Aronofsky’s Black Swan follows the ballet dancer Nina, who gets a part in the production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. She is fragile, innocent, fearful and pure, but lacks the feel for playing the Black Swan, while she is a perfect cast for the White Swan. In the performances of Tchaikovsky’s ballet, the same ballerina sometimes plays both Odette and Odile. This is the case in Thomas Leroy’s version of the ballet. He says that his ballet will have a “different choreography”, but choreography is not the only thing which is different from the original version. In Tchaikovsky’s ballet, Odette (“the White Swan”) dies in the end together with the prince and they find eternal love in death after the evil magician Rothbard is defeated. In Leroy’s version, the White Swan dies alone, after she loses her love to the Black Swan (Odile), and finds her only solace in death. Tchaikovsky’s version ends happily, if the viewer of the ballet is a hopeless romantic, while Leroy’s version portrays a tragic ending. This significant change is important for the narrative of the Black Swan.
In the 2000 American Ballet Theatre version of the ballet, the slow introduction is used to show Rothbart transforming Odette into a swan. We see the same thing at the beginning of Black Swan. Nina is on the stage, dressed in white, and while she is looking around her innocently, the magician Rothbard, dressed in a birdlike black costume, takes her into his embrace. He fiercely dances with her, controls her movements and toys with her, and ultimately transforms her into a swan. This scene, and Aronofsky’s choice to show the transformation into a swan, is important since Black Swan is a story of transformation, change from the controlled and disciplined innocent being, into a fierce and sensual artist.
In his work The Birth of Tragedy Friedrich Nietzsche singles out two main drives behind Greek tragedy, the appoline and the dionysiac, The appoline principle is the one of individuation, poetic imagination which finds its well in dreams. It is connected to the visual arts, sculpture and to a degree, poetry. It is also a principle of measure and order, the beauty of “semblance”. It is important that Nina dreamed of the transformation of Odette into a swan, performed by Rothbart, this shows that the principle which governs her as an artist is the appoline one. She is obsessed with perfection, control and discipline, her every move has to be measured and controlled. Leroy tells her that she has to seduce them, and not to be “so controlled”.
Leroy is casting a ballerina which can dance both the Black and the White Swan, and while Nina is perfect for the White Swan she lacks the seducing and carefree element which is essential for dancing the Black Swan. In other words, her appoline artistic persona is not fit for the dionysiac, passionate and sensual Black Swan. For Nietzsche, the dionysiac, is intimately connected to music, the one which elicits horror and terror. Nietzsche speaks of “the sentimental tendency” in the dionsyiac, it is the intoxicated abandonment in the collective. “The jubilation of nature finds expression in art.”
In his novel Doctor Faustus, Thomas Mann wrote that “ballet is a triumph of plan and measure over unstable feeling, of order over chance, as a pattern of conscious, appoline activity, a paradigm of art.” Ballet represents the rational principle, the appoline drive, and if one observes the Odile’s dance in the Swan Lake one can see abandonment and sensuality, but the ballerina which plays Odile must conform to the principle of order and measure as well. This makes it a demanding role, but also shows that in Odile’s part the principle of feeling must not triumph over rationality and measure. To play the Black Swan, Nina has to stay the same as she is, maintain control and discipline, but embrace the sensuality as well. Thomas says: “Perfection is not just control. It’s also about letting go.”
Nina lives in a tiny apartment with a controlling mother, which supresses her sexuality and the development of her personality. In her room there are stuffed animals, a music box which puts her to sleep, which suggest infantilism, she is completely dependent on her mother. This setting is similar to the one in Michael Haneke’s Piano Teacher, and the comparison between Nina and Erika is interesting since both of them are artists. Both of them are strongly inclined to exert control, Erika over others, and Nina over herself. After the reception, during which Nina is presented as a new Swan Queen and a leading ballerina of the company, Thomas tells her to go home and touch herself. He wants her to embrace her sexuality, and develop the sensuality needed for the role. When she starts doing it, she sees her mother sleeping next to her and the act is interrupted, which results in frustration. At one moment, she wants to barricade the door so she can engage in the act of pleasing herself, but she decides not to do it, which shows her complete dependence on her mother’s presence.
Nina replaced Beth, a dancer whose time of glory has passed, and the time has come for a fresh face. Beth was hit by a car and Thomas is almost certain that she did it on purpose. He says to Nina: “Everything Beth does comes from within, from some dark impulse. I guess that’s what makes her so thrilling to watch, so dangerous. Even perfect at times. But also so damn destructive.” Beth’s artistic drive is, contrary to Nina, dionysiac, her dark impulse is similar to the music which invokes terror, mentioned by Nietzsche.
