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

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 10, 2010; C01

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.

At the center of all this hysteria: studly ballet director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), who pits Nina against Lily as he seeks the star of his new production of "Swan Lake."

This ballet is the perfect platform on which to expand the evil-twin theme of the film, for the leading role in "Swan Lake" is really two parts, danced by one woman. There's virginal Odette, who is under a sorcerer's spell and passes her days as a swan. Her evil impostor, Odile, dresses up as a black swan to seduce the prince who has vowed to save Odette. Leroy tells Nina her technical proficiency is fine for the white swan, but for the black swan, he makes it smarmily clear she needs to throw technique out the window - and get her sexy on.

Let's gloss over the fact that the technical demands are greater for the black swan duties. Here, after all, is where, in the Maryinsky Ballet's 1895 production, choreographer Marius Petipa inserted the dazzling series of 32 fouette turns, whipping revolutions on one foot, to showcase the strength of his own star. Ballerinas ever since have been measured by their pyrotechnics in the black tutu.

Leroy announces he's going to make his production "visceral and real," but the movie misses an opportunity to sweep us into the excitement of the dancing. Blink and you'll miss the movie's rendition of the ballet in Benjamin Millepied's brief and banal choreography. What we see most is arm-fluttering ad nauseam, as if this were the work's central motif. (Thank goodness it isn't, in the real world.)

But Leroy has a point. Technique alone makes a boring ballerina. Imagination, intelligence and the kind of nuanced emotional layering that Aronofsky leaves out of this picture: These are the hallmarks of an artist. For many dancers, there's no end to the thought, research, analysis and musical study that go into the preparation of Odette/Odile.

It's too bad the film doesn't explore the nature of art more subtly and profoundly. Instead, it gives us a mad-genius bromide, written in blood.

Yet "Black Swan's" premise underscores a troubling fact about the art form. It furthers the damaging myth that ballerinas are impressionable naifs who run on pure feeling, who are oversensitive and delicate.

This perception helps the ballet world run like a fiefdom. A field that is so strongly identified with women is largely a male-dominated hierarchy, at least in this country.

Ballerinas may get all the attention when they're in their dancing prime, but they don't get the leadership roles afterward. There are few female ballet choreographers and only a handful of small ballet companies run by women (Suzanne Farrell Ballet, Ballet Memphis, Richmond Ballet, among them). It's different elsewhere. The National Ballet of Canada, the Paris Opera Ballet and London's Royal Ballet are all run by former ballerinas. Frederick Wiseman's masterful and illuminating documentary film on the Paris Opera Ballet, "La Danse," spotlights Brigitte Lefevre's hugely impressive skills as she salves the egos of her dancers and gets what she wants out of guest choreographers.

Yet all of the major American ballet companies, even those that were founded by women, have been handed over to men. Why? Theories abound, one being that when these companies began adopting a corporate-style model, with boards of directors pulled in from the business world, the decision makers felt more comfortable with men at the helm, particularly male dancers with star power. It's a bizarre irony for this most feminized art form. And it's worth considering whether the flighty-ballerina stereotype, which "Black Swan" promotes, has something to do with it.

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