January 2011 - Daily Telegraph
Ballet has long been a source of fascination for filmmakers. The physical allure of the ballerina and her apparent willingness to subjugate everything – health, happiness and reason – to a relentless quest for perfection has been at the heart of any number of dance films, from Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes to Herbert Ross' The Turning Point, with an entire catalogue in between. Most have told a version of the same story: manipulated by a pushy mother and in thrall to an autocratic director, the obsessive ballerina sacrifices relationships, sanity and – usually – life itself to her art. Some of them have worked harder than others to be faithful to the world in which they are set, but Hollywood's gloss seems inevitably to take the shine off the truth: ballet films never quite get it right.
True to form, the latest in this long line, Darren Aronofksy's Black Swan, reveals precious little about what it's like to dance. The film centres on Natalie Portman's Nina, a ballerina cast to perform the dual role of Odette/Odile in Swan Lake whose obsession with being a 'good girl' prevents her inhabiting the darker of the two characters, the Black Swan. As rehearsals progress towards the first night, the suffocating attentions of her mother and the director's psychological game-playing combine with her own obsessive compulsions to send her over the edge. In his first appearance in the film, the company director tells his dancers he wants to create a version of Swan Lake that is 'stripped away, visceral and real'. If only Aranofsky had tried to do the same. Despite having access to dancers from New York's two major ballet companies, he chose to portray not the environment in which they work each day but a world of his own imagining, founded on all the old clichés and with a few new ones to bring it up to date: bulimia, self-harm, lesbianism, psychological and sexual abuse. Well, it's not like that at The Royal Ballet.
Perhaps any profession, compressed to 100 minutes and two dimensions, is inevitably reduced to a series of caricatures and clichés. I suspect the fashion industry didn't recognise itself in The Devil Wears Prada, nor the banking sector in Wall Street and I'm sure the Queen must wince every time she sees her family portrayed on the big screen. Ballet is no exception. While all this distortion of reality is painful to those of us in the know, a series of lies can sometimes be justified if, in the end, they reveal a greater truth. Had Black Swan cast new light on the mother/daughter dynamic, on same sex rivalry, or on the complex psychology underlying female submission to male abuse, I might have been able to forgive the film for setting ballet, and the public's perception of it, back 50 years. But it didn't, and I don't.
Black Swan may fail to mirror the real life experience of dancing for a living, but there is a film out there which captures perfectly the pressure of performing live, the way a dancer feels as she steps out, alone, on a wide and empty stage. That moment of no return – familiar from two decades spent dancing – when years of struggle and physical endeavour combine at a deadline that cannot be deferred; that sense of the world waiting to see whether you really can do it, well-wishers leaning in, eyes alight with hope, naysayers resting on their heels, arms folded across chests and knowing glances exchanged; harnessing the learning from years of failure to a single goal and summoning every ounce of emotional courage to dance the first step; the faltering start and then the gradual cresting of the wave as you realise you can do it – you're doing it – and hardly daring to believe it lest the spell is broken and it all falls apart; and then the infinitesimal moment of silence that follows your final flourish launching a crescendo of applause which, however loud, can never compete with the roaring emotions in your head as the doubts, the fear, the hopes and years of wanting spin around like the reels on a fruit machine before they finally come to rest, three golden bars lined up in a row. You've hit the jackpot. You did it.
If you really want to know what it feels like to channel years of training and discipline into a single moment, conquering your greatest fears and vanquishing a lifetime of self-doubt while an expectant public looks on, don't bother with Black Swan. Go instead to see Colin Firth deliver The King's Speech. Her Majesty will have her own view on how accurately the director has captured one extraordinary moment in her family's history, but that's how it feels to nail the Black Swan.