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Black Swan

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I needed something to  jar me out of the stupor of a suburban Christmas eve. So I went to see Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. With all the trash that has come out of Hollywood this year, Black Swan is indeed a case of saving the best for last. Natalie Portman plays the role of Nina Sayers, a naive but hardworking young woman who dances for a high class  ballet company in New York. But her ambition to become a star sets her in mortal conflict with a darkness she carries within herself.

Nina wants what every ballerina desires: a chance to shine.  But desire, as we all know, is a funny thing. It is the driving force of creativity. But then it can also destroy or imprison the creative mind. In the movie, desire takes on its sinister aspect when it is set against the body, portrayed as a thing– a creature–that is not entirely human. In a sense, Afronofsky uses the dancers body as a space where desire turns the self against itself.

I tend to think of the ballet dancer as capable of defying the boundaries of the normal human body. Whether still or in motion, the dancing body presents itself as invulnerable. In the execution of every seemingly impossible movement, the ballet audience is invited to see a body that cannot break, a muscle that cannot tear, a tendon that cannot be sprained, a toe nail that cannot crack. Perhaps, the power of ballet as a dance form stems from  its ability to trick us into seeing angelic grace and beauty where we should see a human body that is fragile and injurable, a body that is repeatedly mutilated in order to embody perfection.

In Black Swan, Afronofsky shows us that the dancer’s body bleeds and breaks–sprained ankles, peeled skin, fractured toe nails. However, and this is where it becomes interesting, he also wants to make the point that creativity is released at the point where the body is exposed to forces that threaten to destroy it. And that the angelic body of the ballet dancer is most beautiful at the point where it loses its boundaries and is transformed into its darkest and non-human form.

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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

5 Responses to “Black Swan” Subscribe

  1. Billikenbooster December 28, 2010 at 6:45 pm #

    I believed the conflict between the mother and the dancer in the movie spoke to the inability of the girl to progress beyond infancy in her emotional development. Her lack of maturity in dealing with her mother, her biggest tormentor as well as supporter, led to her demise. The visuals in the show were outstanding. I must admit most of the symbolism, however, went by me.

  2. admin December 29, 2010 at 4:37 am #

    Hey Billikenbooster,

    Why do I think I know who you are. well, thanks for stopping by and leaving me a note. You make a really good point about the link between the mother-daughter relationship and her arrested development. I am curious to know about what you think about the play on perception. Do you think the ending is real or is it all in her head?

  3. Boye January 18, 2011 at 4:10 pm #

    Wife and I just saw Black Swan yesterday and we, like the audience (on screen and in theatre) were moved by the music and the performances. I must agree with the earlier comment that the story rests on an immature young woman who cannot handle the pressures of her chosen profession. Your take on creativity being in essence a destructive force that consumes its creator/vessel is a well explored one with many examples (Byron, Mozart, River Phoenix). It however ignores often coexisting destructive forces that reside in these persons that though may influence their abilities are not the source of their creativity.

    We are left to fill in the blanks about Nina and her harmful codependent relationship with her mother. Her mother is a failed ballerina who must now regain her glory vicariously through her infantilized daughter. Both their lives have been conducted in the narrow straitjacketed world of ballet. They are socially isolated and mutually dependent on each other, thus resent each other deeply and take every opportunity to show this whilst on the surface carrying on like they care for each other (the celebratory cake scene comes to mind). Her mother blames herself getting pregnant for the loss of her career, and of course blames the source of that failure. To regain what was lost Nina must not get pregnant herself hence the prepubertal bedroom and treatment.

    Growing up in this stultifying, cloying environment assured that Nina was damaged goods by the time the spotlight shown on her. She was not ready. She had spent a lifetime punishing her body, both to drive it to perfection which she saw as her only reward and escape, but also because that very dancer’s body embodied everything that imprisoned her.

    I have more thoughts on this but will end with the conclusion we made as parents. Children can achieve great things if they are given purpose early and forced to focus exclusively on one subject. However the consequences of the loss of social and psychic development that a normal childhood bestows can be dire. Nina on screen, Tiger Woods in real life are but examples.

  4. Boye January 18, 2011 at 4:12 pm #

    spotlight shone and not shown

  5. admin January 19, 2011 at 4:47 pm #

    Hey Boye,

    Enlightening reflection! Yeah, the mother-daughter relationship is definitely at the center of the movie’s conflict. Thanks for highlighting it in such an eloquent manner.

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