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About the Change

Black Swan - the truth

Jeffery Taylor with a dancers take on the film everybody is talking about...

© Jeffery Taylor
Former dancer, Dance Critic and an Arts feature writer for the Sunday Express. Published 16 January 2011

© Fox Searchlight Pictures

Black Swan film reviews

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Jeffery Taylor reviews

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Twentieth Century Fox’s new film, Black Swan, has stirred up Britain’s dance fraternity with an explosive cocktail of outrage and admiration. Natalie Portman plays Nina, a budding ballerina facing the challenge of dancing the dual role of Odette, the White Swan Queen and the evil Black Swan, Odile, in Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake. Pushed by her failed dancer mother, Barbara Hershy and blackmailed into bed by her artistic director, Vincent Cassel, Nina rapidly disintegrates into a paranoid mess, finally dying a suicide on stage with blood soaking her feathery tutu and a sick smile of triumph flickering across her lips. Another victim pushed over the edge by the pressured search for perfection. How disgraceful, splutter the experts, usually with no performance experience whatsoever upon which to base their indignation. What a shame they had to focus on the negative, whinge the dancers.

In fact American director Darren Aronofsky has performed a skillful post mortem, ruthlessly exposing the emotional vulnerability of young women in an art form traditionally perceived in this country as female dominated. Happily Aronofsky avoids the cheap option of glamorising Nina’s painful descent into madness even though the film’s concept could have been based on American dancer Gelsey Kirkland. Kirkland was a supremely gifted artist whose career was beset with eating, alcohol and drug problems, graphically outlined in her 1986 autobiography, Dancing on My Grave. I saw her dance The Sleeping Beauty with London’s The Royal Ballet and I seethed with anger at the parody of a performance on the Royal Opera House stage. Self inflicted damage made her wobbly and stick thin and she inspired in me merely despair at the contempt in which she clearly held the art form I love. But getting through a bottle of wine during an afternoon’s rehearsal was only part of the problem as former ballet star Peter Schaufuss, who partnered Kirkland in 1979, remembers. “The biggest danger of the eating disorder, anorexia nervosa,” he says, “is the lack of fuel going to the brain. Apart from muscular weakness, you lose perspective; you develop a short fuse and become unstable.”


Natalie Portman in a still from Black Swan
© Fox Searchlight Pictures
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But reliability is at the heart of a professional dancer’s business. When you reach the standard of the Royal Ballet’s Tamara Rojo, producing the goods when required is the prime objective. The price for top billing, a place in the history books and queues round the block for your performances is a heavy one and no one pays their dues more conscientiously than Rojo. Ignoring petty union restrictions she will spend all day working in the ROH studios, puling familiar work like the Temple Dancer in La Bayadere to pieces and relentlessly hammering the new stuff into her muscle memory.


Tamara Rojo & David Makhateli and the Black Swan pas de deux danced at the State Ballet of Georgia, Tbilisi
© Lado Vachnadze
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Rojo understands that the pressure to be perfect is a basic element in classical ballet training, and starts at a dangerously early age. I was one of the lucky ones. By the age of 11 when I began ballet lessons, the result of physical abuse from a disturbed parent had already developed a dread of physical contact. In my home town of Manchester my first ballet teacher, Irene Williamson, ignored my instinctive flinch whenever a hand came near me and with a relentlessly matter of fact air adjusted my body to its new physical demands. Looking back, her total indifference to my unhappy home life and unspoken expectation of a new and precious kind of discipline certainly salvaged my sanity. It also pointed to an eventual escape route from a nightmare domesticity. No wonder classical ballet is so important to me.


Jeffrey Taylor with Janet Lewis of the Classical Dance Group
© Jeffrey Taylor
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Former Royal Ballet principal dancer and subsequently successful teacher, Hazel Merry and I were contemporaries at the Royal Ballet School then established in West London’s Barons Court. “There were ten of us girls,” she remembers, “all being pushed to become the next Margot Fonteyn. The pressure to be perfect started the moment we walked through the door,” she says. “We had to be Little Miss Perfect from top to toe whether in class or in the street. We were threatened with expulsion for any misdemeanour. One of my friends in class was slashing her arms and attempting suicide at the age of 12.” In Black Swan, Winona Ryder plays Beth, an ageing ballerina replaced in Swan Lake by Nina who later discovers her former friend slashing her arm with a kitchen knife. “All comments were negative in a culture of sarcasm,” explains Merry. “It was a system based on a wish to improve us pupils but it bred a total lack of self confidence.” In an eerie reflection of Black Swan’s theme, Merry aged 25, was given the signature role of Aurora in Zurich Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty, another iconic classic. “Though he knew I had never danced Beauty,” she recalls, “the artistic director asked me in private, would I go on because the first cast ballerina was crumbling. I stood watching in the wings night after night and I don’t know to this day if she knew why I was there.”


Natalie Portman and Vincent Cassel in a still from Black Swan
© Fox Searchlight Pictures
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Another fellow student at the school who fell hideously victim to the unforgiving price for achieving the impossible was a youngster from a Yorkshire mining village. Graham Usher was one of the sweetest, most gentle natured beings I have ever met. His burden was being born before the world was ready for him. In Fifties Britain no one knew what on earth to do with a perfect male technique. Royal Ballet founder Dame Ninette de Valois unashamedly adored him. Unfortunately in those days his extravagantly arched feet, high arabesque and fluidly graceful arm movements were categorised as strictly female and upon his entry to the company there were only limited roles for the potential star, with virtually no outlets to exhibit, let alone develop his natural gifts. Wracked with guilt and self doubt, this balletic phenomenon hit the bottle and after a car crash permanently disfigured his face, he died in mysterious circumstances in 1975 aged 37. Ironically had Usher been born in today’s post Rudolf Nureyev era, his talent would have launched him into global celebrity on a par with the spectacular Maryinski Ballet dancer, Farouk Ruzimatov.

However, Nina’s terrible fate is not inevitable. During 1987, Schaufuss, director of English National Ballet from 1984-1990, invited Gelsey Kirkland to coach his company in Giselle. “She had beaten her demons and said to me when she arrived `Don’t expect me to be different, I’m just older.`” He adds, “When I first met her she was so frail she cold hardly stand. But by then you could see how gifted and talented she really was.


Natalie Portman in a still from Black Swan
© Fox Searchlight Pictures
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For the past three years, Desmond Kelly, a former Royal Ballet star, has been artistic director of the Elmhurst School For Dance, Birmingham Royal Ballet’s feeder school. His attitude to pupils with suspected anorexia, or any other negative response to the rigours of ballet training, is simple. “I will not tolerate it,” he says emphatically. “I will call them in to my office a few times to try to steer them into a healthy middle path. I ask them to think long term, what are they doing to their bodies, how it affects them having children. Then I ask their parents to take them home and deal with it. Three out of three girls exhibiting symptoms in the past two years have returned to school cured.

“But the basics never change,” adds Kelly. “You fall in love with ballet and you can’t do anything about it. It’s important that my children have fire in their belly and know what to do with it.” What a pity Nina was unaware of Elmhurst and Kelly; but then, we wouldn’t have had a gripping film like Black Swan.

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