Why the Black Swan Is On Point

by Suzanne Gordon on December 14, 2010

Two decades ago, I tried to turn a non-fiction book into a movie. My hopeful trip to Hollywood was occasioned by publication of Off Balance: The Real World of Ballet, an expose of conditions behind the scenes at American Ballet Theatre and other professional dance companies. My journalistic account of starvation diets, workplace injuries, manipulative ballet masters, stage mothers from hell, and a ballet dancers’ strike was well received by dancers. Wealthy New York balletomanes were less enthused. Those who see nothing but beauty at the ballet don’t like to be reminded of its dark underside.

Thanks to Off Balance, the silver screen beckoned for one brief moment. I found myself with a real producer, on the back lot of a major film studio, leafing through a casting directory as thick as a phone book. Unfortunately, Natalie Portman was two years old at the time and not returning phone calls. We couldn’t find another well-known actress who was both bankable and able to play a ballerina. Lacking any committed female star, Off Balance became a project that “died in development,” as they say in the business.

In Hollywood, no good idea stays dead forever. The film that finally got made about the real world of ballet — without my help — is called The Black Swan and opened this month in Boston. Starring the Harvard-educated Portman, this psychological thriller is lurid and outlandish; it is to professional ballet what director Darren Aronofsky’s previous film, The Wrestler, was to that brutal world of blue-collar make-believe. But the film does convey, quite accurately, the essential misogyny of an art form that idealizes the feminine while leaving many young women in very bad shape, emotionally and physically.

Portman plays Nina Sayers, who just broken out of the ballet “corps” and won a principal dancer role in Swan Lake. She personifies the obsessive, competitive, and ultimately self-destructive character type produced by too many American ballet schools and companies. Her big career break comes with the chance to re-invent a ballet classic. Instead of having different prima ballerinas portray the virginal Swan Queen and her doppelganger, the Black Swan, the charismatic maestro of this Swan Lake production (played by Vincent Cassel) casts Portman’s character as both.

Wear and tear-wise, this is a bit like playing quarterback and linebacker for the same pro team; the hits to the head on offense and defense would double your trouble later on. Since Nina is troubled upstairs to begin with, the physical ordeal of dancing both parts, fending off a seductive rival for one, living with her domineering mother, pleasing her director, and maintaining her bulimic figure leads to painful professional martyrdom by the time the curtain falls.

To prepare for her role, the already trim Portman shed twenty pounds. In true-to-life modern ballerina form, she appears, on screen, to be a prepubescent girl. Her Swan Lake look reflects the cruel esthetic of ballet in this country, a legacy of George Balanchine, the autocratic Russian dance master and choreographer who dominated the field for fifty years. Balanchine’s influence at New York City Ballet, and far beyond, has caused generations of dancers to starve themselves out of all the attributes of a real female body — like breasts, hips, and the ability to reproduce.

Their sacrifice leaves many so malnourished that healing from dance injuries is difficult—and they get banged up a lot. In their twenties and thirties, some have the bone density of osteoporotic post-menopausal women.

In her interviews about Black Swan, Natalie Portman has bravely criticized the” male imposed social structure that women are supposed to fit into … these skinny bodies that take away their womanhood.” Her performance brilliantly depicts the web of dysfunctional authority figures surrounding young dancers—from the ballet mothers and school directors who downplay a disease (anorexia) that has a 15 to 17 % mortality rate to the choreographers and company directors who refer to adult dancers as “boys” and “girls ” (In the film, Cassel’s character infantilizes Nina as “my little princess” — the latest in a series.)

Before researching and writing Off Balance, I was a ballet lover too. But, afterwards, I became like some pro football fans today; I knew too much about the current and long-term human costs of the thrilling spectacle I was watching. Unlike the parents of teenage athletes who have finally begun to worry about head injuries, many ballet parents seem as lost in the fantasy of sugarplum fairies as their ten and twelve year olds. Several years ago, when a courageous ballet mother sued San Francisco Ballet School for discrimination because weight restrictions threatened to end her eight-year-old daughter’s training, other parents at the school rallied against her.

Clinging to destructive tradition is no way to honor this art form—or the artists who make ballet performances possible. Portman urges dancers to break out of past molds and rethink a profession that can endanger their lives, health, and financial future. Ballet should take her advice before it’s too late for more beautiful swans of all colors.

Suzanne Gordon is a Boston-based journalist and author. A different version of this piece appeared in The Boston Globe on December 12, 2010.

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