Performance REVIEW

The on-screen ballerina: Emotional, competitive and painstakingly cliched

BARRE DONE: Natalie Portman as Nina in the type-heavy "Black Swan."
BARRE DONE: Natalie Portman as Nina in the type-heavy "Black Swan."

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By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 10, 2010

Let's see, did the film "Black Swan" leave out any ballet cliches?

Ballerinas are high-strung emotional wrecks.

Ballerinas are frigid.

As soon as they land a great part, they will have to fend off a rival hellbent on sabotage.

Ballet directors are cocksure Casanovas who lust after their dancers.

But nobody's crazier than an aging ballerina.

Except, perhaps, for a smothering, psychotic stage mother - especially if she's a former ballerina.

Oh, and "Swan Lake" - that's the ballet with all the arm-flapping, right?

Sure enough, no stereotype has been overlooked in director Darren Aronofsky's slasher film that plays out in a dance studio - unless you count the old saw about glass in the toeshoes. You won't find that here; Aronofsky has far more sadistic uses for broken glass in the dressing rooms of his imagining. All in keeping with his general strategy of bleeding dry every plot device about ballet life that others have beat him to first.

His film has created a stir, and Oscar talk is in the air. So maybe I'm a solitary crank, but "Black Swan" left me disheartened. I love the idea of a ballet horror movie - hot bodies, hot tempers; why hasn't it been done before? But watching this attempt I found myself thinking: Surely someone could make a scary-sexy ballet flick that doesn't portray the art as a form of torture and the ballerinas - every last one - as insubstantial freaks.

From "The Red Shoes" to "The Turning Point," from "Billy Elliot" to Robert Altman's "The Company," filmmakers have found creative fodder in the physical rigors of ballet training and in its transformative power, even as its practitioners bleed and crumple under their labors. "Black Swan" turns over little fresh ground, aside from the fact that, in its straight-male-fantasy view, it's the women who are falling into bed together. (Not because they're sweethearts, but because they're wasted and in the throes of a catfight, which, I suppose, is in keeping with the cynicism in which this film is drenched.)

The cast of characters runs the gamut from stock to schlock: There's Nina, the insecure ingenue on the cusp of stardom (Natalie Portman, whose incandescent beauty makes you root for her even as you ache to shout, as someone finally does: "Stop being so [expletive] weak!"). Her competition is Lily (Mila Kunis), just in from California - which means she has no inhibitions, great drugs and a freedom in her dancing that Nina lacks. Haunting the fringes is Beth (Winona Ryder), yesterday's prima, today's basket case: After being canned, she throws herself in front of a car, "Red Shoes"-style. Barbara Hershey is Nina's diminished, clinging mother, who gave up dancing to bear her daughter and . . . what do you know: The ballet bug has screwed her up, too.


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