Art under pressure: Black Swan & ballet today

‘Tis the season for Christmas parties, and thus for impromptu movie reviews. My fellow brunchgoer on Black Swan: “That movie was TERRIBLE!!” Her opinion had to be somewhat credible because she brought an adorable pit-bulldog mix decked out in a red bandanna. You can’t go wrong with festive dogs.

So how was it?

Black Swan must be enjoyed on its own terms or not at all. A bizarre creation with startling shifts in tone, from scenery-chewing to arthouse to gross-out horror, it can’t be pigeonholed as a chick flick.

I found much to admire. The formalist color palette of black, white, gray and pink drove the story forward. The acting was superb across the board. The dance sequences were carefully crafted to be credible: the story was told significantly in closeup, where Portman’s facial eloquence made her a satisfying interpreter of the dual swan role. (As Nina Sayers, she achieved a notable degree of upper-body mastery, though not the fully stretched feet of a trained dancer.)

I wondered earlier whether Nina Sayers would meet a better fate than Red Shoes character Vicky Page—if she would be actualized or annhilated by her artistic striving. I have my answer. Given that I was hoping, however inappropriately, for a current statement on female artmaking, I was disappointed. Well, a movie is not a self-help manual.

Ballet in real life

Black Swan’s exaggerations are rooted in reality, but the movie doesn’t reflect changes happening within the contemporary ballet scene—that dancers are talking as well as being talked about. Here Jenifer Ringer responds on the Today Show to critic Alastair Macaulay’s comment that “she’d eaten one sugar plum too many.”

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Nina’s personal immaturity and self-mutilating perfectionism are more common in fledgling dancers. It’s a surprise to see such a fragile flower rise that high in a professional company. As in sports, mental toughness and pragmatism are required to succeed. Unlike Nina Sayers, 37 year-old Jenifer Ringer acquired these qualities after a rocky entry into the dance world.

Or take the example of ABT principal Veronika Part. Out of favor with the company director, at times out of condition and plagued by nervous mistakes, and also facing a language barrier, she addressed the negative feedback and rededicated herself to her work. She earned the promotion she sought, instead of quitting and returning to her native Russia.

Today’s (overlapping) ballet trends include

  1. Transparency & accessibility. Audiences are treated to realistic behind-the-scenes looks at the creation of ballets and the lives of dancers.
    • Morphoses, the company founded by Christopher Wheeldon, popularized the practice of showing explanatory video before the curtain goes up.
    • When dancer Kristin Sloan started her blog The Winger, she chronicled her personal struggle with injuries that were ultimately career-ending. Along the way she built a second career applying new media to dance, recruiting others to turn The Winger into a community of voices. After a stint as Director of New Media at New York City Ballet, she set up her own company to create video content for arts clients.
  2. Authorship & entrepreneurship. Dancers network, collaborate and initiate projects without waiting to be told what to do.
    • A group of NYCB dancers led by Ellen Bar and Sean Suozzi produced an outstanding film version of Jerome Robbins’ NY Export: Opus Jazz outside the umbrella of the company. “We decided to put our dancers in regular clothes, instead of costumes. It makes the dance even more accessible. Ballet doesn’t have to be a mysterious art form—it’s our most natural, visceral expression,” says Suozzi.
    • Professional dancers Yumiko Takeshima and Candice Thompson channeled their expertise into creating their own dancewear lines, Yumiko and LOLAstretch. Thompson is now moving on with her costume design career and a broader artistic venture, DIYdancer. Yumiko created custom leotards for Black Swan.
    • Young dancer Emery LeCrone is building a promising choreographic career while she continues to perform.
  3. Personal development & career change. Every dancer faces the question “What next?” when they retire at relatively young ages. They are moving into positions in arts administration, medicine, fitness, and other creative fields.

Natalie Portman’s Black Swan character is a compelling anachronism. Today’s ballet dancers see themselves as grownups, not figures in a music box. They are losing their otherworldly aura. I often miss it, but I am glad to see them challenge the doomed, fragile artist trope.

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