It was with great anticipation I went to a recent screening of Black Swan. The film has already been a box-office smash with Natalie Portman tipped for an Oscar so I was saddened to find that it was a bit of a lame duck. There were some excellent things in the film and I applaud director Darren Aronofsky for pursuing his decade-long dream of making this movie that skillfully blends encroaching madness and reality. Despite not being a ballet dancer, Natalie Portman gave an excellent performance, though the one-dimensional script offered her little in the way of character development. Throughout the film her beautiful, fragile face looked like the poster, a cracked egg.
People who are not dancers may come away from Black Swan feeling it was over the top, but life in the ballet world can be far more melodramatic than the world portrayed in this film: bitchier, crueler and more psychologically devastating. When I was a young dancer in Texas, a male guest artist from the Harkness Ballet in New York City was flown in to perform. I will never forget what he told me: that someone in his home company was so jealous of his swift rise through the ranks that they put ground glass in his ballet shoes.
It was common practise when I was training for dancers to be taunted about their weight when they didn’t have a weight problem and to humiliate them if they did. Many already paper-doll-thin dancers developed eating disorders as a result of endlessly trying to please an unpleaseable teacher, choreographer or director. The worst victims were always the sensitive ones like Nina in Black Swan. Only years later did I realise that what was going on: balletic S & M. Sadistic adults toying and verbally whipping their young, masochistic victims. At least Nina had the presence of mind to bite her director’s tongue hard enough to make him bleed.
I think Aronofsky was hoping to make a contemporary Red Shoes, a movie classic which was probably responsible for launching more ballet careers than any other film. In this 1948 film the ballet director (played by Anton Wallbrook) asks Moira Shearer why she wants to dance with his company. Eyes blazing, she replies, ‘Why do you want to live?’ In Black Swan, ballet is not Nina’s life. It is what fills up her otherwise empty life.
Nina, like everyone else in her company, is infantilised because ballet careers start early; serious training begins at eight years old. In the dance world when a class is spoken to collectively, they are never called men and women. It is always, 'Boys and girls, take ten,' or 'Boys and girls, on stage for notes.' Dancers are, and have always been pawns, in a dance game of chess because they are dispensable. It is the kings and queens that always win.
Stay tuned . . .