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Saturday, January 1, 2011

Getting one's feathers up over Black Swan

There's been a lot of hand-wringing among balletomanes about Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan. The wildly popular movie about a young ballerina's descent into madness as she prepares for her big breakthrough in Swan Lake has been criticized for misrepresenting the ballet world by some prominent dance critics, and I've also heard people say how Natalie Portman doesn't really dance in the movie, that Black Swan is camp, and on and on. But I really think people are totally missing the point about this movie, and so I've decided to start the new year off with a blog about Black Swan.

The first thing you need to know about Black Swan is this: it is not a dance movie. Repeat after me, three times: it is not a dance movie. It is not a dance movie. It is not a dance movie. Dance movies vary in their storyline, but they have a few things in common:

1. They feature trained dancers. Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly, John Travolta, Patrick Swayze, Moira Shearer, were examples of trained dancers who made the transition to the big screen. All the dancing in Black Swan is done by a body double (ABT's Sarah Lane). The other actors in the movie (Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Winona Ryder, Barbara Hershey) are not dancers.

2. The highlight of every dance movie is what I'd call the "dance production number." In that number, the camera suddenly pulls back, so one can see the dancer's full body in motion. The music starts, and the dancers onscreen dance an extended sequence that usually serves as the emotional highlight of the movie. Famous examples of dance production numbers are:

Black Swan doesn't contain even one dance production number. There is never an extended dance sequence, approximations of dancing are used in the background to highlight the main storyline. No one will leave Black Swan with any idea of what a ballet looks like.

3. The attitude towards dance. In dance movies, dance is almost always seen as a liberating, expressive, redemptive force. This goes from the Astaire/Rogers films to Saturday Night Fever to Dirty Dancing -- people express their feelings through movement. The famous "Cheek to Cheek" number in Top Hat is famous not just for the dancing, but because Astaire and Rogers are expressing the love they feel for each other through dance instead of words. In Singin' in the Rain Gene Kelly splashes through the rain happily because he's in love, and dance is an expression of the exuberance he feels. In Saturday Night Fever John Travolta's character is a bum and a loser, and he feels like less of one when he discoes. It's a thread of dance films, how inexpressive people learn to express their feelings through movement. Maybe the ultimate line of dance films can be summed up by a famous exchange in The Red Shoes -- Vicky (Moira Shearer) is asked why she wants to dance, and she retorts, "Why do you want to live?"

Black Swan has the opposite message -- the more Nina (Natalie Portman) is told to lose herself through dance, the more inhibited and unhinged she becomes. She starts to hallucinate, and they are violent fantasies. I won't give away the movie's storyline, but suffice to say, Nina never does have that moment when she loses herself in the joy of dancing.

Black Swan is instead a classic example of the psychosexual horror genre. Natalie Portman is the stereotype of every horror movie heroine -- uptight, sexually repressed, highstrung. The voyeuristic images of her maiming herself, "lezzing" out with a rival dancer, hallucinating, and the requisite violent gore, they are hallmarks of horror movies, not dance movies. And within the context of the horror movie genre, I think Black Swan is one of the best to come out in a long time. The ballet Swan Lake is cleverly used as a metaphor for insanity, and Tchaikovsky's music is cleverly reworked effectively to sound like the horror movie music. The performances by the actors in this movie are of a higher level than one usually finds in the horror genre -- besides Portman's unnerving, creepy performance, I also liked Barbara Hershey as the unhinged mom, and Winona Ryder as the unhinged ballerina who's forced into early retirement.

But here is another thing about Black Swan -- no one, and I mean no one, will leave the movie theater and think that they got an inside peek into the life of a ballet company. If you are a balletomane, you'll recognize the fakeness of the many scenes when Natalie Portman is supposedly "dancing," and how obvious it is that no one in the movie seems to have learned a plie. If you're not a balletomane, you'll leave the theater talking about topics as "I wonder how they got those feathers to grow out of her -- cool computer special effects!"

Just as a backdrop, I went to see this movie with a guy who doesn't know squat about ballet, and wild horses couldn't drag him to a real ballet. But he is an expert on horror films, and I trust his judgment on what is good horror and what is bad horror. He thought the horror of Black Swan was a bit tame, but analyzed with me such important things as how real the blood looked, how much he hated the sound effect of crunching nails, and how hot the lezzing out scene was. In other words, people leave the movie talking about the horror parts of it, because that's what the movie is -- a horror movie.

So balletomanes, relax. Read up all about the juicy backlot details -- the real ballet dancer in the movie, Benjamin Millepied, dumped his longtime ballerina girlfriend for Natalie Portman during the making of the movie. Portman is now pregnant with Millepied's baby. Meanwhile, if you want to watch real dance films, there are tons. Besides the obvious ones (Astaire movies, Singin' in the Rain, Saturday Night Fever, Dirty DancingThe Red Shoes), my favorite dance movie of all time is one where there are no dancers at all. Fantasia is a wordless animated movie, where mushrooms to brooms dance to music, and the effect is magical.

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