There has been a ballet buzz in the air in recent days, a buzz that has extended beyond the bounds of the normal ballet audience to the general public. Between the un-gallant (and thoroughly unwarranted) criticism of ballerina Jenifer Ringer's physical appearance by a certain reviewer and the commencement of the New York run of a long-awaited ballet film, the art form is very much in the news. This morning Rob and I trekked down to Clearview Cinema in Chelsea in the bitter cold to see BLACK SWAN.
The film starts off with the decision by a top ballet director to stage a new SWAN LAKE and to pluck an un-tested candidate from the soloist rank of his Company to dance the dual role of Odette/Odile. This is vaguely reminiscent of the decision Peter Martins made a few years ago to cast Sara Mearns, then pretty much a novice in the corps, as the Swan Queen in his production. Partnered impeccably by Nilas Martins, Sara turned opportunity into triumph and she has gone on to become one of New York City Ballet's most gorgeous and admired artists. Fortunately, Sara she did not have to go thru the horror-movie hell that Natalie Portman's character Nina Sayers endures in the film to get the Swan Queen ready for her debut performance.
Portman and Mila Kunis are both attractive and they throw themselves into their roles with abandon. Probably the most interesting aspect of the film is the successful blurring of the line between fantasy and reality: for instance, did the lesbian love scene shown above really happen or was it just Portman's moist dream? And is Kunis really Portman's crafty rival and sexual obsession or just another ballerina new to the Company who gets tapped to be Portman's understudy? We never really know and - I am sorry to say - we never really care either. (I keep looking at the above photo and thinking: these girls have lousy kissing techniques. Obviously they can't really get into the Sapphic mode)
The pacing of the film is a bit too sluggish; there isn't quite enough ballet in the film and there's a bit too much 'schlock and shock', much of which is just kind of gross and predictable. Nina/Portman's hallucinations leave us wondering if she will make it onstage for her debut. And even when she does, it's questionable as to whether she will make it to the end. She does, but not without bloodshed (her own). The slow transformation of ballerina into Black Swan as Portman grows wings and sprouts feathers in the final moments of her Odile performance is visually striking but also a bit camp.
Benjamin Millepied choreographed the version of SWAN LAKE from which brief bits are seen in the film. It is an ugly production but well-suited to the nightmare atmosphere. I guess everyone knows the story of how Natalie Portman and Benjamin Millepied, a premier danseur at New York City Ballet, fell in love during the making of the film. Between his work on the film, his love affair and his blooming career as a choreographer, Benjamin has hardly danced at all in the past year. I wonder if he is about to hang up his dancing slippers? But he's so beautiful in the film as Nina's partner: he has only a couple of mumbled lines but his face and body radiate more of the poetry of ballet and the expressiveness of the human body in motion than all the other elements of the film combined.
Vincent Cassel plays Thomas Leroy, the man who runs the Company and who expects sexual gratification from his ballerinas in return for casting them in good roles. He cons Nina into exploring her sensuality as a means of opening herself up emotionally for the role of Odile. He wants her more aggressive, more predatory: when he kisses her, she bites his lips. He thinks that's a good start.
One of my favorite actresses, Barbara Hershey, portrays Nina Sayers' mother. I've loved Hershey since HANNAH AND HER SISTERS and am particularly drawn to her work in LANTANA and her phenomenal performance as the unhappy but conniving Madame Merle in PORTRAIT OF A LADY. As Nina's mother, a frustrated former dancer who never achieved success, Hershey gives a fine performance, living a ballerina life vicariously thru her daughter.
In THE AGE OF INNOCENCE, Winona Ryder portrayed the seemingly naive but actually manipulative May Welland. Here, playing a beloved but neurotic ballerina (named Beth) nearing retirement, it's nice to see the actress again. But her role is so brief and the reason for her character's presence in the film is not really clear. Supposedly Nina is to succeed Beth as a major ballerina and as a muse/lover for Thomas. This aspect of the film needed more clarity, and more expanded scenes for Ryder to flesh the character out.
Several notables from the New York dance scene appear in the film including Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet's ballet master Alexandra Damiani (above), former New York City Ballet dancers Christine Redpath and Kurt Froman, and the great teacher Olga Kostritzky. Their presence gives the film more of a sense of ballet-world reality than might have been attained by using 'regular' actors in these roles. But each could have been given a bit more to do so that we could appreciate seeing them on-screen.
ABT's Sarah Lane does some of the close-up pointe work for Natalie Portman, just as Aesha Ash danced for Zoe Saldana in CENTER STAGE. The editing of BLACK SWAN is so good that you often can't tell where Natalie ends and Sarah begins.
One of my favorite things about watching BLACK SWAN was seeing the faces of dancers - many of them formerly with NYC Ballet - who portray Company members in the film: Jamie Wolf, Carrie Lee Riggins, Lauren Fadaley, Genevieve Labean, Jessy Hendrickson (sister of Adam), Lily di Piazza, Rebecca Azenberg, Max van der Steere (yay Max!). I loved picking them out from the ranks of the corps de ballet.
An outstanding aspect of BLACK SWAN is the score which ranges from authentic Tchaikovsky passages to aural fantasias on the ballet's famous motifs worked into a persuasive musical tapestry by Clint Mansell.
It's good to have a 'new' ballet film to follow in the tradition of THE TURNING POINT and CENTER STAGE though for me it is the oldest of the three movies that remains my favorite. BLACK SWAN has its moments but it doesn't have enough ballet in it to satisfy me, and its scenes of fantasy and illusion are often just too over-the-top to be really chilling.