Saturday, January 29, 2011

Has Black Swan Influenced Perceptions of Ballet?

In Black Swan, dancer Nina Sayers loses her mind as she prepares for both the movie's title role and the role of the white swan in a production of Swan Lake. The Black Swan character is evil and sensual, characteristics that Nina must find within herself to play the Black Swan well. Early on in the film it becomes clear that she has a history of mental health issues. She becomes increasingly paranoid as her preparation for the role consumes her, but it's always unclear what is really happening: is the blood real? The feathers? To Nina, they are real and so they are real to us.

But what consequences may such a dark film have on perceptions of ballet dancers? Several dancers have come out in an obvious PR move to try to dispel stereotypes of ballet dancers as being cold, masochistic, tightly wound and super competitive. In a December Los Angeles Times interview, two principal dancers in the New York's American Ballet Theatre answer questions about similarities between Nina's experiences in Black Swan and their own experiences preparing for and performing in shows.

While they explain that some aspects of the film are realistic, at points it is clear that Murphy and Hallberg, particularly Murphy, are trying to debunk notions of ballet that Black Swan has perpetuated:

GM: "Most of my colleagues have a great sense of humor... you have to embrace the role onstage and experience what that character is about — very repressed and angry. But does that mean I was a nightmare to live with? Absolutely not ... The mean-spiritedness portrayed in the movie was disturbing to me ... It (dance film The Red Shoes) asks the question of how can a dancer experience and portray greatness onstage and also have a full personal life — and as a woman, have kids and get married. In this day and age, people do it all the time."

This interview and other articles about the Black Swan film clearly show that some in the ballet world are afraid about the impact the film may have on people's perceptions of their craft. Will Black Swan hurt ballet? Apparently not. Tickets for The New York City Ballet and Russian National Ballet at Valley Performing Arts Center productions of Swan Lake have been selling wildly.


  1. This is nicely written. I haven't seen the film yet, however, there have been a number of movies that center on the world of ballet from different angles. The Red Shoes ( a classic) was mentioned by way of example. Others in recent memory are, White Nights and Dancers ( two that starred Baryshnikov), Robert Altman's The Company, The Turning Point ( about two women who make different choices with respect to a career in dance), and Mao's Last Dancer, about a Chinese ballet dancer's experience of the Western world.
    So, the stir in the ballet community may just be PR, as stated. And there is nothing wrong with that in terms of drawing attention to this art. As you conclude, interest in ballet, and ticket sales are up!

  2. My friend Jo has blogged about Black Swan as well - her daughter is a Real Ballerina.

    Such a strange world - ballet I mean. Arduous, athletic, demanding. What I imagine is that there are all kinds of personalities among the dancers, yes?

    Do you dance?

  3. I really want to see this film, but I'll probably wait until it comes out on DVD. We usually only go to the movies when both of us really want to see the movie (since it's $9 oer person) and Paul isn't that interested. We're going to see The King's Speech this afternoon and I'm so excited!

    Thanks for the review and the link to the interview. I've taken ballet on and off and I know from friends who have danced how intense it is. Hopefully this film will get the under-80s back to the ballet!

  4. Mythopolis - Thanks so much for sharing this background of ballet in film!

    Reya - Welcome to my blog! Yes, it does seem like such a strange world. I dance around my house, but that's about it. Ha ha. Also, I took ballet lessons for 8 years (1989-1997)and quit before my class started pointe. I wasn't at all good enough for that and didn't want to do it because of the strain it puts on the body. Thanks for your thoughts and inquiry.

    theTsaritsa - I want to see The Red Shoes!

    Lauren - Yes, I know, going to the movies is so expensive! I usually don't go, but I made the exception for Black Swan and LOVED it! The King's Speech is another film I really want to see. Have fun and please let me know how you like it!
    Thanks for your comment. You are a good source with ballet in your life. As I just told Reya, I took ballet lessons for 8 years. Not seriously and I quite before pointe, but even a weekly hour-long lesson hard on my body.

  5. Haven't seen it just yet and I can't say I really had preconceived notions about ballet dancers either.

    Having said that, the people in the world that do the greatest things often tend to be a bit strange. It takes a special kind of drive to be at the top of your profession, and that usually means sacrifices in other areas.

  6. I think that the Black Swan movie will help increase public interest in seeing the ballet, but it probably will also re-enforce people's ideas of how the ballet world works.

    I have a negative view of the ballet world because a friend's bulimia was primarily caused by a ballet teacher. She was thin, but not "thin enough" and under constant pressure to lose weight.

    But it is beautiful to watch.

  7. Christopher - Great point that these qualities are not unique to ballet dancers. Thanks!

    Linda - Yes, I think you may be right about Black Swan reinforcing. I'm not sure why the dancers and interviewers in this piece I discussed didn't address Natalie's major weight loss for the film. Thanks.

  8. I havn't seen the movie (glad I read this cuz I sure wont watch it with my husband) and I know nothing of the ballet but now I want to see the Movie. However I do know something about mental illness and know my husband see things that are not there but are very real to him...our brain is a scary place sometimes.

  9. Great reviwe of the movie, will love to see it:)

  10. Michelle - Thanks for commenting. I would actually like to know what people with mental health issues think of this film. I can see how it might offend.

    Toyin - Welcome to my blog! Thank you! I loved this movie. I hope you enjoy it too. Great picture by the way. Thanks for your comment!

  11. Not an accurate depiction of ballet?

    I suspected as much. It’s that darn director, Darron Aronofky. Again.
    I am a regular drug user, and his film “Requiem for a Dream” was NOTHING like my experience. I met a wrestler once, and that didn’t seem anything like Aronofky’s “The Wrestler”… And none of my Jewish friends have gone crazy because of numbers like the protagonist in “Pi”…

    He seems to have a theme in his movies about obsessed people being destroyed by their obsessions.
    But you bring up a good point. Real people and industries can feel the impact of his chosen storytelling vehicles.

    Wild stuff.

  12. For me, Nina's relationship with her mother sort of mitigated any thoughts that what I was seeing in the film was universal-ballerina-truth. Clearly, a lot of what she was going through psychologically was very specific to her character. I was, however, kind of concerned about the eating disorder that she obviously had. That seemed kind of real to me, especially since it was just a subtle character detail and not the main focus of conflict.