2011년 1월 29일 토요일

Why does Odette Dance?- a reflection on the ballet Swan Lake after Black Swan

Since seeing the trailer on the internet in November 2010, I was excited about the movie Black Swan. I fell in love with ballet when I was about 4 years old when my mom took me to see 'La Sylphide' since then, my love grew and ballet never ceases to capture my imagination and continues to inspire (and I am very certain that I would have been a ballet dancer had I not found my calling in fashion).

Black Swan was one of the most emotionally powerful and thought provoking movies I have ever seen and the second movie I have seen twice in the cinema (the other one being Dark Knight). The movie did not have a complicated and intertwined storyline, but its psychological complexity and the emotional depth allowed me to discover something different each time I went to see it. It took two trips to the cinema and about two months of reflection (not to mention hours spent on editing and re-editing this blog entry) for me to finish this belated review.

Throughout the movie, the actual character names of the ballet Swan Lake is almost never used especially for the two main roles (except for one instance when Thomas asks Nina to dance the Odile variation and asks the maestro to play the Odile's coda). It's almost as if the movie is deliberately disassociating itself with the ballet in some ways. Somewhat of a parallel is established between the movie and the ballet, but not really (it all makes sense once you see the movie, the story of the ballet is vague in its details and some details are made up for the movie. The black swan is described as being the white swan's evil twin, presumably to heighten the sense of duality, which seems to be the overriding theme of the movie. But in the original ballet, the black swan is sometimes described as Von Rothbart's daughter bewitched to look like the white swan or an illusionary image Von Rothbart created). I think the reason why the title role in Swan Lake is only described as a Swan Queen (rather than the actual name of the character, Odette) is to eliminate any preconceptions of the characters of Swan Lake. By simply calling the title role as Swan Queen, it becomes impersonal and without identity, it is a title rather than a name. It creates an opportunity for the movie to explore the true nature of the characters without any restrictions. People expect certain things from Odette and Odile but with Swan Queen and Black Swan, the possibilities for truly original and authentic interpretations are infinite and it is up to Nina as an artist to 'create' these roles rather than to copy what has been done before. The roles are stripped of any preexisting associations and therefore the director manages to tailor the roles to be more suitable for the characters in the movie to explore and relate as well as for the audiences watching the movie. In the beginning, Nina lacks creativity to create, she has all the makings of a genius, she is consumed by dance and she struggles to achieve the perfection. However, her movements exactly mirrors those of her dancing coach and she constantly sees herself everywhere; she has not yet a truly unique identity, hers blends in. She is repressed in many ways and she realises this when she meets and gets to know Lily. Nina's defiance or liberation, catalyzed by not-so-gentle push of sexually deviant and somewhat sadistic director Thomas, ultimately leads to Nina's tragic but great destiny as an artist.

Nina's pink room is seems more like a little girls room, it represents suffocating control Nina's mother exacts on her, she is to Nina what Von Rothbart is to Odette. Nina is trapped in a little girls room under the power of her mother. Nina is branded a 'sweet girl' and she is never to escape from it. This oppression, which is masked by love is ultimately the one thing that keeps Nina from achieving her full creative potentials. But why so? doesn't Nina's mother wants to see her daughter succeed? Nina's mother is also a very interesting character if not a contradictory one. We see that she is conflicted throughout the movie. She seems to be obsessed with Nina's career, but it is strange how she never encourages Nina. When Nina comes back after her unsuccessful audition, Nina's mother is rather unsettlingly ignorant in her approach to assure her. There is absolutely no trace of disappointment from Nina's mother and she even sounds assured that her daughter failed, when Nina tells her that she has completed the Odile's coda, she condescendingly tells her not to lie and to be happy with minor solo roles. There are a lot of instances where Nina's mother's behaviour does not make sense. In my opinion, Nina's mother is also tormented by duality. As a failed ballet dancer, she wants to see her daughter succeed, she wants to project herself and her dreams through Nina but also she is jealous of her daughter's ability and career and she has not yet figured which is more important. Nina's mother is exerting such control over Nina as a compensation, because it is something that she did not have for herself and her career.

