CriticalDance Forum

"Black Swan"
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Author:  S. E. Arnold [ Tue Jan 04, 2011 5:29 am ]
Post subject:  "Black Swan"

The tremendous power and enormous craft paradoxically manifest in the fragile figure of a ballerina pictures a form of perfection. And to paraphrase Rilke, we adore her so because her perfection serenely disdains to destroy us. In a performance of “Swan Lake,” for example, the rhetorical force of a ballerina’s moving power as Odette/Odile can commute the baseness of our being into something transcendent and in that shared transcendence we cease together (at least for a moment) to be ourselves. In the movie, “Black Swan,” the want not for that momentary identity with a rhetorical perfection but rather a complete and ontologically fixed perfection haunts the ballerina, Nina Sayers.

Oblivious to the aristocratic decorum that spawned the art of ballet, the movie unsentimentally shows that ballet companies, like persons, can be mean and nasty, have intrigues and rivalries, and suffer serious relationship and financial trials along with great successes and frightful failures. But the dance world feature that dominates the movie even over those of the pain and anxieties of injuries, the loss or gain of weight, or to win important dance roles is the mirror. The use of Sayer’s oft reflected image whether in a subway window or studio and dressing room mirror blends with the camera’s claustrophobic and intrusive close ups to blur the distinctions between public and private points-of-view. The movie opens, for example, with viewers perched as if in a back pack looking over her shoulder as Sayer enters the stage door to the New York State Theatre at Lincoln Center. This back-of–the-head point of view one takes as the ‘first person’ aspect of the narrative. That point of view invites, or tells, viewers to see the world through that character’s being. The in-your-face type point-of-view one takes as the ‘third person’ aspect of the narrative; this ‘third person’ point-of-view can either be Sayer’s own self-regard (as in a mirror) or from the ‘eyes-of-others’- including the roving eyes of the portraits taped all over her mother’s mirror. This is life in fish bowel or inside a reflecting sphere and someone is always already looking. And the weave of these narrative aspects veils the trust worthiness of what we see. Ambiguity reigns. And fitting to the Odette/Odile deception in “Swan Lake,” we might ask, “How are we to tell the difference between good and evil if they look alike?” Well, we have to decide and deciding is unavoidable. Luckily, for us, however, it is that Nina Stayer’s, the chosen Swan Queen, sense of shame remains in intact. Although her transformation from White to Black Swan as evidenced by the rash and scratches on her back is already in progress as the movie begins, it is the shame she shows for, for example, masturbating, for being late for a rehearsal, for disappointing the company’s AD that anchors enough of what we see in the public realm of good, bad, and evil to make what we see credible rather than fantastic. And as portrayed by Natalie Portman, one easily felt the moral sensitivities, emotional fragilities, and conceptual confusions inherent to her mother sheltered character’s restless drive for perfection. And as the movie shows, the value of a dancer’s perfection in the role of Odette/Odile transforms from a mere honorific aesthetic one into an impossible ontological fixity; and hence perfection’s achievement, rash, scratches, ugly feet, and all, becomes synonymous with the ‘cygne- noir’- the black swan.

If “Black Swan” narrates the tale of a “chosen one’s” path to balletic sacrifice it does so via Nina Sayer’s complete absorption into her role and that absorption must therefore include Tchaikovsky’s score. If, then, one takes “Black Swan” as moving pictures of Nina Sayer’s absorption, then one can take every second of sound as telling viewers something about her and how she sees the world. In fact, one can further take that use of Tchaikovsky’s music to show her (does one dare say) warrior-like dedication to her master: the art of ballet. She lived and died “Swan Lake.” An interesting side-bar story in “Black Swan” details the unhappy fate faced by all professional dancers: age (and for the Miller character, the fear of abandonment). And the young Sayer bound for the end that must greet her arrival at certain, fixed, perfection chose, therefore as any warrior might, death in battle rather than by old age.

Author:  Francis Timlin [ Wed Feb 09, 2011 4:45 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: "Black Swan"

Alastair Macauley deconstructs "Black Swan" in the New York Times.

NY Times

Author:  Francis Timlin [ Sat Feb 26, 2011 4:59 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: "Black Swan"

A detailed review of "Black Swan" by Toni Bentley in The Daily Beast.

