I have tried to avoid writing about Darren Aronofsky’s pirouetting parody Black Swan, but, having been a professional ballet dancer for George Balanchine, I keep getting asked what I think of the movie. And now that it has garnered a huge audience, numerous passionate fans and five Oscar nominations, it is time to put on my toe shoes, wrap my ribbons, paint on my four-inch black eyebrows, lace-up my wet-tutu suit and take a grand jeté into Aronofsky’s swamp. I mean lake.
One hundred and eight minutes later, as the movie ended, the friend I took — not a dancer — turned to me and asked in all seriousness, “Was that supposed to be camp?” There, on the screen, was a beautiful, bleeding-into-her-tutu Portman as the White Swan, uttering those portentous dying words: “Perfect . . . It was perfect.” As a dancer, I have never been so perfectly insulted.
I had thought when I read those words in the script, this is really stupid simple (the opposite of wicked smart, I would venture), but maybe Aronofsky has one of those things you hear film directors sometimes have: a vision. This was the vision? A dead ballerina in a bloody tutu with the caption “It was perfect”? He could not possibly be basing a film on a ballet dancer — the most fleet, complex, and powerful artist of the physical that exists — and the great 19th-century love story that is Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake by reducing it to one crazy girl’s addiction to perfection. Or could he? Is this how he sees our art? Like a profession full of self-destructive addicts that need an A&E Intervention, a Dr. Phil “How’s it working for you?” talk, or an Oprah bailout? Aronofsky totally missed — or dismissed — the love story that is the raison d’être of the entire ballet and, instead, myopically latched on like a pit bull (and with the same finesse) to the White Swan/Madonna-Black Swan/whore dichotomy and then delivers his sophomoric dissertation with a sledgehammer. He does, however, clearly delineate his Cygnini discoveries: a White Swan masturbates in white grannie panties, while a Black Swan goes (black) thongless into the night. (Aronofsky clearly has a penchant for mutants: his next film is The Wolverine.)
What is even sadder is that the only glimpses of the ballet world that most of the general public sees — and then believes — are these extreme aberrations. I have heard it said of Black Swan’s popularity: “But at least ballet is going on people’s radar.” Better ballet stay off their radar, if so inaccurately represented as a world of insane perfectionists, rather than what it is: a world of masterful devotees to beauty.