What I also loved about Black Swan was its portrayal of ballet and its world. Ballet is infamous for its difficulties in translating to a film screen, but the dynamic work of hand-held camera, while capturing Nina's unstable and fragile mind, also captured more energetic side of ballet and added dimension. Black Swan also depicts the duality of the world of ballet. In a seemingly glamorous and beautiful theatre, there are dark and unrefined backstage alleyways and cold changing rooms where all the bitter dramas occur. The ballerinas are not perfect creatures who are unaffected by the sins of the world, they are just like us, struggling in the abysmal pit of ugliness that is this our world. The movie shows pains that ballerinas has to endure in order to achieve the ultimate elegance. Nina has to visit physiotherapist because of the pains she gets from her ballet training and she cracks her toe nails. She cannot eat anything (even little slice of cake Nina's mom bought for her in arguably the most important and happy day where her career is concerned) and few things that she does, she has to throw up (I am not suggesting that all ballerinas have eating disorder, to be able to move the way they do, they actually need to eat a lot of carb to provide energy). This brings ballet to the world from its perceived status of elitism and shatters somewhat sugar-coated and often unrelatable illusions of grandeur that the insular world of ballet can be seen in. But this does not degrade ballet in any way, it is for this very reason Nina and all the ballerinas' pain and struggle is so tragically beautiful and mesmerising.

Throughout the movie, there are some memorable scenes of pointe work. Even the most disciplined ballerinas feel pain in their feet when they go en pointe for a prolonged time. This is a perfect metaphor for Nina's journey and the pains she had to endure to perfect the roles and perhaps this is why the director chose to show those scenes.
Anderson wrote that dancing was like walking on shards of glasses bare foot for the little mermaid but perhaps it is because of that she could dance the most beautiful dance in the kingdom. Balck Swan was about the torture and pain of artists to achieve perfection, something that is so hard even to grasp its concept but feels so close. Although people would generally agree that Nina's story is a tragedy, I found it poetically romantic because of that very reason, like the swan song. Perhaps Nina is like the pointe shoes we see in the beginning of the movie. New shoes may look perfect and pristine but it needs to be cut, ripped, sewn, slashed and broken for it to become an instrument of creating beautiful art.

This movie made me think about the actual ballet Swan Lake. Odette is a beautiful princess who is turned into a swan by the magic of Von Rothbart. She is trapped in a body of a swan during the day and only when the night falls, the curse is broken until the sunrise. Odette's transformation to a swan is highly romanticized one in many people's mind and it is usually portrayed as something beautiful, but the transformation would have been excruciating, just like the Nina's transformation into a perfect swan. Rather than seeing it as some sugar coated beautiful princess magically turning into a beautiful white swan, I interpreted it in a different way so that I can understand the deeper meanings behind it. Odette's bones would have to be broken into pieces and her skin ripped apart during every transformation. This physical transformation, though unbearably painful it may be, is only an indication of the real torture Odette's mind has to endure every day because when Odette is transformed into a swan every morning, she loses her identity and humanity. Odette is in constant state of confusion and instability, her transformation forces her fragile mind into insanity. Slowly but surely, as her excruciating daily metamorphosis continues, her sense of existence, sense of self and more importantly, her humanity will start to incinerate into oblivion rendering her mind to become vegetated in a catatonic state in compensation for both physical and psychological pain. Why does Odette dance then? After difficult day living as a swan, wondering in the wilderness and after the painful transformation, Odette's tired mind and body would have been desperate for a rest. But no, Odette dances all through the night. I think Odette dances so that she can recognize herself in order to hold on to her humanity. Dancing was the only way she can remember that she is a human being. It is her last stand against her cruel destiny an only way for Odette to fight Von Rothbart. She is not about to give up. In this way, Odette is not your usual damsel in distress waiting pretty for a prince to rescue her as many people understand her to be. On the contrary, she is a strong heroin, unsuccessful it may be, taking charge of her destiny, finding her freedom in death.

To be continued...


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