It is a destructive drive which tears apart the individual and immerses him into the collective experience of art. Flaubert said that the only way to get through life is to lose oneself in art as in a “perpetual orgy”. Without ballet, Beth is nothing, as she says, since she experiences her artistic performance, as a dionysiac force, as losing herself in art and becoming one with it. This engineered her own destruction since the loss of her position as a ballerina means the loss of her intimate connection to art performed in front of the audience, of communal experience which defines her. The same thing awaits Nina, when she embraces the dionysiac, in its fullest force and loses herself in art.
Caravaggio, Bacchus 1595
When Nina practices for the role with Thomas, she says “I’ll be the prince.” It is indicative that in his conception of Swan Lake the White Swan dies alone, in fact there is no prince. He is not completely marginalized since his decision to fall for the Black Swan precipitates the White one’s fall and death, but as in the ballet, in the film itself there is no “prince”, a male which infatuates Nina and makes her transformation happen. Someone does take a major part in her transformation from the appoline, imaginative artist into a sensual and fierce one.
This person, is of course Thomas, but he is in fact Rothbard. He is the magician which transforms Nina, from an innocent human being who strives for rational order, into a destructive individual which is dismembered through madness. This transformation occurred rapidly, and her change happened through severe pressure, but intoxication as well, which Nietzsche understands as dionysiac. It is a physiological transformation of the individual, which eliminates that very individual and makes him lost in the orgiastic collective experience of feeling and passion.
The other person which takes part in this transformation is Lily, a ballerina which is confident, carefree in her performance and completely embraces the erotic and passionate. She takes Nina out for drinks and they end up taking drugs and dancing, intoxicated and utterly lost in the moment. When she comes home, drunk and under drug influence, Nina has a hallucination, or fantasy, that she is having sex with Lily, and on her back, instead of tattooed roses, she sees black wings penetrating from her back. Lily is the passionate one which lives the life of losing herself in sexual experiences and intoxication, and Nina sees her as an embodiment of the person she aims to transform into.
Nina’s intoxication, although brief, but violent since she had lived a life devoid of pleasure and such physiological states, facilitates her own transformation. When she was dancing in a club, drunk and under the influence of drugs, she experienced collective abandonment for the first time in her life, an important component of the dionysiac drive. Nietzsche writes: “These Dionysiac stirrings, which, as they grow in intensity, cause subjectivity to vanish to the point of complete self-forgetting, awaken either under the influence of narcotic drink, of which all human beings and peoples who are close to the origin of things speak in their hymns, or at the approach of spring when the whole of nature is pervaded by lust for life.”
When Thomas chooses Lily for an alternate, Nina starts to experience paranoia and is fearful that Lily is trying to replace her. When lights go out, she sees Thomas having sex with Lily, and at this moment, she sees him as Rothbard. This is important, since this shows her perception of Thomas as similar to the evil magician who transforms Odette, i.e. herself. She hallucinates and identifies herself with Betty, unconsciously realizing that she will suffer the same fate as the former ballerina. In her delusions she believes that she is in the same position as Betty because she fears being replaced, but in reality, Betty’s destructive drive has taken over her as well. She sees black feathers penetrating her skin, as if she is changed “from within”. Not a while ago she was fearful and innocent, and now, as she transforms through madness, she becomes fierce, confident and sensual. Madness is, in fact, a form of intoxication, and as Plato says, the Greeks owed everything they accomplished to madness, “a divine blessing”. For Nina, it is a blessing, for a moment.
Caravaggio, Sick Bacchus –1593-1594
The ballet commences, and while Nina performs the White Swan, she falls. For now, the performance seems to be a disaster. Nina goes to her dressing room, and sees herself dressed as the Black Swan. She attacks this version of herself, trying to suppress the destructive urges which are trying to overtake her (“Leave me alone!”). During the conflict, she stabs the version of herself with a mirror shard, only to see Lily instead of the version of herself dying. She hides the body and enters the stage. The intoxication of madness has overtaken her completely and she gives a fierce, passionate and brilliant performance as the Black Swan. The dionysiac gives way to the appoline, and what was once measure, is now abandonment, what was conscious and rational is now irrational.
If Thomas Mann is right, and ballet is “a triumph of plan and measure over unstable feeling”, ballet itself is abolished, this particular form of art is transcended by Nina’s performance into its own opposition, now transformed into something divine. Nina jumps, now as a White Swan, falls onto the ground and the stab wound in her stomach now becomes vivid. The blood is spreading and she says: “I felt it. It was perfect.” In Nietzsche’s words: “Man is no longer an artist, he has become a work of art: all nature’s artistic power reveals itself here, amidst shivers of intoxication, to the highest, most blissful satisfaction of the primordial unity.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2007
Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus, Everyman’s Library, New York, 1975