Bleeping Black Swan

Just taking a holiday break from Sarah Palin…well maybe not, because that would be saying that I’m taking a break from someone who can’t think by not thinking.  Too complicated.

Anyway, I’ve been an off and on ballet freak since I was a kid and studied it for a time.  I was stopped by the fact that although I had an appropriate body for that art, I also had (and have) a sort of physical memory-fart problem — that is, the teacher would bark out a lengthy combination and everyone in the studio would instantly be able to do it but me.  I’d often be stalled with a blank memory after the first three steps, sometimes two.  Counting didn’t help.  Not a good thing for a dancer, and it never got better no matter how long I studied.

I was also “too tall.”  Three to four decades ago, it was very easy for a female ballet dancer to be too tall.  It’s still possible for them to be too tall, of course, but standards have relaxed to the point where at least one prima ballerina is said to hover at around 5’9″ when she’s not standing en pointe (on her toes); several other current primas are around 5’6″.  This is roughly 1″ taller than the absolute upper height limit back in the day, when the great American Ballet Theater ballerina Cynthia Gregory was made to suffer through endless stupid questions from interviewers because of her supposedly outrageous height (she was 5’6″), as if it were some sort of crime she could atone for.  The only major company back then that didn’t freak out unduly about tall ballerinas was the New York City Ballet, and that was only because the company’s founder, George Balanchine, felt that “you can see better” when a dancer is tall.

One thing that has not changed is that it’s still nearly impossible for ballet dancers to be too thin.  In the companies of France and Russia, they can be deemed fat if they have so much as mildly visible bustlines.  U.S. and British companies seem to have relaxed that standard, but only very slightly: a ballerina in a New York company recently got blasted by a critic because “her Sugar Plum Fairy looked as if she’d eaten a few too many sugar plums.”  Yeah, right.  I saw a picture of that woman in costume and thought she looked like an absolutely stunning ballerina.  Silly me.

I should also mention that after my failure as a ballet student, I did not watch any ballet at all for decades.  I only discovered all the changes when I started watching again quite recently: as I said, some ballerinas are very tall and some have figures; everybody from student up to prima ballerina seems to have wildly-exaggerated arched feet instead of mere high arches; leg extensions have almost literally hit the ceiling whether the ballet calls for it or not; the ballerinas are the stars again instead of the danseurs; at least 3 kids from the U.S. are studying in the “Russians only” classes at the Bolshoi school (impossible back in the day); etc.  In many ways the ballet world is a universe away from where it was years ago, but some things never change.

Why did I start watching again?  I’m not sure, but it was well before the recent release of what I’ve heard is a very silly movie called Black Swan. Yes, I know that most of the reviews of this movie have been raves and Academy Award nominations are being discussed.  I beg to differ.  The clips I’ve seen of it have left me unwilling to see it, and a review I read today confirmed my worst suspicions.

To me it sounds kind of like The Turning Point.  Remember that one?  No?  Well, it was a long while back.  But it was camp nonetheless.

Maybe it’s just because ballet doesn’t make good subject matter for dramatic movies.  That could be, because ballet is nothing more than work, work and more work on top of outright drudgery.  That doesn’t leave much room for drama, although I have no doubt that what’s at stake — a brief bubble of glory and fame — does bring out the worst in many of the dancers.

Still, you can overdo it, and Black Swan seems to have achieved that.  One clip I saw seemed to be of a rehearsal for the old standard ballet Swan Lake, from which the movie gets its title.  The coach was urging the dancer to be sexy.  Uh….no.  Odette, the white swan, is not about sex.  Her alter-ego (and the other part of the ballerina’s duel role in that ballet) is Odile the black swan, who is sexy only in a very Victorian kind of way.

You see, the basic story is that Odette is a beautiful princess who has been for some reason transformed into a swan by an evil sorcerer, and can only be rescued by finding true love, which she does (without effort, I might add) — except that before Odette’s lover can publicly declare his intention to marry her, the sorcerer transforms his daughter Odile into Odette’s evil twin and deceives her lover.  Because of this, Odette and her lover must die for the spell to be broken and free all of Odette’s friends (who have also been transformed into white swans), as well as their own spirits.  It’s all little-girl-romantic stuff.  That is to say there is no sex in this ballet.  I thought even a 10-year-old knew that.

A 10-year-old maybe, but that bit of 100+ year-old news apparently hasn’t reached men in Hollywood, and so they got it wrong.  They also viewed a female ballet dancer’s sexuality from a strictly male-wishful-thinking perspective.  I have no doubt that some dancers are lesbians, just as some regular women are.  (And before anyone freaks out after half reading what I just said, I AM NOT SAYING THAT IS BAD.)  However — at least in my day — the vast majority of the girls were unhappily wondering why so many of the boys in the corps wanted nothing to do with them.  Girl-on-girl stuff was highly unlikely to happen.  It’s just that it’s so fashionable right now, and men have always loved the idea, and I’m sure that’s how it ended up in Black Swan.  It’s a woman’s world from a man’s point of view: that is to say, it’s inaccurate.

As for the self-mutilation stuff, it’s probably real enough, but I have no desire to watch it on a big screen.

So take all that nonsense away and what do you end up with?  Nothing much, apparently.  And so it is with ballet.  Dancers in major companies literally work their butts off morning, noon and night, 6 days a week.  It’s always been that way and it probably always will be.  There’s not much time left for behavior that makes a good storyline.

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