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22 January 2011

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

By Sanjoy Roy

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.

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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.