Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Ballet Fiction by Amy Doughty

The following is a piece written by Amy Doughty and relates to our sciSCREENing of The Black Swan on April 14th.

I was a dancer with Ballet Cymru for 13 years. I am now assistant artistic director of the company and am responsible for the training and maintenance of all the professional dancers employed by the company. During my dancing career I danced many leading roles with the company, sustained and recovered from injuries, had an operation to remove a bone spur from my foot, forgot steps on stage, been dropped from lifts, tore and split costumes, put on weight, lost weight, worked with interesting and dynamic choreographers, and overall had a very full and exciting professional ballet dancing career.

As a film to watch for pleasure, I enjoyed Black Swan. As a film to watch for accuracy of the ballet world, it missed the mark. I will always be interested in films which highlight ballet and bring it into the focus of main stream society; however, Black Swan does not accurately depict the profession and, instead, encourages every cliché suspected of the ballet world. The premise of Black Swan could have been placed into any context, be it music, sport, academia etc., In this instance it was placed into the world of ballet but it is not really a film about ballet as such, more about Nina’s state-of-mind, obsession/commitment to her work and her subsequent loss of reality.

In my role as assistant artistic director with Ballet Cymru I endeavour to break down the myths and stereotypes which surround the ballet world and its dancers. In contrast to this, Darren Aronofsky pumps up themes of the ballet industry for dramatic effect and so consequently it becomes more a fantasy film involving an interpretation of ballet. For me, this is particularly highlighted in the casting of Natalie Portman in the role of Nina, a Hollywood actress, rather than casting an actual trained ballet dancer. I cannot help comparing Black Swan to The Red Shoes in which Moyra Sheera, a trained ballet dancer, plays the lead role. Though the plot line of The Red Shoes, as in most ballet films I have seen to date, is far reaching and bear little relation to the ballet profession, I do applaud a film which casts an actual dancer over a Hollywood starlet in a so-called ballet film. I consider Mao’s Last Dancer, an autobiographical novel and recently released film based on the life of dancer Li Cunxin, as an accurate dance film, not only because it is the story of Li’s life and his career in the world of ballet, but because it is cast using dancers of The Australian Ballet Company and Birmingham Royal Ballet Company. For this reason Mao’s Last Dancer has authenticity.

So, Black Swan is not a realistic take on the ballet world, however, there are elements of truth contained within it. The ballet world is a very hard industry. It relies heavily on image and the body, on physical prowess, technique, training and a very strong sense of will and determination. It is a short career with far too few jobs available and for this reason it is extremely competitive. Because of this, dancers tend to be very driven, focused and the outside world can, at times, become something a dancer does not always engage with (to a certain extent). In this respect the film does portray the anxieties and insecurities felt as a dancer is striving to earn her place in a company and be promoted to dance bigger roles. This is, however, exaggerated for dramatic effect by things such as the broken toe nails. In this instance we see the toe nail break and Nina gasp in pain; however, she continues to work en pointe with no further side affect or consequence. In reality this would affect her working en pointe for at least a week due to the injury needing to heal in order to bear the body’s entire weight. The teddy bears on her bed are another example, suggesting a Peter Pan type immaturity and sexual repression. To symbolise the developing fractures in her personality she stuffs her teddies in the rubbish and snaps the spinning ballerina in her jewellery box which had previously lulled her to sleep with tunes from Swan Lake, the ballet which ultimately destroys her. Her commitment with her training and the role of the Black Swan comes at the detriment of making friendships in the company and her idolisation of Beth, who unravels to the point of suicide, becomes another obsession Nina cannot control.

Indeed, Nina’s conflicts, reliance and unhealthy relationship with her pushy ballet mother is demonstrated in her mother’s obsession with Nina’s working and private life, her paintings of Nina, and Nina’s inability to sever herself from her controlling mother. Only through physical pain such as trapping her mother’s fingers in the door and Nina taking her own life can Nina finally sever ties with her mother. Nina’s eating is the one thing she can control and she does this through bulimia. This is done almost in defiance of her mother and Thomas who control every other aspect of her life.

There is some accuracy in the way Thomas pushes his dancers in different ways to produce different results from them but to show him as a sexual predator was highly dramatised. In reality, dancers are protected from this kind of treatment just as individuals are in any other type of work environment with policies, procedures, and good management. There are elements of truth in the way Nina attempts to find the resources to help in her interpretation and connection to the role of Black Swan. Her innocence and purity makes her a natural White Swan yet she knows to dance a convincing Black Swan she needs to find a way to access a darker, or more adventurous side to her personality - a side which has been suppressed. She does this through the exploration of her sexuality, of experimenting with drugs, and through defying her mother. In the end Nina discovers power, both in relation to her mother and with Thomas, and emerges as someone who is finally able to take control of her own life. Unfortunately this comes at the detriment of her existence - once this is realised it is too late to save her.

In truth, Black Swan is a Hollywood version based on observations of the ballet world from an outsider’s point-of-view and taken to the extreme. I doubt Aronofsky’s main concern was to produce a completely realistic film depicting the ballet world, or about psychosis for that matter. His intention was to create a film which would be entertaining and thrilling and perhaps give insight into these areas but ultimately with an Oscar in sight, not realism. While Black Swan did not dispel any myths about the ballet world I cannot deny there are fragments of truth displayed throughout the film. It was a convincing portrayal for the outside world but in reality it was all fantasy and cliché.

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