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Danse Macabre.

Well, I was rooting for Darren Aronofosky’s Black Swan. I generally think well of Aronofsky even if The Wrestler notwithstanding, he has a penchant for operatic self-indulgence. (In the Best of the Decade list I put together a year ago, The Fountain, The Wrestler, and Requiem for a Dream clocked in at #77, #35, and #30 respectively.)

And, at least in general terms, the subject matter of Black Swan hits close to home, given that my sis is a professional ballerina who’s well-versed in the Odette/Odile role(s). (Although, as far as I tell, she hasn’t gone off-the-wall, certifiably bugnuts crazy…yet. Gill’s thoughts on Black Swan are here.) All that being said, Aronofsky’s attempted Cronenberg variation on Tchaikovsky here doesn’t really work. The movie is arousing a good bit of passion and controversy at the moment — some critics love it, some hate it, there may even be an age divide — but, for the most part I just found it overwrought and silly.

Black Swan begins auspiciously with the prologue of the ballet from which it’s riffing: Young dancer Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) dreams she’s on stage performing the opening “transformation sequence” of Swan Lake, when Odette first encounters the villainous sorcerer Von Rothbart. (Here and throughout, Portman doesn’t really have the ballet chops to pull off the dancing, but, to my layperson’s eye, the workarounds seemed decently convincing. And she’s actually quite good otherwise.) But outside of the Dreaming, Nina is still just a lower-level dancer (presumably a soloist) in her Lincoln Center-based company, living with her (s)mother (Barbara Hershey) in a too-small New York apartment.

But opportunity knocks for Nina when the company director (Vincent Cassel, seemingly playing himself) tires of his veteran principal (Winona Ryder) and decides to recast Swan Lake from the ground up. (And for some reason, he only seems to be picking one cast.) Nina seems like a perfect fit to dance the willowy, innocent Odette, the White Swan. But can she handle the Black Swan half of the equation: the alluring temptress Odile? In fact, there’s a carefree, sensuous new corps member — with swan wing tattoos, no less (Mila Kunis) — that seems born to play that role. So if Nina wants to live her dream and dance the lead in this new Swan Lake, she has to cut loose from her perfectionist moorings and embrace her dark side. Which, unfortunately for her, brings on the Madness…the Madness, splitting in half

Thus ensues a series of increasingly nightmarish vignettes, in which Nina — already fragile and anorexic on her best days — succumbs to teh crazy: Mirrors start acting funny, a stress rash grows worse and worse, and soon she’s ripping long strips of flesh off her fingers at the cuticle. (I wasn’t kidding when I said this was a Cronenberg variation, although the “all-in-a-day’s-work” body horrors of The Wrestler also come to mind.) Unfortunately, while Black Swan pretends to be a psychological horror movie, most of the scares here are really just of the jump-scare or gross-out variety. And, other then an ecstasy-fueled nightclub scene that recalls the druggy cinematic syntax of Requiem (and that eventually devolves into a ludicrous “sapphic succubus” tryst that seems like something out of Showgirls), Black Swan spends too much of its run dancing dangerously on the precipice of boring.

The thing is: If we know the lead character is going bonkers, and that’s made pretty clear from jump street, these endless nightmare sequences have very little dramatic weight to them. Something bad happened, somebody got killed? Eh, she’s probably just imagining it. What might’ve made Black Swan more interesting is to emphasize not how she’s going mad, but why. But, in that department, Aronofsky mostly just burdens Nina with trite Freudian baggage — an overbearing mother and a sexy crush on “father” (a.k.a. Cassel) — that was hoary and cliched even in Tchiakovsky’s day.

And so it’s hard to sympathize with Nina because neither her character nor her plight is at all convincing. So she has to somehow play both an innocent AND a seductress? ZOMG how will she ever manage? Well, I dunno, how about…acting? Sure, there are cases where Method types will lose themselves too much in a part. (Heath Ledger’s travails with the Joker come to mind.) But, perhaps due to familiarity with ballet folk, playing the white and black swans just doesn’t seem like an insanity-inducing event to me. (Although, now that I think about it, I guess a psychotic break after portraying evil twins might explain the late career path of the Shat.)

In the Financial Times, dance critic Apollinaire Scherr makes a key and telling point: In emphasizing the psychological rigors of the Black Swan role, Aronofsky sorta missed the point of the ballet. “Sure, there is a good maiden and a sly vixen in Swan Lake, but, like the ballet’s dopey prince, Aronofsky gets them mixed up. The virtuous woman has a self to lose; the schemer merely fakes it. Odile the Black Swan is easy to understand…what you see is what you get…Odette – part swan, whole queen, once simply a woman – is complex: wild but also majestic, animal yet gentle.”

