Black Swan: Art and Madness

"Black Swan" is eerily beautiful yet terrifying.

Posted Dec 01, 2010

The new film "Black Swan," directed by Darren Aronofsky and starring Natalie Portman, is a mesmerizing tale of a young woman's descent into fear and paranoia.

Portman plays Nina, a ballet dancer with a major company in New York City. As a sheltered good girl, Nina is naturally suited to the pure and intricate "White Swan" role in "Swan Lake." But that same leading part also requires her to portray the seductive and malicious "Black Swan." To nab the all-important spot, Nina must draw from the deep well of aggressive, passionate, and dark feelings flowing underneath her obedient, child-like persona.

That process unhinges Nina in a series of scary and heartbreaking scenes that leap between reality and psychosis. Her previously controlled and co-dependent relationship with her mother, a typical former-ballerina-turned-stage-mom (played by Barabara Hershey), explodes into a violent pas de duex. And Nina compulsively harms herself, scratching her back until she appears to have the wing-shaped ruptures of the swan she so desperately wants to become on stage.

Though the film's fantastical elements set it apart from a documentary-style expose of the dance world, it does convince viewers that the only reasonable outcome of that career path is mental illness of one form or another: The competition is relentless, the glory is short-lived, the regiment is literally disfiguring to one's body. Technical mastery is required, and yet, when in character, the dancer is expected to somehow forget the grueling years of training and appear spontaneous and free.

Of course a lot of performing artists suffer, and they do so willingly because of the payoff: the ability to excell and achieve renown, to push their own boundaries, to entertain and move others, and to express themselves fully.

But classical dance in particular seems to harbor more pain than gain. One recent study found that high-level ballet training is associated with "late onset of menarche, menstrual disorders, lower weight and height development, and abnormal feeding disorders." And as for eating disorders, another study found that it's not just the pressure to be thin per se that makes ballerinas susceptible, it's the interaction between that pressure and their personalities, which tend toward perfectionism and neuroticism--hallmarks of anorexia.

Nina is trapped in her own dream of becoming the Swan Queen. As it morphs into a nightmare, the viewer is allowed to completely empathize and even feel herself slipping away from reality. (I'm sure I'm not the only one who felt extra jumpy and fearful on my way home from seeing this movie.) It's an important reminder that in certain circumstances, such as being pushed passed one's mental and physical limits, becoming delusional makes absolute sense. The "crazy" reaction would be to remain a whole and fully functioning person--not to come undone.

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