OK, so, fine, a friend and I were arguing about the continued relevancy of ballet after having seen Aronovsky's "Black Swan." Here's a bit of what I had to say:
ABT (American Ballet Theater) is looking good; they are better standard bearers for Balanchine than B's own NYCB (New York City Ballet) these days. I think dancers are healthier, too, and I don't think ballet is going away any more than opera is (it might be good if their respective performers could split the difference on weight).
The ballet master in Black Swan—forgive me for not remembering the character's names—is supposed to be Balanchine in the evil genius sense. I don't think so. Balanchine was his art's once in 500 years; he was Mozart. I can't judge the man. From Gelsey Kirkland's Grand Gugnol "Dancing on my Grave" to Merill Ashley's effervescent "Dancing for Balanchine" to say nothing of Suzanne Farrell's (via Toni Bentley, it turns out) "Holding onto the Air" we get glimpses of the man. The tough nut of ballet is this: the youth at which its performers are annealed to the profession; can a fifteen year old give informed consent to such rigors? In this it resembles football, whose players are already at risk in high school for brain injury down the road.
I had the great privilege to hear Miss Farrell speak—even got to ask her a question!—at a rare, rare screening of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Articulate with a quiet wit, it almost bowled me over to hear this performer who brought it all to the stage, put into words what the work was about. Far from Black Swan's silly dialogue, there was no "seduce the audience, lose yourself" prattle; it was about the patient refining of gesture and technique that coalesces in performance.
And, for all that I didn't like about BS, the movie became splendid when the moment of performance actually arrived (and then retreated to The Shining meets Showgirls with the blood not gushing from an elevator but trickling from a broom closet). All the craziness that is rehearsal cracks like an egg, and art is born. The effect wherein as the black swan Natalie Portman's protagonist Nina appears to actually grow wings enthralls (the effect of pulling apart webbed toes, not so much). BS is at heart a horror film; it's graphicness approached indignity for me, just not my cup of tea. Aronovsky would do well to look at the cheapie flick "It's Alive" to or even "Rosemary's Baby" where a little of the queasy goes a long way. I find the way he makes the implicit explicit to nearly insult the audience. In the midst of so much that was unintentionally funny (and the art house crowd I sat with giggled steadily), Mila Kunis still stood out as comic relief.
I was leery of how Tchaikovsky's score would be treated, and actually liked that aspect of the movie. Having played in a ballet orchestra (Swan Lake some 50 times, Nutcracker 500!), I used to write my own stories in my head as I played and I often think T didn't so much compose Swan Lake as get it out of his system - he translates obsession into music better than anyone before or since, and never more than here. There's that vertiginous swirl of diminished 7th harmony which feels like tonality being ripped apart by centripetal force, only to creep you out with a wrenching turn to the parallel major key (don't believe it, she still dies!!!) at the apotheosis. The scorers also found that queer little bit of 3rd act music that is universally transferred to 4th, a stilted little dirge that still gives me the chills. A little less torn flesh, and I might have actually had fun.
The end of the film brings us back to opera, which I had mentioned earlier. Nina as Odette, the white swan, plunges to her death à la "Tosca", with a mattress waiting out of eyeshot. When the ballet master rushes to her to tell her she was a hit, and sees her sprawled and bleeding out from her torso through the white tutu, he can only blither and stammer, "What happened? Are you all right?!" What she answers doesn't matter; all I could think was "Vissi ƒ®üקñ d'arte, baby!"