Bird watch: the NS dance critic's verdict on Black Swan

Black Swan (reviewed by Ryan Gilbey for the NS) has caused much affronted beating of wings in the ballet world, and you can see why. A rare opportunity for ballet to garner mainstream attention delivers this: a story of an obsessive-compulsive wannabe ballerina, a controlling stage mother, a louche rival, a sexually manipulative Svengali and an embittered has-been. There's also vomiting, bleeding, paranoid hallucinations, some soulless masturbation and some drug-fuelled lesbian sex(ploitation). Furthermore, the little ballet shown is a sideline to the story, and the choreography is no great shakes. "What did ballet ever do to deserve this?" wailed Robert Gottlieb in the New York Observer, speaking for many.

The other main accusation has been that the actors don't measure up as dancers. In fact, Mila Kunis in the bad-girl role doesn't have to; she just has to look toned and hot. Natalie Portman does pretty well as the lead, with her elongated neck and etiolated look, but any ballet-goer would notice that the arch of the spine, hold of the arms and articulation of the hip are not those of a professional dancer.

These arguments over how representative or realistic the film is are, I think, of limited interest. In any case, they have short answers: the negative stereotypes are indeed hyperbolic and unrepresentative, but contain germs of truth, and the actors need only convince as dancers within the terms of the film, which they do. More interesting to me is a different perspective - Black Swan appears to be part of a long film tradition in which ballet is associated with madness, sickness, torture, the paranormal and death, and where stock characters recur: the monstrous maestro, the evil twin or jealous rival, the dying maiden.

The Red Shoes (1948) is the best-known example. Regularly upheld as a cinema classic, it is thematically of a piece with ballet potboilers such as The Mad Genius (1931) and Specter of the Rose (1946), and emotionally with tearjerkers such as Waterloo Bridge (1940) or Dance Little Lady (1954). Melodrama, it seems, is a natural home for ballet on screen, and latterly - witness Suspiria (1977), Audition (1999) and Wishing Stairs (2003) - so is its genre cousin, horror.

That's not so surprising. The classic ballets - Giselle, La Sylphide, Coppélia and, naturally, Swan Lake - are riddled with Gothic themes: fantasy, transformation, deception, sex and death. Aronofsky has said he wanted to make Black Swan "a kind of ballet", and the campily enjoyable result suggests that he has succeeded. Rather than complain that Black Swan misrepresents ballet, we could celebrate ballet's influence on it. To those it offends, I echo the hammy advice of Black Swan's own monstrous maestro to its uptight starlet: indulge yourself. Live a little.

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times