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I just got back from seeing the film in a local theater and...wow...I don't know whether to cheer or jeer. In many respects, it's the most gorgeous and magical treatment of ballet that I've seen in the movies. Portman makes a ravishing and (to me) absolutely convincing ballerina, so kudos to her and to Sarah Lane (and Millepied, Ricetto, one of the Froman brothers, Abi Metzger and others recognized). So the gamut of usual ballet stereotypes were shown or cited? Big deal. I loved the total use of the Swan Lake story and music -- including some subtly beautiful re-arrangements of the Tchaikovsky score during offstage scenes. I loved the look - the pallete of white/black/pink/grey throughout. I would keep two-thirds of the film to treasure forever.

Then there is the one-third that I'd dump with(1) the schlocky scenes of blood and yuk, surely made to appeal to 'tweens and teens who love those Vampire films, and (2)the inadvertently-hilarious moments, such as the winged statue in a hotel lobby who looks like Rothbard (tee-hee from many in the audience) or the scene where Portman drags her unconscious understudy across the dressing room floor as Tchaikovsky's score pounds through the loudspeakers (loud guffaws from neighbors on this one).

Big shame, as there is a really good movie and much to admire within the crappola.

p.s. A big positive: Practically the only ballet stereotype not touched was 'The Russian Ballerina.' How on earth did the director miss that one? Or maybe he's saving it for the sequel Black Swan II: Mariinsky Edition?

p.s.s. Abatt, thnks for the reminder about Portman's insightful mention of the "little girl voices" among so many ballerinas. Obviously, there have been notable exceptions - Cynthia Gregory! Melissa Hayden! - but she's got a point about the voices and all else. There's way too much Minnie Mouse-ishness among our 'girls' sometimes.

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If you read Macauley's reviews in the NY Times on a regular basis, he frequently complains that certain dancers' performances, particularly women, are marred by "cotton candy girlishness". He also frequently complains that dancers do not come across as "adults" in their performances.

...which is why I HATE the over use of the "boys" and "girls" terms in ballet... :angry2:

I always try to talk about "bailarines" and "bailarinas"...

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ds

p.s. A big positive: Practically the only ballet stereotype not touched was 'The Russian Ballerina.' How on earth did the director miss that one? Or maybe he's saving it for the sequel Black Swan II: Mariinsky Edition?

Perhaps for the sequel based on the Kirov, they can find a body double who can graze her ear with her knee, and call it Gymnastic Wilis Gone Wild.

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Didn't see this posted, but here, Ashley Bouder responded to the ballet and to MacAuley's catty remarks on the Huffington Post. Girl has a good brain.

I take a different position about "girlish" voices. I found many dancers I met had quiet, DEMUR voices. Just think of speaking in class to a demanding teacher.... and they spoke well and intelligently. Just my 2cents.

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I guess men in ballet never have any weight problems.

Andrew O'Hehir was crazy about the movie, and he writes in salon.com:

Synthesizing Aronofsky's previous work and foregrounding a breakthrough star performance from Natalie Portman as its tormented protagonist, this is a marvelous construction that's in line for multiple Oscar nominations: Portman, Vincent Cassel and Barbara Hershey for acting awards, Matthew Libatique for his amazing hand-held cinematography, Thérèse DePrez for production design, Andrew Weisblum for editing and Clint Mansell for a mesmerizing score that blends techno and Tchaikovsky.

The review is titled, "'Black Swan': Even better than you've heard", which amuses me, since better than I've heard is a little better than nothing.

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Thanks, Natalia, and others for your responses to this film. And thanks to those who are posting links, etc.

The film certainly seems to have gotten an enormous amount of publicity. A few ballet dancers and ex-dancers I've talked to seem quite anxious to see it. Whatever its virtues as a film, it seems destined to be a major footnote, at last, in the cultural history of dance.

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Whatever its virtues as a film, it seems destined to be a major footnote, at last, in the cultural history of dance.

Way too early to tell, I'd say.

