NOTE: SPOILER ALERT
It’s an understatement to say that everyone is talking about Black Swan. The reviews have been out and widespread since it opened in December. Natalie Portman has been praised all the way through to her recent Golden Globe win (and by press time her possible Oscar win), to her pregnancy and engagement to co-star and choreographer Benjamin Millipied. Facebook is awash with commentary, quips and gripes. Even Saturday Night Live took a turn (albeit not that funny) with Jim Carrey in drag spoofing Mila Kunis’ character.
Black Swan has struck a nerve. While Portman receives accolades, the critics are not in consensus about the actual quality of the film. Though many have added it to their top ten films of 2010, Black Swan also has been referred to as a good bad movie, and some have dubbed it thrilling while chiding director Darren Aronofsky for being over-the-top and even sleazy. There’s a strange duality at work here, confounding many aspects of how the film is being discussed and reviewed.
Upon seeing it for the first time, I found myself deeply disappointed by the onslaught of cliches and stereotypes depicted in the film–the lecherous artistic director, the bulimia, the bitchy competitiveness, the coquettish innocence of the young dancer, the co-dependent mother with the unsatisfied career. By the middle of the movie I was dreading how it would all turn out, and of course, it doesn’t turn out well at all. Things get gory until at last there is no return. The crazy bitch kills someone then goes back on stage for the performance of a lifetime before plummeting to her own death. My companion, a dancer, had left the movie laughing uncontrollably somewhere around when Winona Ryder repeatedly jabs her face with a nail file while shrieking, “Not good enough! Not good enough!” I stayed and groaned.
As happens with every major motion picture depicting dance, the dance world has chimed in about the quality of the dancing and the choreography and once again bemoaned Hollywood’s preference for a big name rather than casting a real dancer in the lead role. According to former San Francisco Ballet, Hamburg Ballet and Monte-Carlo Ballet ballerina Muriel Maffre, “A lot of the promo of the film was grotesque–Portman’s year-long preparation, her coach and everything. She probably was the best one to pull it off.” Maffre was bothered by all the hype because after all Portman is not a dancer. Kristine Elliott, ballet lecturer at Stanford University and former member of American Ballet Theatre and Stuttgart Ballet, was equally irritated by the implication that one could fast track becoming a ballerina in less than one year. “It’s like someone saying, ‘I want to try that heart surgeon thing,'” she says. “It takes 10 years to become a dancer.”
Of course, the movie isn’t about dance at all. It’s about one dancer’s mental breakdown in the pursuit of what she hopes will be her finest artistic moment. Nevertheless, everyone’s talking about how true the depictions of life in a large ballet company really are. The New York Times and the UK’s Guardian went so far as to convene groups of professional ballet dancers for screenings of the film, then ran feature articles in which the dancers were asked, “Is this really what it’s like to be a ballet dancer?”
The answer has been yes and no. While the aforementioned cliches are boldly drawn in Black Swan and layered onto one character, the professionals I spoke with mostly agree that these things do exist in the field, just not everywhere or all the time.
Elliott concedes, “All of those elements are part of the dark side of a ballet company. The bulimia is present and some folks resort to drugs and to perfectionism.”
Arturo Fernandez, Ballet Master for LINES Ballet, admits that life in a large ballet company can be competitive and mean, years ago choosing to work with smaller companies instead. “People have been hearing for years that the world of ballet can be treacherous and here it is on film.”
Ballet choreographer Amy Seiwert finds the impression distressing. She says, “I felt like they took every damaged personality trait that a ballet person could have and put it in one person. It kind of kills me a little bit. This is the art form I love and that I’m constantly working to redefine. Watching that was really hard for me because it did put it in a really ugly light.”
Indeed, there has been a long-standing mystique about what goes on in ballet companies and a romanticism about the dancer’s pursuit of physical grace and beauty. It is a pursuit in which not all who try will succeed, of course. In fact, for many failure can be devastating. As Maffre says, “Ballet dancers are obsessed with beauty and that is in many ways tragic.”
Some in the mainstream movie press, however, seem to have taken as a given the fact that the ballet world is populated by narcissistic, damaged souls. Comparing the context of Aronofsky’s previous film The Wrestler, to that of Black Swan, Variety‘s Peter Debruge makes reference to the “more upscale but no less brutal sphere of professional ballet.” Even Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote in his December 3 review of Black Swan: “The asceticism and beauty of ballet and the subjugation, ritual and devotion that a ballerina’s life requires have no other modern equivalent. To find anything like it, you’d have to go back to some medieval cult of hysterical, self-flagellating nuns. Both examples involve young women pursuing some rarefied transcendence that, in a mythic way, speaks to a larger world of female fantasy and experience.”
No mention of a dancer’s devotion to practice as a means of developing her artistry. No deference to the act and practice of dancing experienced as a kind of spirituality by many. And yet, ballerinas aren’t the only artists to have been regarded as more than a little mad by observers, critics and neophytes. Maybe there is some truth to it–the road less traveled does require fortitude and perhaps a little less sanity than the mainstream. Perhaps it’s just easier to call someone crazy or hysterical when you haven’t a reference for understanding him or her.
And by the way, what of the “subjugation, ritual and devotion” imposed by Hollywood on actresses who are constantly evaluated for their appearances and starve themselves to remain popular? Portman herself allegedly lost a considerable amount of weight for the role. Was that to fit a ballet ideal or the ideal demanded by Hollywood? Or was it just good tabloid fodder? Meanwhile, even after dedicating herself to rigorous training for the part, a dance double was used for the more challenging sequences–a dance double upon whose frame Portman’s head and face reportedly were digitally superimposed. It wasn’t even her! I’m starting to feel like Nina Sayer wondering if those thorns in my side are real or imagined.
Nevertheless, it’s easy to be entertained by all the reality bending, did-it-happen-or-was-it-a-dream sequences that compound to reveal Nina’s shattering psyche. It is an effective thriller and despite all the negative depictions of a dancing life, it has put ballet back in the mainstream for the moment. “I’m thrilled it’s having people talk about ballet, what it is and what it is not,” says Maffre. “Ballet is a household word again,” says Elliott. “Every ballet company should be doing Swan Lake and capitalizing on this moment.”
I did go back to see the film a second time, this time with a mature and educated non-dancer. I wanted to see if I was being overly sensitive or too precious about how dance should be treated on film. And yet, after all the puking, flesh pulling, knee breaking, drug-taking, sexual harassment and bitter stage mothering when the movie ended my companion turned to me and asked, “Is that really what it’s like?”