The Daily Beast

Author:  Francis Timlin [ Sat Feb 26, 2011 6:06 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: "Black Swan"

Jean Lenihan has a contrasting review in Crosscut.


Author:  S. E. Arnold [ Tue Aug 09, 2011 5:19 am ]
Post subject:  Re: a review of Homans' review of "Black Swan"

The aesthetic discontent Jennifer Homans expresses in her New Republic review resonates with the aesthetic conundrum Stanley Cavell discusses in his essay “Music Discomposed.” (“Must We Mean What We Say?” 1995 180-212) Succinctly stated, Cavell observers that the dissolution of a common musical language compels a change of attitude on how one engages with music, and by extension all of art. In the absence a common language, whether musical, critical et al, it is no longer possible to tell the difference between fraudulent and genuine works of art. This situation prompts the recommendation that one should stand toward art as one stands toward persons. In short, for a work or art to be genuine it must earn a viewer’s trust; and trust here means the sort of trust one has in persons rather than in documentaries. Clearly, this approach to art is complex and takes reflective effort; moreover, and in spite of someone’s knowledge of the language of the art form that art form can, as persons can, become “a complete enigma to another.” (Wittgenstein, Pt II, xi, “Philosophical Investigations” 1958 223) In “The Masters Are Dead and Gone” chapter form “Apollo’s Angels”, it is clear that for Homans’ ballet has become an enigma to her. More troubling, however, is that while she speaks about ballets as she might about persons in “Apollo’s Angels”, in her rather strident review of “Black Swan” she fails to tell the difference between persons and things- between fiction and documentary.

In her review, Homans’ writes, “Black Swan” does not portray what it is like to be a dancer; it portrays what it is like to be Darren Aronosfsky.” Great. Try this: “Lady Macbeth does not portray what it is like to be an actress; it portrays what it is like to be Shakespeare.” Nothing, however, can bless either of these grammatically correct statements with propositional sense. Moreover, one observes that “Black Swan” is Nina Sayer showing audiences how it is with Nina Sayer; it is not a documentary on being a dancer or on ballet. Nevertheless, if one takes Homans’ sentence rhetorically, as an expression of her discontent, then it works. More telling here, however, is her use of the word ‘portray.’ And its use tells the reader that she stands toward the movie as she would stand toward a documentary or a portrait, a form whose content demands verifiability, rather than as a fiction, which does not. Now, if she understands the ballet “Swan Lake” as a fiction, then why does she not want to understand the movie “Black Swan” as a fiction- specifically, as a piece of Gothic fiction?

And speaking of walking skeletons, persecuted maidens, doubles, subterranean passages, madness, demons, and a quest to preserve innocence or find perfection and other features of the Gothic genre…. Cavell, in the essay previously referred to, talks about how the critical question of, “why does the artist use this feature here and now rather than another” as a way of opening up access and passage to discovering the art in the art-work (it also presupposes the notion of an artist’s intentions). In this spirit, one asks, “Why did Aronofsky show Sayer morphing into a black swan rather than using the ‘black swan pas’ from “Swan Lake”? First, one opines that the movie magic of her transfiguration serves to depict unequivocally to all viewers Sayer’s success in her quest for perfection; and second, that that move intends thereby to obviate the distracting and dehumanizing meanness of the judgments certain to flow from the ballet world if the pas was included. Homans’ review alas exemplifies such a judgment. “Portman”, she writes, “Cannot dance. Even in the glimpses we get, her arms are weak and unconvincing, and her skeletal image evokes revulsion rather than aesthetic transfiguration.” What a helpful comment for it highlights a feature of Gothic horror the movie lacks: the walking skeleton; here, however, in Homans’ words one sees the yet moving remains of the Portman-thing freshly denuded, de-fleshed, and crow picked. In light of this unbridled excoriation of Portman, the question is not, ‘after watching “Black Swan” who would want to dance’; but rather after reading Homans’ comment, which one takes as being all too common in the world of ballet, ‘who would want to do ballet?’ Perhaps, then, Aronofsky’s description in “Black Swan” of a fictional Ballet Company’s stained and staining ethos refers to the kind of unreflective and mean mindedness Homans displays in the document of her review.

