Psychotic Dance : Black Swan

This is a post I have wanted to write for some time now. It has been lodged in my soul, squatting on a piece of real-estate.

What is it about?

It is as much about the potential for Psychoses embedded within Dancers, as it is about the casting of actor Natalie Portman in the Black Swan! It is a bit late to be venting, or rather putting a case across, but what better a forum than 45 Days of Dance Stories!? When I began typing this blog entry I thought I would have this out yesterday (the 22nd of December 2014), but it has taken a complete two days for me to put out here what I feel.


Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 film “Black Swan” was creatively and personally transformative for actor Natalie Portman. She was stretched into a role of a dancer who is obsessed with her art, her body and her performance. She met and fell in love with choreographer Benjamin Millepied, became pregnant, got engaged, won an Oscar, had a baby, and got married, all, over a four-year span, from 2009 to 2012.


For me, this trajectory for the girl who I first saw in “Léon – The Professional”, starring opposite Jean Reno was truly remarkable, as well as unsettling. Perhaps that was the genius of such casting, but the failure of the casting  – for me, was that I never truly saw Natalie as Nina, for me she was very much a un-quantifiable characterisation.

This role and casting intrigued me, on two levels. The first was that director Aronofsky and the writers of the film ( Mark Heyman, Andreas Heinz, and John J. McLaughlin) chose to delve into the psychological health of a dancer. The stresses and strains – both mental and physical that can alter the psyche of a dancer coupled with the competitive nature of being part of a Dance Company, but more than that, the second level that grabbed my attention and were extremely successfully applied, were the cinematic tropes used, from specific kinds of lighting, camera angles, and sets, that all alluded to and created a Noir atmosphere. It was not so much about Portman’s performance, but Portman’s ability to withstand what was happening to her. At times even willingly allowing the films “happenings” to drown out the character Nina. This last aspect would have been excellent, but yet again, for me Natalie Portman is one of those Hollywood actors that are very simillar to a Shah Rukh Khan, or Slaman Khan, where they are never truly the character, much like Tom Cruise is always Tom Cruise. This is not to say that these actors haven’t at time gone beyond their superstar persona and delivered on a role so exceptionally that it has left us all in awe. But for me, Natalie Portman is unquantifiable in this role, as she isn’t a superstar, intact she is more indie, but her identity as an actor is unique, so for Aronofsky to want me to believe that Portman is this dedicated dancer who is shy and unsure, reserved, protected and sheltered, was a stretch for me. And I couldn’t really get over it. That is why at times what others reported as scenes of unease and horror (eg. when she is walking home alone and has facial hallucinations of others on the dark street), seemed farcical to me.


What I liked the most about Nina’s characterisation and the film was that, she wasn’t an agent of her psychoses, but just like the audience, she was a recipient, the illness was happening to her. On film as Nina, and off camera as Natalie the actor physically transforming and training to be a ballerina, be the psychotic dancer, has me applauding till today this parallel struggle that was echoed through real experience.

Finally this film and its attempt at showcasing the breaking body and breaking mind of a dancer that in-fact leads to success and applause on stage. Where you transcend the craft, and become the essence was truly fascinating to watch materialise on film. Aronofsky achieves this beautifully, through his cinematic choices. As the film progresses and showcases the descent into hallucinations and delusions, anxiety and the inability for rational thought, evaluation and/or critical thinking, the dancer begins to break with reality. She becomes lost, and the dance becomes enhanced, it reaches beyond the constraints of normalcy and begins to transform the dancer into the role, into the dance, highlighting the loss of self.

For me,  However, where the film failed was I never really truly believed that we lost Natalie Portman.


The last set of thoughts that are unresolved in my mind, almost 4 years on from the release of this film, is the character definitions of “Nina” – who is socially awkward, sexually repressed and unsure of her capabilities as a dancer do not quite fit with being chosen as the lead dancer. Furthermore the representation of psychoses, which does not manifest itself in visual delusions or hallucinations (they are of the visual nature), and this changes the illness, leading us -unintentionally perhaps – towards schizophrenia. And the first ballet dancer that come to mind is the great Russian ballet dancer – Vaslav Njinsky. However, that could be a whole other movie – namely The Diaries of Valav Nijinsky, directed by Paul Cox, and which was released in 2001.  


Finally, my take away from Black Swan the movie, as an audience member is the encouragement one gets whilst viewing the film to participate and to become as unravelled as Nina appears to be. This devolution of the mental psyche is running parallel to the evolution of Nina as a Dancer. This aspect of the film, and its chosen path for a central character and narrative that is solely focussed on a principal dancer who is performing Swan Lake, is something I feel that will live within me – unsettled and unfinished. The probable truth, that perhaps all art and mental illness go hand in hand. 


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