Black Swan - Love it or Hate it?

Ballet teacher Jennifer Teale reviews this most intriguing film

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Oscar nominee Natalie Portman in Black Swan

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A dark and sinister look into the extreme world of professional ballet, critically acclaimed director Darren Aronofsky’s latest work, Black Swan, is a twisted tale of the pursuit of perfection. Loosely based on the traditional plot of Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake, Black Swan tells the story of Nina, an obedient and ambitious young ballerina determined to win the conventionally dual roles of Odette, the white swan and Odile her evil counterpart in the classical ballet, Swan Lake. Played by Natalie Portman, who lost considerable weight and trained in ballet for a year for the role, Nina’s pure-as-the-driven-snow demeanour is achingly perfect for the part of the white swan. In order to win the role however she must play both swans; white and black, pure and seductive, good and evil, with equal conviction.

The search for her inner black swan takes Nina on a fearful journey, driven on by a terrifying mother (Barbara Hershey), a rebellious rival (Mila Kunis) and a morally dubious artistic director (Vincent Cassel). Taking Tchaikovsky’s ballet and mixing it with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera and cult dance film Centre Stage, Aronofsky’s masterpiece is a thrilling psychological horror story of destructive ambition that is both enthralling and entertaining but is it true to real life?

A Dancer's Life

An issue raised early in the film is that ballet is no longer popular, no one goes to the theatre and audience numbers are falling, Cassel’s company need to offer something unique to reignite the audience’s interest, they offer Nina, Portman’s character. In reality Aronofsky’s film parallels this idea. Black Swan is a fresh look at a classical tale, kindling new interest in ballet and drawing in new audiences, something the dance world should welcome in this time of financial turmoil within the arts.

Putting the occasionally questionable port de bras (arm movements) aside, many dancers would relate to Portman’s character. Crying on the phone to your mum when the casting list goes up, whilst not encouraged, is common place in the dance world, but then, whatever your profession, I am sure everyone has moments when they feel like secretly sobbing in the toilets. Few, however, dancer or otherwise, would relate to Nina’s obsessive self destruction or Hershey’s characters eerie intrusion into her daughters life. In reality, it would be difficult for a dancer to succeed without an enthusiastic parent on hand to drive them to classes, sew ribbons on ballet shoes and make sure they practice their steps and have a good nights sleep before an exam or audition, but being an encouraging and supportive parent is a far cry from the controlling mother figure, who watches while you sleep, portrayed by Hershey in the film.

Overtly sexual, violent and gruesome, Black Swan is not for the faint hearted, but albeit on an entirely different level, neither is a career as a professional ballet dancer. Like all major sports, ballet is extremely competitive. In order to succeed you need to train regularly and with total commitment from an early age. This often, in teenage years may mean making sacrifices in terms of other hobbies and social events. It is for the individual to decide whether the reward of success out ways missing out on the occasional party.

Whilst sadly eating disorders and easily avoidable injuries, indeed, still exist in the ballet world, they are no longer the norm and certainly no more prevalent than in any other highly competitive professional sport. Dancers, male and female are given support both mentally and physically from an early age. They are taught about nutrition, injury prevention and how to take care of their own bodies. In addition many vocational schools and large companies have a strong support network in place offering help to those struggling mentally under the pressure to perform and providing professional help where required, something Portman’s character could of benefited from. Whilst Black Swan follows the story of Nina, one unfortunate individual the rest of the ballet corps seem perfectly well adjusted and happy, she is the exception to the rule.
The world of professional ballet is a tough one but it is rewarding. Ballet teaches mental and physical discipline, improves fitness and musical awareness, creates friendships and, above all, it is fun. Black Swan is a dark masterpiece of a movie that should appeal to everyone from lovers of horror to dance enthusiasts alike, but let it not be a cautionary tale.

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8th February 2011