In other words, the White Swan is the character with actual depth, while the Black Swan is basically all sizzle and flash, the prince falling for a pretty face. In that, the movie Black Swan is much like its namesake. I suppose it works decently well as a cheesy midnight movie for goth girls and the like. But in terms of anything approaching tragic or psychological depth, Black Swan misses the mark wildly. Its pleasures and pains barely scratch the surface.

Swan Swan H.

‘The character was very interesting to play, always challenging and surprising. The fact that I had spent so much time with the idea — Darren and I started discussing doing the film in 2000 — allowed it to marinate a little before we shot.‘”

Amidala by way of Tarsem? No, that’s Natalie Portman as (presumably) Odile in one of the handful of new images from Darren Aronofsky’s ballet psychothriller Black Swan, with Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, and Vincent Cassel , set to premiere at the Venice Film Festival later this year. I’m intrigued, if nothing else than to see how well Aronofsky takes notes

Little Sis Doin’ Work.

Gillian Murphy was an enchanting heroine on Monday, crystalline in her delicate approach to her first solo, steely in her balances in the Rose Adagio, ethereal (if a little tragic) in the Vision scene, radiant in the final act…Ms. Murphy perfectly embodied the teenage shyness and graceful poise of the young princess.” For those of you in Gotham, ABT’s Spring Season is now in full swing at the Met, and the NYT is giving sis her props. Catch her if you can.

A Revolutionary Dancer?

She knew that her husband was gun-running, she knew that he was accompanied by rebels and at one point she used her yacht to decoy government boats and aircraft away from the direction which her husband was taking.” The Dancer Upstairs? Newly-released documents suggest ballerina legend Margot Fonteyn was more active in a failed Panamanian coup than anyone knew at the time. Said Foreign Office Minister John Profumo (later of the Profumo scandal): “I had to pinch myself several times during her visit to be sure I wasn’t dreaming the comic opera story which she unfolded.”

Just Buy Clara a Pony Already.

“Come the twilight of the year, the deathless ‘Nutcracker’ begins its march across American stages, bearing tidings of comfort and joy. Oh, goody. Yet to those of us who despair of its pervading tweeness and wish ballet had something better to do at this time of year than endlessly reminisce like a sweet, whiskery auntie, it bears some bad news, too. ‘The Nutcracker’s’ stranglehold is all but squeezing ballet dry.”

In the WP, Sarah Kaufman rails against the tyranny of the Nutcracker. With all due respect to my ballerina sis, if I never see Clara and her wooden soldier again at this point, it’ll be soon enough. Swan Lake is always grand…The Nutcracker, not so much.

Grace Under Pressure. | Beyond Bravura.

“Nevertheless there has been an awakening, a deepening in her artistry that has caught up with her astonishing technique. As more emotionally charged roles come her way, Murphy has surprised many and drawn rave reviews for her acting in ABT’s most somber and sinister ballets. As Hagar, the repressed middle sister in Tudor’s dour drama Pillar of Fire, Murphy is riveting. Her body and facial expressions are taut until her pent up passion erupts with the Stranger Next Door. Murphy’s ax-wielding Lizzie Borden (the Accused) in de Mille’s Fall River Legend skulks and rages, negotiating the emotional curves down to the essence. Her intensity shocked everyone–even herself.

Big doings on the family front: Not only did Gill recently receive a Princess Grace Statue Award for lifetime achievement in dance (that’s the ceremony above — and she did her own speechwriting also), but she is featured (again) as the cover story of this month’s Dance Magazine. (The cover is at right, but the official magazine site seems to scrimp on the quality jpgs — for the time being, check a newsstand near you.) “No one appreciates Murphy’s questioning mind more than [Kevin] McKenzie, who also coaches her. ‘Gillian is a very coordinated and intelligent person,’ he says. ‘If something doesn’t feel natural to her, she has the ability to approach problems from both angles–physical and cerebral.‘”

Aronofsky Back on Pointe.

With the involvement of Natalie Portman making the studios happy, it now appears Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is back in play as the director’s next project. “Swan centers on a veteran ballerina (Portman) who finds herself locked in a competitive situation with a rival dancer, with the stakes and twists increasing as the dancers approach a big performance. But it’s unclear whether the rival is a supernatural apparition or if the protagonist is simply having delusions.” (As I noted here, Aronofsky’s been researching with all the right ballerinas for this one, imho.)

Thirty on Her Toes.

A very happy birthday to my sister Gill, who turned 30 over the weekend (and who recently garnered some raves in London during ABT’s European swing.) While I won’t be there to enjoy it this year, ABT’s spring season at the Met is right around the corner.

From Russia with Love.

Speaking of bravura performances recently, my sister Gill (on loan from ABT) premiered as Odette/Odile in the Kirov Ballet’s production of Swan Lake over the weekend in St. Petersburg, at the famed Mariinsky Theater. And, through the magic of Youtube, her Black Swan pas de deux is now online:

For the non-ballet folk, that spin move is known as a fouette, and they’re hard!

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