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Black Swan -- A Review

Haha, it's trash, but you know you want to see it. Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan is a hokey, yet engrossing and creepily entertaining look at the ballet world. It has every "psycho bunhead" cliche you've ever heard. Natalie Portman does a great job as Nina, a self-loathing, OCD-gotta-be-perfect soloist who gets a shot at dancing a new production of Swan Lake. She's the core of the film, in every scene and totally carries it on her shoulders. Lily, played by Mila Kunis is her slutty, smoking, ecstasy-taking competition (I love it, she just joined the company from SAN FRANCISCO... the den of iniquity) and Nina becomes obsessed that Lily is out to get her. Barbara Hershey plays Nina's ballet mom from hell (of course, a frustrated stuck-in-the-corps dancer) who won't give Nina any living space and completely lives through her daughter's career. Vincent Cassel as Thomas, the controlling, horn-dog company director... perhaps more Peter Martins than Balanchine. And there are lots of ballet people you might know in the film. Benjamin Millepied choreographed the dance sequences and plays the dancer who performs Siegfried. Sergio Torrado (late of SF Ballet and currently with Boston Ballet) plays the dancer performing Rothbart (and has a brief very funny acting moment in the film), Marina Stavitskaya plays... a ballet teacher remarkably like herself and Christine Redpath plays a coach (with a beautiful sequence showing her coaching Nina on Odette). Oh yes, and in a little cameo, John Epperson (AKA drag performer Lypsinka) plays the exhausted accompanist. Let's not forget Winona Ryder in a camp and (self-mocking) role as the 'messed up ballerina on the way out'... not terribly convincing as a ballerina but a convincing as a nutjob.

Oh yes, don't worry, there's a whooole bunch of psycho-sexual craziness going on because, well, Nina is pretty much bat-sh*t nuts. There's *ahem* a 'pas de deux' with Lily which, um, ends up in bed and, let's just say, no one goes away hungry. Lots of gross out creepy, sickening body stuff having to do with morphing body parts, skin conditions, peeling flesh, you know, the usual. Yes, there are eating disorders, endless shots of working over toe shoes and cattiness up the wazoo.

Can Portman dance? Well, she's on shown point a number of times and it does seem to be her. Her ports des bras isn't gonna blow you away... Maya Plisetskaya she ain't, but she and her body doubles do a fairly convincing depiction of dance. Mila Kunis... not a dancer and it shows. She's great in her bad girl character but I honestly had a hard time believing her as any kind of dancer. What is impressive are the dance sequences. They aren't really any more than bits of Swan Lake with a lot of more hip Euro/Ballet mixed together, but they're beautifully shot with a dynamic, sweeping camera. Even though the film shows Lincoln Center as a setting, a lot of the theater scenes seem to have been shot at the City Center Theater (which has its own City Ballet History).

Music from Swan Lake is played throughout the film in various arrangements. There were times when what happened in the film didn't quite match my feelings about the chosen music... it's hard to let go of what you know is "supposed" to happen when a certain piece is played. But Directory Aronofsky uses it well to suggest the underscoring of obsessiveness, lust and feeling trapped. Don't mistake Black Swan for The Red Shoes (which it most closely resembles), The Turning Point or Centerstage. It's just as much like Roman Polanski's Repulsion or Carrie as any of those films. It's hard to imagine any young kids seeing it and thinking, "wow, I want to be like her" (beautiful though Natalie Portman is) but it channels the ballet world's insularity and search for perfection and pushes it into real horror.

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Just came back from seeing the movie, and although I've liked Aronofsky films in the past, I can't recommend this one. On the psycho drama front it didn't carry me along. Nina (Portman's character) was never a person that I cared about. She was nervous and fragile from the beginning, always seeming to be trembling and on the verge of tears. Pushing her into delusions and insanity would be a piece of cake. In other words there was no sense of normalcy being intruded upon by delusions, we never had the normalcy. Also we never had a real sense of how she fit into the dance world. From other dancers we saw snippets of cattiness, but also niceness, as Nina was congratulated on getting a role, but Nina didn't seem to have any friends in the company. Does this mean that she was always an odd bird (no pun intended}! She also never seemed to derive any pleasure from dancing. Lily (the Kunis character) at least had some life and heft to her, some relish for dance and life. I found myself liking her and looking forward to her being on the screen.

