Thursday, January 20, 2011

Swan Lake: Dancing Into Delusion?

Warning: This may be a spoiler alert for anyone who hasn't seen the movie yet and still wants to. But I'll try not to give too much away :)

You've all seen those typical dance movies where the main character wants the lead part in the ballet, tries to be perfect, and there's usually a jealous frenemy involved. Have you seen one where the main character literally goes crazy and thinks she's turning into a bird? If you've seen Black Swan then you know what I'm talking about. Sure, dancers are put under a lot of pressure and many of them (including myself) deal with perfectionism. That's pretty common in a field based almost entirely on aesthetics. But this movie takes that idea to the next level. Some people argue that Black Swan gives dancers, ballerinas especially, a bad name. I would have to disagree. Yes, it is possible for a professional dancer to become so overwhelmed that she starts developing serious issues, but it's possible for anyone. I think the majority of viewers understand that even though there could be dancers out there like Nina Sayers who are so focused on perfection they become delusional, many dancers are healthy, happy people who just love the art form. Otherwise, we'd all be in a mental institution right now.

That being said, it was very interesting to me to see the events and people that lead to Nina's delusion as it happened. It was like an inside look at what was going on inside Nina's head, so as an audience member I was seeing what she saw and therefore, I could feel the pressure and desperation that she felt. I had to see this movie twice because I was so blown away the first time. I definitely understood it better the second time around, but I believe there are certain things that were supposed to be left unknown. The general consensus was, it was difficult to figure out what was reality and what wasn't, that's why it was confusing at times. In my opinion, this makes the movie a great success (as you could tell by all the awards). I think the producers made it that way because that's exactly how Nina feels when she starts to lose it. It's genius! Her eyes turn red, she starts pulling feathers out of her back, and she thinks she stabs her fellow dancer, Lily in the dressing room, but when she returns the body is gone. She has lost her grip on reality and that's what makes it so fascinating to watch.

In the movie, Nina's mother is portrayed as a controling stage mom who is living her dream through her daughter. Does this sound familiar? Center Stage, anyone? It seems like towards the middle of the movie, it becomes too much for Nina and she starts feeling smothered by her mother. Although, I think the issues began with her choreographer, Thomas Leroy. Thomas was the epitomy of "tough love". More like tough love to the extreme. He told her she was perfect for the role of the White Swan , but he had her convinced that she would not be able to pull off the dramatic, seductive Black Swan. Nina became so obsessed with transforming into this evil character, she actually started acting that way off stage. She went from an innocent, little girl with a bedroom full of stuffed animals, to a girl who went to a club and tried drinking and drugs. When her mom did not approve of this new Nina, she lost it and completely rebelled. The whole movie was like a destructive downward spiral.

I had a revelation when I saw the movie a second time. I don't know if this was obvious to everyone else and I was just slow, or it's actually really clever. But I started to make the connection between the life of Nina Sayers that was portrayed from her point of view, and the life of the Swan Queen in the story, Swan Lake. There was a scene in the club when Nina told the story of the ballet to a guy she met and you can see how it relates to her life shown throughout the movie. The White Swan, Odette falls in love with a prince, but she is heartbroken when she discovers that the prince chooses the wrong girl by mistake. The Black Swan, Odile seduces the prince at a ball and the prince thinks it is really Odette, so he declares that she will be his wife. Since the spell that made Odette a swan can not be broken, she kills herself to be free. We're going to think of Nina as Odette and Thomas as the prince. Nina is desperate for his approval, but he always shows interest towards Lily. Lily embodies the Black Swan's character in real life and she brings out Nina's rebellious side. Lily is chosen as Nina's understudy for the role of the Swan Queen and Nina is paranoid that she wants to steal her role, a.k.a. Thomas picks the wrong girl. Now, you can probably figure out the end to this story.

This leads me to talk about seeing the ballet live! As a Christmas present, I got tickets to see The State Ballet Theatre of Russia perform Swan Lake at the Hippodrome Theatre in Baltimore. It was an excellent performance and it was my first time ever seeing the ballet on stage (crazy, I know). The scenery and costumes were absolutely gorgeous. The overture played and the curtain opened up to a beautiful palace filled with men and women dressed in elaborate gold costumes. I found it pretty funny that Brody's favorite character was the jester from the castle scene. He was so talented! He seemed perfect for the part because he had the most animated facial expressions and he could probably jump over my head if I was standing right in front of him.

My favorite part was the second act, which took place at the lake where all the swans lived. This is when the prince and Odette first meet. The girl playing Odette completely embodied the delicate, shy nature of the White Swan and her dancing was so genuine. Odette is a troubled woman trapped in a swan's body and I could sense that with every facial expression, gesture, and movement. The two performed a pas de deux together and it was flawless. That dance was the highlight of the ballet for me because it is when they first fall in love and make a connection. Everything they did looked so effortless, like they were a perfect match. Even lifting her over his head looked like a breeze! The next scene introduced Odile, the evil Rothbart's daughter who tricks the prince into falling in love with her. Just like in the movie, the same girl played both Odette and Odile, and now I understand why it would be so challenging to perform both roles. Their personalities and mannerisms are polar opposites, and this dancer was very successful in showing the distinction between the two. I couldn't even tell it was the same person until I looked at the program. The moment she walked on stage in that black tutu she commanded the entire audience's attention. The movements were quick, sharp, and percise. Every move she made was dramatic, even a change of focus. I was amazed at how easily she entranced both the audience and the prince.

To sum it all up, I had a great experience seeing Swan Lake for the first time. The scenery, costumes, acting, and dancing were all well over par and the production as a whole was a great success. Thank you to my boyfriend, Brody for getting me the tickets :) For more information on the State Ballet Theatre of Russia, go to:

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