It appears to have been universally decided that Natalie Portman rocks in “Black Swan”, and that Darren Aronofsky has once again managed to strike award-season gold with another disturbing tale of a seriously lost soul. I don’t disagree. Portman’s metamorphosis from timid, overly protected mama’s girl to a fierce, tortured prima ballerina is a fine-tuned study in digging deep and finding the devil within. Physically, she convincingly embodies the fragility and grace of a ballet dancer with impressive port de bras and epaulment (the way she carries her arms and upper body) that should satisfy the most critical eyes and psychologically offers a frightening look at a young girl who was never allowed to become a woman, one who is simultaneously enslaved, repulsed, and unaware of the power of her own body. With such a wild animal at its center, Aronofsky weaves a frightening story of the discovery of one’s demons and the cost of pursuing perfection.
And how intuitive of him to use the medium of dance to tell this particular tale. Swan Lake is of course a staple of nearly every major ballet company in the world, a performance repeated and reinvented continuously for over a hundred years, watched by tens of thousands of people around the globe and across generations. The story is well-known to most and is laid out quickly and succinctly in the film: a legend of love, deception, and death – an epic tragedy in the tradition of all the great ones.
Aronofsky doesn’t focus so much on the actual dancing in the film, but by using dance as the backdrop for this character and by establishing ballet as the world in which this particular nightmare takes place, he recognizes the power of dance to explore the inner psyche and to be a unique communicator of passion and emotion that strikes just below the surface, where words and even images don’t penetrate.
Concert dance (or dance for “art’s sake”) seems forever to sit in an awkward position in American society that is somewhere between the perimeter and off the radar entirely. For the most part, audiences embrace the classic beauty of the ballet and reject the conceptual intent of contemporary dance, if they care at all. Rarely is dance in the mainstream given levels of depth and complexity that allow it be a valid art form which can speak to the human condition, regardless of how messed up that condition might be.
So props to Portman and Aronofsky for putting delicious and dangerous dance into theaters around the country and reminding us that this art form too can reveal something within ourselves that we can’t reach through any other means. What we discover may be terrifying, but there are two swans to every soul so we might as well embrace the dark side.