And speaking of heft - for all the talk of Portman losing weigh and training etc. I thought she was actually too thin and way too un-muscular. We saw, what were for me, endless shots of Portman's upper body flapping around and then a long shot of her dance double (Sarah Lane of ABT) doing beautiful turns and pointe work. A couple of times going from Portman's skinny un-muscled body to the beautiful legs of Lane was jarring. There is no way that the Portman body we saw on the screen could do a lot of technique. Lane is small and thin, but with the beautiful musculature that comes with years of training.

Final statement - I didn't know where the film was going, but the end was nonsense.

I was disappointed, and would love to hear from those who disagree. As I said I've been an Aronofsky fan and would like to consider other opinions.

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I was disappointed, and would love to hear from those who disagree. As I said I've been an Aronofsky fan and would like to consider other opinions.

Vipa, in general, I agree. The movie is pretty much a slick-trashy-entertainment and not a real exploration of young dancer's troubled mind. Also agree with you that having more of a sense of her before she starts losing it would have made the film stronger. And, no, none of the non-dancers are especially convincing, but the film is so stylized and so shot through the main character's disturbed point-of-view that it didn't bother as much as it would have for a more mainstream dance-themed film. It would have been a difficult role to cast with a dancer since she's really in every scene. Even Moira Shearer didn't have anywhere nearly as difficult an acting role as Portman does in this film.

I'm not a huge Aronofsky lover but I would still recommend the film for ballet lovers and dancers so long as you can let the technical issues go when you see it. In truth, it's really not meant for a dance audience and, if anything, kind of trades on the stereotypical outsider's assumption of "yeah, aren't bun-heads completely nutz!?"

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This is probably being too picky, but the fact that the New York Times reviewer spelled pointe incorrectly (no e) made me a bit wary of the review ballet wise. I plan on seeing it some time this week (probably Friday) so I'll include my opinions after that.

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Thanks to all for their perceptive reviews. I intend to see the movie for myself, but with very low expectations. One thing which all the reviews reminded me of and something which I have observed in mostly, but not exclusively is the heavy reliance on cultural stereotypes in film. It's used as a kind of short hand to convey something we already know about a character or setting or even a genre. It's a concept repeatedly used in conveying stories. And perhaps without the use of stereotypes we can't understand context. But somehow it seems to disturb me when I see films. Cinema has largely become a series of cliches strung together. Gina's review hits on this very concept.

But it raises the question and the difference between and archetype (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archetype) and a stereotype (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stereotype).

Without seeing this film, and having read the reviews and the I believe this film exploits the use if stereotypes to the hilt. And I can see why ballet lovers would find this somewhat painful to watch.

Ballet itself conceptually is a very interesting art (to me) because it is what I would call a rather constrained art form which is very rule based. A ballet itself is a work of art from the perhaps the librettist's pov where he or she creates the storyline backdrop. Then the dance is "imposed" or used as a language of the actors (dancers) who portray the storyline. This of course applies to story ballet and ballet which is choreographed to music without a story line is perhaps more akin to creating a flower of human movement. But let's go back to storyline because cinema is always storyline. Even Koyaanisqatsi (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Koyanisquatsi) seems to have a message aside from the images, something non storyline ballet simply does not. It is (in my uneducated opinion) simply meant to celebrate and display human form in motion and musical interaction.

Ballet as movement has a somewhat limited vocabulary of movements - steps and positions - which are woven together and assume a meaning... kinda. Storyline ballet relies on costume and sets and of course the written libretto to help us along. If we remove these from our experience.. ie see a ballet without the libretto we may "get it" and we will more easily "get it" if the choreography relies on stereotypes and archetype shorthand. If we then remove the sets it becomes even harder to understand the "message(s)" of the libretto and if we remove the costumes, we are left with ballet movement and music and at best we can get a sense of relationship between some of the principals, core and soloist. I would say it would be rather difficult to "get it all" and even to see how movement was so brilliantly (if it was) used to convey what is often conveyed in words.

Most adults are already trained to understand the emotions of music, minor, major, allegro and so forth. This sensibility whether actually related to human experience is not so embedded in our consciousness that we almost all respond to music as expected. No one will hear Barber Adagio for Strings as anything but somber funereal music.

