Ballet may be in pop culture for the moment—but it deserves more respect

By Joel Lobenthal

Director Darren Aronofsky may be bold and indie, but in his latest film Black Swan, which has been heaped with critical praise, he opportunistically and rather heartlessly recycles one cliché after another about ballet and ballet dancers. Overall, it seems Hollywood may be in worse trouble, artistically, than ballet itself at the moment.

Natalie Portman in a scene from Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan

Aronofsky is equally reliant on received tropes—visual, audio, narrative—from the psycho-horror, identity-fissure playbook. Like virtually every ballet movie, Black Swan constructs parallel narratives between the storylines the dancers move to and what goes on in their private lives. Here, Swan Lake’s magisterial dual role Odette/Odile turns into fodder for psycho chicks clawing at each other like the gargoyles Hawn and Streep played in Death Becomes Her.

It’s wrong to say that one movie speaks for an entire culture, but since not only Hollywood, but most of the commercial mass media now pay so little attention to professional dance, I don’t think it’s rash to assume that the film reflects an industry-wide condescension, if not outright contempt for ballet. What’s most insidious is the way that the filmmaker presents us with the trappings of real-life ballet (yes, it is nice to see featured some actual professionals), and therefore the film may deceive many in the general public into thinking that this is what it’s actually like. Because Aronofsky’s film presents a particular ballet world that is sick doesn’t necessarily mean he’s proposing a sweeping statement about all ballet worlds. But ballet has become so excluded from the mainstream media conversation that the distorted part will tend to stand in for the whole.

Most glaringly, balletic beauty is just not present in the film. The performance segments aren’t particularly well danced or well filmed. Rather, what is on exhibit is every kind of abusive and unprofessional behavior. No doubt, these things do go on in ballet, but Aronofsky seems to have no interest in acknowledging any degree of craft or artistic depth by anyone working in the field. When they discuss the art form, when they work in the studio, the artistic staff in the film broadcast ponderous and simplistic inanities. Yes, ballet is a cruel and ruthlessly competitive field, but it deserves to be taken seriously.

Seeing the film, I could only reflect on my own experience of ballet’s backstage world. During the 1980s, I watched many rehearsals at American Ballet Theatre, principally because I was friends with coach Elena Tchernichova. The painstaking, serious-minded pursuit of perfection that went on in her rehearsals gave me another view altogether of balletic process than what Aronofsky presents. I thought of this when I talked with former-ABT dancer Jennet Zerbe just about the time I watched Black Swan. Zerbe now teaches at the Alberta Ballet school in Calgary. I told her about the way that many of the most memorable performances I’ve seen were not done by the top-ranked people. Zerbe is a case in point: She was in ABT’s corps when I witnessed her and Hilary Ryan, another corps dancer, debut in the same solo from Paquita at Sunday matinee and evening performances given by ABT in December 1984 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Each young woman—they were both around 20—was very tall and striking. Each, in her own way, performed with the refined and poetic style wherein celebration of the self goes hand in hand with celebration of something bigger, and elegance becomes a metaphor for graciousness of spirit. Either of the dancers could have become a ballerina; neither did, for a variety of reasons. Nor, in fact, did they ever dance that solo again at ABT. While Ryan was given virtually no other solos to dance, over the half-decade following Paquita, Zerbe performed a number of other solo roles before injury forced her to stop dancing well before she was 30. I haven’t seen or spoken to Ryan since she left ABT at the end of the 1980s, but since running into Zerbe again several years ago, I’ve encouraged her to write about ballet. Despite its vicissitudes, she loves it as much as ever and looks at it insightfully and analytically.

Casting policies back in the 1980s were no less problematic than they often are today. But on that Sunday, Ryan and Zerbe did give me a demonstration of ballet’s full expressive possibilities—something that Black Swan does not do for a single moment.