate, defending their profession: “This is a psychological thriller about a delusional girl. This is no one’s ballet movie. Yes, the main character is a ballerina, but this is about her mind more than anything else,” Ashley Bouder, a principal with New York City Ballet, wrote in the Huffington Post.

In the Daily Beast, Wendy Whelan, another City Ballet principal, wrote, “When the body gets exhausted the mind can become fragile. It requires a particular strength and confidence in one’s emotional core unlike anything else in classical ballet. As Nina engages in these intense (and intensely linked) personal, professional, and artistic struggles, she begins to hallucinate and become obsessive and paranoid…dancers learn to take on these subtle head-trips every day.”

About a month after my initial viewing, I re-visited the film at the Kabuki Theater in San Francisco. This time, I was even more aware of how beautifully Tchaikovsky’s score for Swan Lake is utilized throughout the film. It is the soundtrack for nearly every scene. If you listen carefully, you can hear the dramatic music mixed into the techno beat when Nina and Lily are dancing at a club. Tweaked to dramatic effect, it becomes increasingly unsettling as Nina’s delusions progress.

Unlike the amused audience in New York, people sitting around me were taking the film very seriously. A woman screamed, “No!” when Nina’s mother decided that Nina was not well enough to perform on opening night. My friend and I stifled our laughter.

 And yet: Black Swan is dark, brutal, and undeniably powerful. I can still feel those painted swan eyes glaring at me.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2011

All Issues