One expected better from the writer of “Apollo’s Angels.” Rather than a thoughtful discussion on how “Black Swan”, for example, might weave aspects of film, literature, philosophy, and its primary reference, “Swan Lake,” into a meaningful (or not) tapestry her review instead takes the reader into the heart of non sequitorial darkness.

Author:  S. E. Arnold [ Mon Aug 11, 2014 5:53 am ]
Post subject:  Re: "Black Swan" Revisted

In "The Smile of Tragedy, Nietzsche and the Art of Virtue", Daniel Ahern wrote, "It [the difficult ethical practice that informs the warrior ethos of 'going' at the right time] is a giving of oneself not out of a grudging or resigned sense of duty; but rather as a gesture of abundance; one is destroyed out of a strength of love for something far more valuable than oneself." In the book's margin I wrote, "What does this look like; that is, who did/does this?" In a flash I heard a woman saying, "I am Nina Sayers, I have my perfection."(This echoes Tamar Cauldwell's line from "Apology for Bad Dreams," by R. Jeffers.) Indeed, in "Black Swan", Nina Sayers risked and gave the great fortunes of her body, her fierce training and practice, (certainly) not for personal gain; but rather "for something more valuable than" herself: the preservation of the culture of ballet or at least "Swan Lake". "A futile gesture," some viewers might say; nevertheless, in the warrior ethos that informs the pre-Socratic "age of tragedy" celebrated by Nietzsche, the very "uselessness" of Sayer's selfless squandering of her body for the sake of a important ballet achieves, in fact establishes her "goodness." And, while the aesthetic/ethical distinction in Nietzsche's pre-Socratic Greece is nonsensical, "we" at this time, however, might observe that the death of Nina Sayers shows that aesthetics and ethics are one. That is to say that Sayers's pursuit and her smiling, death claim of 'perfection' refuses and refused any such full stop Platonic distinction or fixity. In short, Nina Sayers was always becoming....

Additionally, while Sayers's pursuit of "perfection" rather than the "glory" of a warrior identifies her as an artist, she yet resonates, however, with the polytonalities of "Dionysian pessimism." (a phrase found in Nietzsche's "Gay Science") For example, it is in the simultaneous sounding of the god Apollo's harmonizing power within the cacophonous frenzy of Dionysian excess that enables the life 'intoxicated' artist to select and shape from the chaotic sound mass of life's risks and passions and glories and pains into "a slender form of an art." (A phrase sung by von Aschenbach in Britten's opera "Death in Venice.") Moreover, stimulated by her love of life, which perfects all ills, as well as the certainty of her destruction, which describes the pessimistic part of "Dionysian pessimism", she creates art. And the artist in "this condition," Nietzsche writes in "Twilight of the Idols", "transforms things until they mirror his [her] power- until they are reflections of his [her] perfection. The compulsion to transform into the perfect is - art." (T of I p 83)
At her end in "Black Swan," Nina Sayers smiled and claimed perfection; hers was the "Smile of Tragedy." The Gothic aspects of the movie, it seems to me, work to show her suffering as well as her becoming; her double, for example, was a "self" she needed to overcome. As fantastic as it may sound, "Black Swan" meats an important condition of Nietzschean tragedy as discussed by Ahern: it kills off one of its best. And while the "therapy" of this movie shares little with Aristotle's idea of tragedy's catharsis of pity and fear, it nevertheless as a Nietzschean tragedy would, "have us harvest the germ of courage residing in the 'generosity' he [Nietzsche] identified with the ethical and aesthetic gestures. ("Smile of Tragedy" p115) ...of Nina Sayers.

Ahern, Daniel. "The Smile of Tragedy Nietzsche and the Art of Virtue." University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2012
Britten, Benjamin. "Death in Venice," opera after the eponymous novella by Thomas Mann.
Jeffers, Robinson. "Apology for Bad Dreams. Robinson Jeffers Selected Poems." New York: Vintage Books
Nietzsche, Frederich. "Twilight of the Idols and The Anti-Christ." Translated by R.J. Hollingdale with introduction by Michael Tanner. New York: Penguin Books

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