Before I get into my own article, I do want to bring attention to a couple of reviews that do a great job of unpacking one of the more challenging elements of Black Swan – the relationship between Nina and her mother. The relationship is clearly unhealthy but it wasn’t until I read articles by Dr. Kathleen Young and Faith Allen that I considered that it is likely built on a foundation of incest and sexual abuse. It’s not pleasant stuff but it goes a long way to explain the already compromised nature of Nina’s mental health.
In case you haven’t seen it, Black Swan is about a young ballerina, Nina, who has the opportunity to audition for the lead role of the Swan Queen in Swan Lake. Dancing the Swan Queen is a highly demanding exercise as the ballerina has to not only portray the virginal Queen but also a second, more passionate role, known as the Black Swan. As we watch Nina audition, rehearse, and prepare for opening night, we bear witness to the deterioration of her sanity. It’s a fascinating exploration of a young woman’s journey of simultaneous self-discovery and self-destruction. In showing the strain that comes from striving for the perfect performance in such an antithetical role, Black Swan exposes the impossibility of perfection in art.
The reason that Nina is such an ideal candidate to play the Swan Queen is because of her technical prowess. She has practiced to the point of supreme technical proficiency. Her work ethic and abolishment of distractions has made her a gifted performer who can be trusted to dance a headlining role with no reservations of ineptitude. The only reason the director is hesitant to choose Nina for the part is because of the same cold attention to detail that makes her so perfect to play the Swan Queen. The Black Swan is intended to be a stark contrast to the prim Swan Queen. As the Black Swan, Nina needs to exude passion and recklessness, aspects of her own personality that she has either quashed or been unable to explore. Mastering the Black Swan requires Nina to explore the opposite personality traits, learning how to become impulsive, intuitive, and, above all, passionate.
It’s not as though Nina is able to simply decide to become an entirely different person. Her director tries to provide her with a crash course in sexual exploration in order to bring about the sort of passion he is looking for. On her own, Nina does everything that she can, from masturbation to drug experimentation in order to try to become the kind of person who could dance the Black Swan. In exploring these other facets of her own potential psychology, she is still never allowed to stop being her usual, “perfect” self or else she would lose touch with her performance as the Swan Queen. She is essentially trying to contain two different personalities within the same body so it is no wonder that she eventually cracks, outwardly, from the pressure.
This is not the only example of the psychotic nature of performance destroying the mental health of a dancer. Beth, the former prima ballerina from the dance company is in the hospital after walking into traffic when she found out that she was being replaced. All we know about Beth is that the same director praised her for succeeding in exemplifying both the skillful and the passionate. The result is a mentally fragile artist who is incapable of stepping out of the spotlight. Her craft, which has already left her cracked and broken, is ripped away from her, leaving her to piece together a life from the tatters of her psyche. Instead, she opts for self-harm and a violent destruction of her entire existence.
This isn’t a matter of just exploring and experimenting in order to learn about oneself. We are talking about total dedication to completely incompatible methods of interacting with and perceiving the world. That, Black Swan tells us, is the epitome of great performance. It is a constant struggle between technical prowess and raw honesty. Great art requires both and true artistry can only be achieved when sanity is sacrificed to both of these gods upon the same altar. There simply isn’t room for one great artist within the confines of a single, sane person. Nina’s greatest performance accompanies her most dynamic hallucination. The pinnacle of her insanity is also the most transcendental, sublime moment of her career. And in that moment, when she is able to for a moment bridle both artistry and madness…