Black Swan: Analysis of Ballet in Modern Film
The soul of an artist is the passion for the art. Black Swan, directed by Darren Aronofsky and screenplay by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin, had opened the world of professional ballet to the silver screen. Modern society, while commonly holding ballet as the highest art form, believes in the superficial idea of ballet: beauty and grace. However, the “idea of ballet is narrower: obsession, torment, inadequacy, paranoia, delusion,” as writer Alastair Macaulay of the New York Times describes in his article The Many Faces of ‘Black Swan,’ Deconstructed. The film depicts the downward spiral many aspiring artists have to go through to achieve greatness, following the life of a 28 year old ballerina in the New York City Ballet Company. As the audience spirals along side our young female lead, the audience realizes that the film centralizes around one theme: “Absolute perfection requires absolute sacrifice.” (The Anatomy of the Obsessed Artist)
The film takes a dark turn from a movie about jealousy and ambition into a psychological thriller. Nina- the protagonist of this 2010 American film- is a perfect, child-like member of the corps that pines for a principle role in the first ballet of the season. Her naive nature creates the perfect background for her portrayal of the White Swan, but she realizes that her perfectionism restricts her from fully obtaining the essence of the Black Swan. Heyman, Heinz, and McLaughlin- screenplay writers of the film, writes this in the script in the first act of the film: “Although [Nina’s] movement is incredibly precise, there’s a definite vulnerability. Exactly as the White Swan should be: fear tinged with melancholy.” Nina’s foil, Lily, is described to be “explosive, exudes sex,” by its screenplay writers, and specifically sets the character to be the antagonist in Nina’s eyes. As the film progresses, the audience sees that in reality, Lily was a vehicle to Nina’s psychological downfall and the true antagonist of the film is Nina’s alter-ego. As she struggles to stay on top of Lily’s deception (in reality Nina’s imagination), Nina finds that she has to first feel broken and damaged to understand and live through the Black Swan, and therefore become her idea of perfection.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet Swan Lake, was composed in 1875 to 1876 for the Bolshoi ballet and premiered on the Bolshoi Theater stage in Moscow, Russia on March 4, 1877. Since its premiere, the ballet has been reimagined on a multitude of stages around the world. The story line, based off of a Russian folk tale, creates the perfect backdrop for the characters and their desires for Black Swan. In the New York Times article The Many Faces of ‘Black Swan,’ Deconstructed, Macaulay describes the seemingly stereotypical parallels of Black Swan’s characters and Swan Lake’s characters: “‘Black Swan’s’ alter-ego rivalries and divided-ego visions connect intimately to the good-bad, white-black, active-passive Odette-Odile heroines of ‘Swan Lake.’” It is the tale as old as time, dark versus light force of good versus evil. The film categorizes this by placing Nina in primarily white or light pink clothing. Nina’s hair is perfectly in a bun, light makeup, with light jewelry. Her image evokes feelings of innocence, similar to the image of the White Swan. The foil, Lily, is primarily in black clothing. Her hair is down, dark eyeliner, with a large back tattoo. Her image evokes feelings of rebellion, especially in the professional background of the New York City Ballet Company. The film continues to categorize these women in their neat types of protagonist and antagonist until the climax of the film when Nina imagines killing Lily (in reality her inner demon restricting her from reaching her full potential) and transforming into a literal Black Swan hybrid, sprouting wings and growing bird-like facial features. The dark versus light theme shifts the audience’s expectations of the film when the audience no longer can identify the antagonist as a separate being but Nina herself, mirroring the double casting of Swan Queen as the White Swan and the Black Swan.
The Icarus of the story, Nina has flown too close to the sun and has resulted into her eventual demise. The film ends with Nina finishing the perfect performance of her career as she falls onto the crash pad at the end of Swan Lake when the Swan Queen commits suicide. Her calm expression on her face as she bleeds out on the floor gives a darker tone as she presents her last line to Thomas: “It was perfect,” as the lights from the stage swallow her into the credits. This harsh reality of pain for perfection depicted through the film seems far fetched, but to not be too far off from the true lives of professional ballerinas and ballet dancers. Margot Fonteyn, a famous English ballet dancer in the 1940s, wrote this in her autobiography: “I’m sure if everyone knew how physically cruel dancing really is, nobody would watch — only those people who enjoy bullfights!” The cultural pressure of outer beauty and physical pressure of the body itself is represented well through the film, however some may argue it was too harsh of a reality for many to enjoy, Macaulay writing: “It goes out of its way to contradict the old escapist idea that ‘everything’s beautiful at the ballet.’ Instead it takes energy from the aspects of ballet that are cruel and unfair.” Audiences around the world are uncomfortable with what happens behind closed doors, but artists, if mindlessly committed, will do whatever it takes to receive that perfection.
A cut line, originally written for the mentor and director of the ballet in the film- Thomas Leroy, perfectly describes the essence of the artform: “What we do is beautiful, but fleeting. Dance is not immortalized like music, poetry, or art. It doesn’t grow in museums and churches. It lives for now. For this moment only. And this is your moment.” (Heyman, Heinz, McLaughlin) The shared breath between the audience and the performer is what attracts people of all walks of life into a theater. There is something thrilling about seeing something that no one else can replicate exactly the next night. The audience around you will not be the same. The performer will have different energy levels for different aspects of the performance the next day. The reality of live art is harsh to the eyes of those blinded by the work presented on stage, but the story told by Aronofsky and Heyman, Heinz, and McLaughlin (no matter how dramatized it was presented) had truth behind its flashy actions. Artists cannot have complete perfection without giving themselves completely to the art. And if done so, the artist is prepared to receive the full consequences as sacrifice for a glimpse of a perfect moment in time