Nina (Portman) finally "loses herself" and becomes the Black Swan.

Black Swan: Perfection Has a Dark Side

“When I look at you all I see is the White Swan. Beautiful. Fearful. Fragile.”

Nina is crushed and deflated. “I just want to be perfect.”

Photo of Natalie Portman in Black Swan Nina (Portman) cracking under the pressure of portraying the Black Swan.

As I sat in a hushed cinema watching Natalie Portman’s chilling, Oscar-winning portrayal of Nina in Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan,” I thought about what it really means to “lose yourself” in the pursuit of a dream.

The film centers on the unraveling of a girl who forces herself to go completely against her nature in order to land the lead role in Swan Lake. The audience watches, or in my case winces, as Nina’s mental state rapidly deteriorates until she quite literally loses herself in the tragic and climatic final scene.

Nina practices relentlessly and her commitment to dance is all consuming. But something is missing. Every move she makes during rehearsals is precise and expected. Controlled and empty. Her technique is unfailingly accurate and hopelessly restrained.

How could Nina possibly embody the White Swan’s evil twin sister, the Black Swan? The role demands passion – the one thing Nina can’t acquire through hard work, discipline, and self-deprivation. She is so focused on technique that she’s incapable of letting go and expressing emotion through her dancing. Her obsession with perfection leaves no room for passion.

Passion is raw and dangerously uninhibited. Passion fuels the connection between performer and observer.

Nina possesses all the technique in the world but without passion it can only take her so far. Martha Graham, the inspiration of the modern dance movement, famously said: “Great dancers are not great because of their technique, they are great because of their passion.”

Passion makes an impact. Passion transcends perfection.

Nina is tormented by crippling self doubt and a chronic compulsion to live up to unrealistic expectations – both external and self-imposed. To her overbearing and fiercely controlling mother (played by Barbara Hershey), Nina appears less a daughter and more like a second chance at stardom. Her mother clearly sees Nina’s lead role as an opportunity to vicariously experience what she herself was never able to achieve as a dancer.

To the ballet company’s lecherous artistic director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), Nina is a talent to be molded and manipulated. His only concern is making sure she delivers a flawless performance. The toll it takes on her mental or physical health is immaterial.

In one rehearsal he barks at Nina as she spins on point, her eyes filled with increasing desperation and terror with each rotation. “I want to see passion! Seduce us! Attack it! Attack it!” Nina’s rival (a new dancer who personifies the Black Swan played by Mila Kunis) shuffles into the studio arriving late. Nina falters and violently crashes to the floor. That night she practices the sequence over and over until she twists an ankle and splits her big toe.

Nina (Portman) finally "loses herself" and becomes the Black Swan. Nina (Portman) finally “loses herself” and becomes the Black Swan.

My eyes were closed through a good portion of the movie. It just wasn’t easy to sit through the physical and mental torture Nina endures for the sake of art. Ballet is this symbol of elegance and grace inducing a feeling of serenity and awe to spectators. And yet it becomes a dark and destructive force ravaging Nina’s body, mind, and spirit.

What is on stage is unattainable. You are not watching someone tapping into who she really is; it’s not a beautiful expression of authenticity. It’s manufactured and it comes at a price.

As the credits rolled I felt so disoriented it was a struggle to put on my coat and walk out of the theater. To me the film was a warning about the perils of perfectionism and the consequences of having such a weak sense of self that your identity is completely dependent upon achievement.

I found myself wondering how things could have turned out differently if Nina focused her energy on expressing what she already posessed rather than striving to be someone and something else.

“When I look at you all I see is the White Swan.” What if the statement were an observation rather than an accusation?

None of us are perfect but we’re all excellent. And that’s enough for me.

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