Posts Tagged ‘Nathalie Portman’

“Black Swan”: A Beastly Ballet Film and Martha Hill: Modern Dance Wrestler

Tuesday, December 7th, 2010

By Rachel Straus

How many ballet clichés can one film hold? Answer: Enough to make you puke. And that is what Natalie Portman spends a fair amount of time doing in “Black Swan,” the pulp ballet movie directed by Darren Aronofsky, which opened December 3. Portman, who plays Nina Sayers, a corps member of a ballet company, isn’t just a bulimic. Like her historic predecessor Victoria Page in the film “Red Shoes” (1948), La Danse makes her bonkers. Ballet, as the old cliché goes, demands a ballerina’s complete subjugation of pleasure. And so the normal desires of a young woman—a love life, some independence and autonomy—are as remote to Nina as a good meal.

In “Black Swan” the protagonist is pain, not this rising dancer Nina. The foil is satire: Nina lives in a pink room among stuffed animals and a tinkling ballerina music box. Whether in the studio or at home she is everyone’s punching bag. Is she an artist? No way. She’s a tool. And when she uses a primitive one to kill herself, she says with a smile “I felt it.” Meaning that she finally understands the dual demands required of the ballerina performing the lead in the late 19th century ballet “Swan Lake:” The White Swan is the virgin and sacrificial lamb; the Black Swan is the whore and murderer (according to Aronofsky). Nina dies with a smile on her face knowing she was both. Now that’s morbidly pathetic.  

Why does Nina dance? Where as Victoria Page (played by Royal Ballet principal Moira Shearer) answers this question in “Red Shoes” with the poise of a peacock—telling her future boss that it’s as necessary as living—no one bothers to ask Nina why she’s willing to endure the mental and physical demands of a highly disciplined life. This lack of character development strikes at the heart of Aronofsky’s problematic ballet flick. The director possesses zero admiration for anyone striving to be an athlete and an artist before they reach their 30th birthday. There is no convincing footage demonstrating how dancers fall in love with the possibility of becoming art. Bone-thin Portman, who is on screen 99 percent of the time, isn’t a dancer. How could she demonstrate the joy and power of dancing? The fact that American Ballet Theatre soloist Sarah Lane is her dancing double doesn’t help. Lane is shot from the calf down or at distance that makes her look like a specter.

Aronofsky got one thing right: Dancers experience pain (subsuming themselves to the aesthetic and physical demands of their art form). But in “Black Swan,” pain is the trope to drive home Aronofsky’s plot in which Nina transforms into a swan—scales and all. Nina’s transformation is gory and sadistic. She mutilates (until she loses finger nails, cracks her bones, and plunges glass into her belly). She is sexually exploited and victimized (in hopes of becoming a more sensual dancer). All the while she goes mad (seeing things and imagining others).

Aronofsky recently told the media that he was surprised that the ballet world didn’t roll out the red carpet, when he announced that he would be making a dance film that would take “Swan Lake” and turn it into a gore fest where female dancers are featured as sex-starved or sex-crazed victims of male power. Perhaps those who were asked to be Aronofsky’s consultants caught his previous film, “The Wrestler” (2008).  In it an aging pro wrestler (Mickey Rourke) is addicted to being pumped, popping pills, and being applauded for getting pulverized. At the end of “Black Swan,” Nina dances “Swan Lake,” whipping her standing leg in perfect circles while her working leg rises up and down on pointe (fuettes). The crowd roars as though she’s Hulk Hogan at a Las Vegas World Wrestling Championship.

Following in the tradition of slasher movies and exploitation films, “Black Swan” is particularly American because it thumbs its nose at high art and its earnest, eccentric, obsessive purveyors. With this in mind, critics reviewed “Black Swan” favorably. Vincent Cassel as the sadistic ballet company chief, Barbara Hershey as the “Mommy Dearest” mother, and Winona Ryler as the aging, raging Ballerina are appropriately monstrous and consequently entertaining. But why New York City Ballet principal dancer and choreographer Benjamin Millepied signed on to play The Prince continues to pain me. My guess is that his decision has something to do with money and a lot to do with Natalie Portman, who is now his girlfriend.


Another film that involves dance, but will not get the kind of publicity as the Portman vehicle is Greg Vander Veer’s. At Symphony Space on December 6 in conjunction with Martha Hill Dance Fund, Vander Veer screened an excerpt of his work-in-progress documentary on the dance pioneer Martha Hill (1900-1995).

Hill’s impact on modern dance education in America was equal to Serge Diaghilev’s impact on ballet performance in Europe, writes Janet Mansfield Soares (Wesleyan University Press, 2009). The former Martha Graham dancer created dance departments at New York University, Bennington College, and The Juilliard School. She helped foster dozens of others around the world. She organized the first summer seasons of what is now the American Dance Festival.

In her recent biography of Hill, Soares unearths and reveals Hill’s gargantuan mission to make the nascent modern dance movement as viable as the 400-hundred-year-old ballet tradition. The focus of Vander Veer’s documentary excerpt and Soares’s book is Hill’s battle to bring modern dance (in combination with ballet training) to Lincoln Center, where The Juilliard School was in the process of creating a state-of-the-art, performing arts headquarters.

The problem for Hill and her dance department was the New York City Ballet. Under the executive leadership of Lincoln Kirstein (whose connection to power was that of an oligarch), City Ballet demanded the dance portion of the Juilliard building for its School of American Ballet. At the panel, former Juilliard dance student Risa Steinberg talked about the debacle. Steinberg, now the Associate Director of the Juilliard Dance Division, described how she and fellow students stood outside the State Theater and asked people to sign a petition to keep her school alive. “The voices of all these other people became as loud as Balanchine’s money,” said Steinberg. In the end, the dance division prevailed. But the story is much larger than City Ballet versus Juilliard’s dance department. It’s about the ongoing battle between ballet and modern dance for money, theaters, and audiences. The details are ugly. The personalities are colossal. I hope this film by Greg Vander Veer and his young associates gets made.