So in returning to this film, my sense is that its heavy reliance on cultural stereotypes reveals nothing about ballet (except all the usual stereotypes) and nothing new about the human condition, but simply exploits ballet as a genre in a metaphorical manner - using the story of Swan Lake to reveal how we are driven by stereotypes in our own lives. Aronofsky simply found a genre to haul out the usual stereotypes and do a horror, or who dunnit or whatever common theme we see again and again and again.

When I attend ballet I simply try (usually not too successfully) to look past or through all the storyline and stereotypes to the essential beauty of the human form... abstract beauty. The irony is that ballet movement is confined to its own set of rules and standards perhaps more archetypal then stereotypical.

I doubt the above makes much sense, but I said it anyway.

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SanderO - a very interesting analysis. Ballet is very rule-based, but like the story of Stravinsky asking Balanchine if the pas de deux for Orpheus was two minutes, two and a half minutes or something in between, there are artists who function most freely within parameters. (Raises hand.)

The place I'd like to expand on what you see is that at its best, even in abstract, ballet is a confluence where form and meaning are one - where the medium is the message. The greatest ballet blancs are like that, where the steps within a seemingly abstract dance distill the themes of the greater story around them (Giselle, or Balanchine's Midsummer though it is not technically a ballet blanc)

In abstract dance, look at Concerto Barocco, The Four Temperaments or Symphonic Variations for good examples. Ballet's bigger than something that just expresses the beauty of human form.

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Leigh,

Thank you for that comment. I do understand how little I understand! Did Plato say something like: This I know that I know nothing... Ballet is obviously much broader and deeper than I described in my last comment. I do think that it stands apart as an art form because it is very rule based and the dancers are artist - performers. That is there is art in performance or certainly can be despite it being so "rule based". This I find is one of the most appealing and mysterious aspects of ballet: that within the tight confines of rules something which I would call art or self or individual expression is possible. We can still see the choreography there, but the dancer adds something and this is what is so brilliant and subtle about ballet.

I don't want to derail this thread. I only tried to make a point that a film about ballet is likely going to use all the stereotypes associated with ballet and lay some other human interest struggle of the characters on top of ballet... and likely miss what might be the essence of ballet.

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Thank you Leigh and SanderO for this thoughtful and thought provoking exchange. SanderO, I can't wait to get your impressions of the movie.

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I want to add my thanks to vipa's. A good discussion, and one which reminds me of the early days of Ballet Talk. I hope it will continue and that others will join in..

On the matter of the film as a product (and not only a cultural artifact), I was wondering just how well all this pre-release publicity is actually paying off at the box office. Does "ballet" (especially in a version that has been tarted up to benefit from some of ballet's more exotic stereotypes) have sufficient allure to get people to the theaters?

From the NY Times this morning:

Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan," a dark portrait of a ballet dancer (Natalie Portman) grossed $1.4 million [for the weekend after Thanksgiving] for a per theater average of $77,459 -- one of the best art-house results for this year and a record for the studio behind the film, Fox Searchlight.
To put this in context, the over-all No. 1 grossing film for the weekend was "Tangled" with $21.5m in its second week (total of $96.5m). No. 2 was the new Harry Potter film ($16.7m for a three-week total of $244m).

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SanderO - I wasn't meaning to question your understanding of ballet; it's even more relevant that the film doesn't get this. It uses all the stereotypes of ballet, but none of its resonance. It's also an uncomfortable mix, because Aronofsky's film style here is so claustrophobic - and ballet needs air and space to bloom, which he refuses to give it.

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I don't think the average John and Jane Q Public have any understanding about ballet beyond skinny girls in tutu's who stand on the their toes. The more educated clearly have a deeper understanding of the genre beyond this crude stereotype, but I don't think most people have a sense of the "world of ballet". I would think that they would conceptualize the world of ballet as they might the world of theater... a bunch of actors, singers, dancers who write, produce and perform in plays and musicals. There's no there there. There's no dark side to it.

