What Black Swan Taught Me NOT to Do as a Performer (film spoilers ahead)

For those who haven’t seen the film, Black Swan is a thriller directed by Darren Aronofsky about a kind-hearted ballerina named Nina Sayers (played by Natalie Portman) who auditions for the lead role of the Swan Queen. She starts off by being nice and not engaging in the competitiveness of her fellow ballerinas, but as the film progresses she lets her ego take over as she tries to be both the innocent pure White Swan and the dark twisted Black Swan simultaneously. She thinks another ballerina, Lily (Mila Kunis), is out to steal her part as the Black Swan, so she goes to great lengths to beat Lily and please Thomas, her teacher.

I read a parents guide on Kids Mind and a Wikipedia plot summary before seeing the film because I frankly don’t enjoy scary things that jump out or happen suddenly on screen, even though I know deep down that reading these guides kills the fun of the movie. However, even when I closed my eyes at the gruesome creepy parts I had plenty to ruminate about after the film. In fact, the end credits add to the overall darkness of this psychological horror film because it’s a cream-white background but with black feathers representing Nina’s role as The Black Swan. After you realize how much Nina destroyed herself to become the lead role of the Swan Queen, you’ll need to wait until the end credits are finished to actually take a deep breath of relief. Because the white and black contrast of the end credits against the sounds of Peter Tchaikovsky’s ominous Swan Lake Overture are beautiful but unsettling when you remember that the film is overall very dark.

Because I’m still trying to digest the 1 hour and 40-ish minutes of the film (I don’t really want to look up the actual time because then I’d have to see a photo of Natalie Portman’s gorgeous yet haunting glare at the viewer in the film poster), here are just a few of my jumbled thoughts about it. I have never binge-watched so many episodes of Brooklyn 99 in my life, but after seeing Black Swan I needed to see something humorous.

First and foremost, the film has a pretty harsh reality check for any perfectionists out there (speaking for myself). Nina goes into the office of her teacher, Thomas, and asks for the Swan Queen role. He then tells her he gave it to another ballerina and tells her to leave. She then tells him that she just wants to be perfect. He then tells her that he doesn’t care about her technique and that a perfect performance isn’t just about technique but about losing yourself in the role and letting go. He tells her embodying both the White and Black Swan is hard because the Black Swan would require Nina to lose touch with herself. However, it’s important to not take what he says to heart, because honestly speaking this dude (yes, I called Vincent Cassel’s character a “dude”) is a creep and forcibly kisses Nina in his office. This reminded me of allegations against various conductors who put their students on a pedestal while abusing them into silence. Thomas also manipulates Nina into taking him literally. While Lily, Nina’s competitor, gets to have fun and go out with friends while still holding Thomas’ attention, Nina is constantly tortured by the idea that Lily would replace her.

Honestly, as a musician who happens to be a feminist, I don’t think Darren Aronofsky intended for this film to be about female empowerment. In fact, at one point in the film, a gross old guy makes lewd gestures at Nina while she’s on the subway. She doesn’t tell him to back off or cuss him out, but instead silently looks away while he continues to do it. This honestly isn’t fair to her though because she’s had to silently take manipulative treatment from Thomas for so long, so the script should have at least let her cuss the guy out or share her #metoo experience with other young women.

Funny thing is, during the credits I wrote down the name of the director, the producers, the screenplay writers, the executive producers. Most, if not all, of them were male. I was trying to figure out, why does this movie stress me out so much as a young female classical musician in a male-dominated field? And then I read the end credits and saw the names of men and though, Ohhhhh… wow, that’s deep. And now, I’m not saying that just because these men produced and directed the film, it was fated to be sexist. They could have let Nina have a healthy relationship with her career. She could have done her own side project, done a dance that speaks about female empowerment or women’s rights. She could have coded her own website. But instead, they had her play a stereotype of ballerinas (and young women in general) that was just problematic in so many ways. I’m not totally upset with these people who wrote the screenplay, I’m just pointing out something I observed.

I was thinking, this is just a movie, this isn’t supposed to be a documentary about ballerinas, it’s all fiction, but I wanted to find real-life experiences by ballerinas that shattered the Nina stereotype. I immediately remembered a friend and I were talking about Misty Copeland’s story. For those unfamiliar with Misty Copeland, she became the first black woman to be the principal ballet dancer of the American Ballet Theatre in 2015, and has encouraged so many girls and young women, particularly women of color. During Black Swan I didn’t really see any ballerinas of color. I don’t think this is what Darren Aronofsky intended but after reading about Misty Copeland’s journey as a ballerina I couldn’t help but notice it. Misty Copeland, in an interview with Elle, says that she started later than other ballerinas but that she believes it is her mission to encourage young girls to develop positive self-esteem because of the deeply ingrained stigma associated with the classical ballet sphere.

