Dancing in the Dark: Ballet Is Reduced to Campy Clichés in ‘Black Swan’

So much is awful about the blood-and-tutu psychodrama Black Swan that I perversely want to start with what’s good about it. It really tries to be honest about what life is like for ballet dancers (female ones, that is; the guys are barely discernible in the movie’s fictional ballet company). We see how hard the girls work, how they long for better roles, how they endure the physical pain that’s an unavoidable component of what they do. And its star, Natalie Portman, is utterly game: Having had ballet training as a young girl, she looks plausible, even if there is nothing in the dancing she performs here (when her body double isn’t doing the tough stuff) that proclaims her as particularly talented.

She’s very pretty, of course, and her pale complexion, thin body and one-note intensity suffice to give her a ballerina look. That her voice is tiny and monotonous isn’t a problem–dancers don’t have to sound like Sarah Bernhardt. That her acting is monotonous is a problem–but this isn’t a movie that depends on acting of any depth; it’s about shocking the audience, not persuading it.

What really matters is that Black Swan deploys and exaggerates all the clichés of earlier ballet movies, especially The Red Shoes, another tale of a ballerina driven mad and suicidal. The heroine of Michael Powell’s classic suffers because she’s torn between Life and Art. The heroine of Black Swan suffers because she has a destructive ballet mother (as if this were unique), because she has lesbian impulses (they emerge in one of her psycho-fantasies) and because she is frigid–a serious no-no to male screenwriters and directors, who seem to find frigidity personally offensive. Clearly, she has to die.

Before she does, however, the company’s impresario-choreographer (Vincent Cassel) does his best to unfreeze her, and when that doesn’t work, he sends her home to masturbate–no doubt a tactic he learned from Balanchine and Ashton. Still game, she follows orders, but no go.


BLOOD IS THE leitmotif of Black Swan. It’s everywhere, beginning with Nina’s skin–stigmata of some sort on her back; seeping from her self-mutilations. It pools out from beneath a closed door behind which, in one of her nightmare fantasies, she’s stuffed the body of the friend/rival whom she’s offed in a moment of pique. And of course, at the grand climax of the film and of the “perfect” performance of Swan Lake on which the film centers, it leaks out of her midsection as her Odette impales herself and leaps to her watery doom. It’s so unfair–and so unrealistic: By killing herself, Nina misses out on her curtain calls.

So Black Swan is Grand Guignol with pretensions to class, and audiences are eating it up. Which wouldn’t matter if it weren’t recapitulating all the old, ugly misrepresentations about ballet. Dance is about suffering. Art is inevitably linked to madness. (Nina’s predecessor, forced to retire, is another self-slasher.) You have to become a monster to succeed–or sleep with the boss. And to be an artist you have to feel … to live; talent and hard work aren’t enough. Get out there, Nina, and have a drink, have some pills, have some sex. Throw those stuffed animals out of your bedroom. Then get up on that stage for one perfect performance and … curtains!

What did ballet ever do to deserve this?

Black Swan does what Hollywood movies have always done–it spends its energies on getting some surface things right while getting everything important wrong. Darren Aronofsky, the director, applies the same techniques and the same sensibility here as he did with The Wrestler, only with a prettier protagonist. (Mickey Rourke in a tutu is something I’d like to see.) The advance hype has been brilliant. Some of the acting–notably Mila Kunis as Nina’s nemesis–is a lot of fun. Portman, aiming for the Oscar rather than fun, is good enough. Why is it all so dispiriting? And are deluded ballet parents around the country going to expose their little darlings to this sadomasochistic trip? There are going to be tears.


Dancing in the Dark: Ballet Is Reduced to Campy Clichés in ‘Black Swan’