So the idea of calling the movie the Black Swan and using Swan Lake as a metaphor, Aronofsky is / seems to using that "black swan" as the "odd ball" as a magnet to draw people in to his story of "the dark side". I have seen this theme of people have this "alter ego" - other hidden self in other genres such as Madonna with "Express Yourself" implying that our self is something dark, hidden, forbidden and needs to be brought out into the open. There may in fact be something to the idea that we all have secret lives, fantasies demons which haunt us that we struggle in dealing with and for some people it breaks through and usually at a cost to their pubic self.

Just sayin'

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I haven’t seen “Black Swan” yet and probably won’t until it’s out on DVD. Based on the trailer and the reviews, however, it sure looks like the latest offering in a genre I’ve grown to loathe (but just can’t seem to resist anyway): lurid, overwrought “wages of art” flicks—in the line of, say, “Shine” or “Hilary and Jackie” or even “Amadeus”—in which it is posited that artists’ psyches are imperiled by 1) the cruel demands of their own genius, 2) the sinister machinations of their mentors, and 3) looking for love in all the wrong places. It’s as if there weren’t any other stories to tell about artists and the creative process—except of course for the ones involving substance abuse. At least “Black Swan” isn’t a biopic.

My husband and I joke about doing a 3-D horror remake of “Shine” in which David Helfgott’s father, lit by lightening flashes, repeatedly thrusts the score of a piano concerto towards the camera lens while shouting “Rachmaninoff! Rachmaninoff!”

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In an interesting comparison:

The NYTimes posted short clips (~45 sec) featuring of "Actors Acting" - two of whom are Natalie Portman and Vincent Cassel. Cassel looks like a natural dancing in front a mirror (did he get to show off any moves in Black Swan?) and Portman is practically stiff as a board as an exhausted glamour queen.

Cassel:

http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2010/12/12/magazine/14actors.html?ref=magazine#10

Portman:

http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2010/12/12/magazine/14actors.html?ref=magazine#3

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Thank you, ksk04. Those clips are very revealing, just as you say.

Cassel does indeed look like a "natural," but also like someone who has done these movements before. He makes me think of Gene Kelly. I wonder where he got his training?

Earlier in the thread, Leigh wrote:

... Aronofsky's film style here is so claustrophobic - and ballet needs air and space to bloom, which he refuses to give it.
This led me back to some of the photos and video. They are indeed claustrophobic: for example, the groups of tightly packed dancers photographed with minimal foreshortening against an oppressive dark background. The need to avoid showing Portman's full body while dancing results in many upper-body-only shots or cut-off shots of feet and upper legs.

Ballet needs space. It also must let us see the dancer as a whole, moving through that space.

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I have not seen the film yet. However, I would assume that the "claustrophobic" feel and look of the film is intentional by the director to enhance the story. I think Nina's mental issues are enhanced by a filming style where the viewer gets the feeling of her claustrophobic world, where she must always be perfect, and is always in competition with others. The claustrophobic style conveys her insular world, I presume.

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The film's poster was hanging a while ago in the "coming soon" wall of my neighborhood's cinema for like two days. Then it disappeared and it is not currently showing... :dunno:

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Kathleen, you're right, it is a "wages of art" movie, a genre I didn't realize existed until you brought it to my attention! A comparison of those might make for an interesting discussion. (Or maybe not, since I believe every single Hollywood biopic ever made about a musician falls into that category, each with the same basic plot.) Though it belongs to that genre, at least "Black Swan" has the courage of its convictions and stays black right to the Grand Guignol end--a refreshing change, if not a particularly enjoyable one.

To play devil's advocate here, just as one wouldn't criticize "Sweeney Todd" for making meat pies seem like an unattractive menu choice, one shouldn't go into "Black Swan" expecting it to "sell" ballet to the average moviegoer, which is clearly neither the director's intent nor his obligation. It's dark and weird, mannerist, disorienting, and thoroughly unpleasant. Enjoy!

Anthony

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.....one shouldn't go into "Black Swan" expecting it to "sell" ballet to the average moviegoer, which is clearly neither the director's intent nor his obligation.

True...but neither is it the viewer's obligation to buy what he is selling, or to refrain from objecting to the depiction of the art form. Haven't seen the movie, myself, but I plan to eventually.

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