2011: Year of the Black Swan

Since The Red Shoes sent battalions of girls (and boys I’m sure) running to their local dance school, films set in the mysterious world of ballet have held dance fans in thrall. These films supply every generation of dancers with cultural references for many a situation (it was Centre Stage in my time, really not a great film, but it still puts a smile on my face). Occasionally, a “ballet film” will penetrate popular culture, the obvious example being Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, which had those inside and outside the ballet community wide-eyed and wondering what the effects of such an extreme film would be.

Ultimately, Black Swan was a film about obsession and its deleterious effects. It happened to be set in the backstage world of a high-profile ballet company. I’m sure it could have been set within various other industries, but the ballet stage offered a visually arresting setting and it’s a world that is preceded largely by its social mythology and thus had plenty of recognisable clichés to play off: still, those who focused on this a film about ballet really missed the point. Admittedly, it is hard for a dancer to go and see all the old chestnuts trotted out without having a knee-jerk reaction, focusing on the obvious flaws; in the scheme of the film, Natalie Portman’s rigid ports de bras is pretty inconsequential.

Films that are actually about dance, with proficient dancing by professionals so as not to insult the sensitive dancers in the audience, don’t hold much interest for the general public – if they did, surely dance performances would be fully-attended. So, it is generally films with a dance setting that broadly represent dance on film, like Black Swan.

So, after all the consternation, what was the lasting effect of this film? Aside from the fact that it is a fantastic film, showcasing a superb performance by Portman, any effects seem to have been transient. While there may have been a spike of interest in beginners ballet classes, an equal amount of people were surely turned off by the extreme world portrayed in the film. Outside of the dance world, there was a brief love-affair between ballet and fashion, with labels like Chloé cashing in with tulle skirts and ribboned pumps. Since the film, I have lost count of the amount of times I’ve been asked (of the ballet world) “is it like Black Swan?”: my answer has to be no, personally speaking, but maybe in a different mind-set and environment (and with different parents), I would be equally as troubled as Portman’s frail character.

We love to stereotype; it’s easy to just make sweeping generalisations and then not bother to learn any more about a topic – if you have the basic gist, why bother? While a film can briefly throw the spotlight on a certain area, making it a hot topic for 5 minutes, the lasting effect might not always be desirable. Yes, Black Swan raised some issues about the torrid life of a ballet dancer and the pressures faced by those in the upper echelon of a renowned dance company; it also sent out a pretty clear message about the fragile psyche of the dancer, sadly it is this which people have grasped onto. We know that this is a film about one person – a piece of fiction, but the imagination is a dangerous piece of equipment; for the time being anyone who has seen this film and hasn’t a working knowledge of the ballet world is going to see the word Ballet as being synonymous with another word : Crazy.

Maybe someday a film-maker will create something which shows ballet up for what it really is: a competitive industry filled with people who like hard work. I’m sure it wouldn’t generate half as much interest as a psychotic lipstick-lesbian ballerina.

Diarmaid O’Meara

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