I’m such a late bloomer. Having been in the company for as long as I’ve been, and having been promoted at this stage—I think that it’s been hard for me to accept that I belong here, that I’m good enough. Maybe it’s just that I’m so exhausted and I’m 35 now and it was my breaking point, but I believe that I deserve to be here. The power that I have in bringing people to the ballet, and for what I represent—I don’t need to be working like a slave. I can say no to certain things and decide to do something else that will enrich who I am.

“Misty Copeland Is Pirouetting Her Way to Disney Fame” . Sophie Brickman, Sept. 19 2018. Elle.com

Unlike Nina, Misty recognizes that it’s important to not compare yourself to others, and in fact encourages young ballerinas to be passionate about what they do and just have fun. Unfortunately, Black Swan makes it seem that in order to be a good performer, one must close themselves off from the real world and focus on being better than other performers. This is a unrealistic and unhealthy way of approaching art. Most of the successful musicians, artists and dancers I have encountered over the years have told me to have fun, not compare myself with others, and just appreciate the fact that I’m even playing an instrument. Because Thomas manipulates Nina into thinking she needs to lose herself in her performance in destructive ways, such as screaming at her mom and Lily, she loses a deep sense of appreciation for even just performing and even ignores people when they praise her at the end for her performance of the White and Black Swan.

There is a particular scene in which Nina is rehearsing alone late at night with the pianist, and he finally gets up and leaves. When she tells him to stay and rehearse with her, he tells her “I have a life” and that she herself should get rest instead of stay up late rehearsing. Nina’s mom tells her to get sleep instead of go out for drinks with Lily. Personally I would have argued that Nina should have listened to her mom (even though this would cut the storyline super-short) because she spent all day rehearsing and needs to recharge. Countless scientific studies have shown that taking time for ourselves actually helps us perform better. My teacher even encourages me to take breaks in between practicing my instrument so I don’t risk burning out. I myself learned the hard way the importance of taking time to care for my body, mind and soul, but it was worth it in the end because I realize how little I cared for my own existence when I was obsessing over my musical success without taking care of my mental health, seeing therapy, and spending time with loved ones. Even while practicing all these hard pieces, I know that I need to take a break after 20-40 minutes or so to just stretch or watch a funny Drunk History video. Because, like the pianist said, “I have a life.”

I would argue that Nina’s constant comparing herself to her peers and her driven perfectionism actually hurt more than helped her succeed. In fact, in today’s world of the performing arts, the hard truth is that you can practice all you want to get every note perfect, but you have to do other stuff to balance it out. There have been many times when I have literally destroyed myself in order to play for a perfect audition, and I ended up closing off my friends, family and peers in the process because I was so focused on getting everything perfectly. I ended up losing out on things I enjoy, such as reading for fun, and ended up isolating myself days at a time. Having mental illness is not fun. Being a “tortured artist” isn’t beautiful or cute. It’s painful and you’ve got to learn to love yourself first so that you can appreciate your career and the people who helped you with your career. Also, don’t go out drinking and doing hard drugs before your performance. Seriously, get some sleep. (In the film, Lily convinces Nina to go out and party before her performance the next day, and the next day after Lily and Nina have sex, Lily forgets it even happened, leaving Nina feeling nothing but heartbreak, a massive hangover, and a feeling of shame after running in late for her rehearsal and disappointing Thomas)

At the end of the day, no one really cares if you did things perfectly. A performance is just that, a performance. Yes, work hard, give it your all, but don’t do what Nina did and hurt yourself and others in the process. Everyone just really wants to see something done from the heart. If you’re doing a performance just because you want someone’s approval, you’re only hurting yourself. I was quite unsympathetic of Thomas because even though he acts so upset when he finds Nina is dying, I’m thinking, “you’re literally the one person who manipulated her and her fellow dancers to pit themselves against each other!” Nina does everything she can to please Thomas, and in doing so, she hurts her relationship with her fellow dancers and her mom. (also, can I say this: if you’re an accomplished performer living with your mom, at least do some dishes or vacuum to help her out. We don’t see Nina doing any of these things to help her mom out. And don’t make her feel like the cake she made you is a wasted effort. Nina refuses to eat the cake her mom made her because she can’t accept that she won the Swan Queen part, so her mom proceeds to toss it.)

For a more comprehensive criticism of this film (and a hilarious parody of Black Swan from Saturday Night Live. Seriously, watching Jim Carrey seduce Bill Hader and Nasim Pedrad with his goofy dance moves made my ribs hurt from laughing so hard, and it also helped me recover after the movie.), this brilliant post calls everything out.

Black Swan. 1 hr 48 min. Rated R for strong sexual content, disturbing violent images, language and some drug use.

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