The second I got the facts on Black Swan, I found myself pretty desperate to see it. Suddenly, I was ten years old again and barely able to sleep because I was so thrilled at the prospect of visiting the Manly Silver Screen to watch Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft go head to head in The Turning Point, or beside myself with excitement at getting to stay up late to relish every excellent moment of The Red Shoes on television. With a ballet movie, you get not merely alluring glitz, glamour and backstage machinations, but also the unbeatable pleasure of watching others having to do things that you are glad not to have to do yourself, similarly to watching Goldie Hawn go through basic training in Private Benjamin.
Black Swan did not disappoint me in any way at all, but most especially it did not let me down in its adherence to the good old-fashioned ballet-movie standbys. I am pleased to say that it had the requisite amount of masochism, in terms of bloody toes, and dancers practically flogging themselves to death at the barre, all heightened still further by Darren Aronofsky’s apparent wild enthusiasm for extreme close-ups, of everything from backs of necks to toenails being cut. I would have walked out of the cinema feeling severely let down if there hadn’t been a lot of women’s hair having been scraped back into buns so severely that I could feel an incipient headache, and the presence of a despotic European man in a position of authority who spent his time playing mind games with the dancers.
Of course, the autocratic European man is present and accounted for in the person of Vincent Cassel as Thomas Leroy. He is apparently the director of the ballet in question, Swan Lake, as well as a man keen on pushing the mind-game envelope to include sexual harassment, especially that of Nina (Natalie Portman), the young woman who, as everyone knows by now, wants the lead but whose credentials to portray convincingly the evil, sexy Black Swan are in doubt due to her repressed demeanour. Aside from this rollicking good fun, the film offers viewers the opportunity to enjoy lines such as ‘I am the Swan Queen’, which resembles something that Joan Crawford might announce in Queen Bee, not to mention a lot of the perennially satisfying All About Eve variety of skulduggery. Essentially, though, Black Swan contains more mortification of the flesh than does Jesus Christ Superstar.
Immediately after having seen the Swan, I had a yen to watch the video for Icehouse’s ‘Hey Little Girl’, which I hadn’t seen since I was in short pants. I enjoyed all over again the great ballet-movie traditions in another medium: namely, an old ex-ballerina in heavy makeup, who, in the manner of Lola in ‘Copacabana’ clearly spends a lot of time, even though she has no apparent means of financial support, sitting about and dwelling on her glory days. In fact, ‘Hey Little Girl’ almost is the Swan, but in under four minutes and with synthesisers, dry ice, Iva Davies as a singing stalker and the eighties-music-video standby of someone being hit by a car (although I am furious that the makers should have missed the opportunity to include a prologue featuring some rock-video acting). Aside from the obligatory scenes of dancers slaving away under the supervision of a martinet, it also features the ballerina who is the subject of the video going on the tear (although this mainly consists of quaffing champagne and laughing with her head thrown back in the company of a respectable-looking older gent while wearing white gloves) and coming to grief on stage (although she falls over in ‘Hey Little Girl’, as opposed to Nina being dropped onstage in the Swan).
Anyhow, the thing is that it’s extremely rare to see a ballet dancer in a work of fiction having a terrific time. Victoria Page in The Red Shoes ends up throwing herself under a train because she can’t choose between love of a man and love of the dance, which, I have to say, even when I was ten I considered to be a non-problem. One of the few exceptions to the catalogue of horrors that occurs to me is the ‘Drina’ series of books, such as Drina Dances in Italy, Drina Dances in New York, Drina Dances in Paris, Drina Dances in Madeira, Drina Dances in Switzerland, and, when the well of title inspiration had clearly run dry for a while, Drina Dances Again. These works featured a young ballet dancer on whom good fortune, gallingly, smiled constantly and who was, consequently, always the subject of resentment by other, less tiresomely well-adjusted, young women who had names like Queenie. These girls apparently hated this terpsichorean almost as much as I did, even as I was glued to the many accounts of her doings.
Drina Adams aside, though, ballet dancers are generally presented in fiction as having a beastly old time, all bunions and having to darn the ends of their pointe shoes. Yet, little girls – and I mean actual little girls, as opposed to the Icehouse usage of the term – still seem as drawn to this particular art form as ever. I recall a friend of mine once saying that all females under the age of about ten could be classified as ‘ballet’ or ‘horse’; I myself was firmly in the ballet camp, despite being unable to master even the simplest steps in the most elementary dance, not to mention being entirely the wrong physical build for this particular pursuit. I dressed my Barbie in tutus, and let my parents throw their money down the drain on fruitless lessons for me, like it was the birthday of the infanta. After a lot of thought about it, the only thing to which I can attribute my passion for ballet is that I wanted to wear the appealing costumes, just as so many women fixate on getting married because they feel they can’t leave this earth without knowing what their wedding dress will be like.
I am hardly the first person to note that others are taking their ballet-crazed little daughters and granddaughters to see Black Swan, despite all the lesbian sex, drug taking and general air of what I can only call perversion, as manifested by the creepy relationship between Nina and her mother. I exited the film feeling happily convinced that being a ballet dancer is actually a symptom of a mental illness; the presence of Winona Ryder, in about the most welcome comeback of all time, in full Neely O’Hara mode as a ballerina on the skids works a particular treat when it comes to this. I only hope that the nightmarish atmosphere of the Swan doesn’t drive all these ‘ballet’ girls to go ‘horse’. Deformed toes are one thing, but horses are big, tall creatures and more temperamental than any dancer.