The Black Swan — a ballet fan’s take

by Rob Tiller

On Saturday night Sally and I did dinner and a movie — Tom Yum Thai and The Black Swan. I had the tofu spicy noodles, which were tasty (medium spicy means spicy!). We were looking forward to and slightly dreading The Black Swan, but for ballet fans, it’s hard to avoid it. Hollywood makes about one big ballet movie a generation, so this may be it for a while.

There were several things about the movie I liked. Natalie Portman as the rising ballerina has a porcelain mixture of delicate fragility and surprising power. She is convincing as a normal, if unusually hardworking and talented, young woman. But little by little, the mask slips, and we realize she is laboring hard to portray normality, and she’s becoming deranged. She has a lot of close-ups, and her fleeting micro expressions and larger meltdowns convey an interior tempest. Watching her is at first just fun, and then, increasingly, excruciating, but never boring. It’s an impressive performance.

The movie got a lot of little things about ballet right or at least close, from the dancer’s preparation of toe shoes to costuming details. It’s not a bad introduction to what happens behind the curtain leading up to and during a production. It also conveyed the unusual combination of camaraderie and intense competition among dancers.

I also liked one of the central themes: that dancing is more than the steps. Ballet is full of paradoxes. To fulfill the basic demands of the form is tremendously difficult. Mastering the vocabulary of movements require tremendous physical ability plus years of training, and the enormous technical demands are complicated by the need to assimilate generations of custom and tradition. To be even adequate as a dancer requires an extraordinary human. But the technical achievement alone is not the real point. A true artist is not simply going through a predetermined set of movements. A great ballet performance explores and communicates difficult-to-reach emotions. This does not always happen, but when it does, it is sublime.

The Black Swan in effect said this, although it will probably not convince ballet skeptics that it really happens. The dancing in the movie does not look hokey, which is good. But it never seems transcendent. This is problematic for the story line, which concerns transcendence. But the failure of the dancing to catch fire didn’t disappoint me greatly. It is, after all, a movie. To see real ballet, you need to go to the ballet.

My bigger problem with the movie was that it organized itself around the stereotype that the quest for beauty is a dangerous obsession, and the artist is a sort of madman/woman. As with all stereotypes, there’s a grain of truth in the mad artist story, but great art does not at all depend on sickness. It is fundamentally healthy and life affirming. Mental illnesses of an artist are real problems for the artist. Of course, a movie about a well-balanced young woman pursuing dancing greatness in a calm and well balanced manner would have had less kick. And probably zero box office.

But it’s disturbing to think that a lot of people will take away the idea that great ballerinas must be crazy or that there’s something basically sick about the art. It’s also unfortunate that there are a few scenes of gore in the movie that will disgust some audience members and overwhelm all their other impressions. For those with reasonably a reasonably strong tolerance for suspense and gore, though, The Black Swan is worth seeing. I’m not sure how I’ll feel about the movie as time goes by, but it certainly transported me out of my usual world and into another one.