E.R. Pulgar© 2016
Natalie Portman has been back in the headlines because of her sensitive, powerful turn in Jackie, that inevitable coverage has led to critics once again discussing her Oscar-winning role in Black Swan. Most everyone kind of knows the story by now, or at the very least knows about "the crazy ballerina movie." In the film, Portman plays Nina, a would-be prima ballerina vying for the prestigious role of Odette, The Swan Queen in a new production of Swan Lake, all of which happens in parallel to her descent into madness. The crux of her derailment stems from the pure Nina's inability to fully dive into the role of Odile, the Swan Queen's evil twin, a role traditionally danced by the same ballerina. By diving into the dark role, she finds power in her art while losing her sanity in the process.
I went into the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center with the dark colors and sounds of Black Swan pounding in my head. Having minimal experience seeing ballet, and having never seen Swan Lake itself, everything I knew was shaped by researching the story and watching Black Swan no less than ten times—if you've seen it, I don't think you could blame me. I knew about Prince Siegfried's search for a bride, how he fell in love with a beautiful woman transformed into a swan by dark wizard Von Rothbart, how he was fooled by the wizard and his daughter Odile, and the tragic suicide of the two lovers as swans appear on a moonlit lake.
The actual ballet, seamlessly choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, left me with an emotion I didn't expect: joy. From a brilliantly danced Jester providing comic relief to the celebratory pas de six dances in Siegfried's palace to the bright colors of the costumes and scenery, I couldn't get over how happy I was watching it unfold. This was a classic built on sheer delight that I knew from a much darker cousin.
Having gone in with Black Swan in mind, I was waiting for the iconic "black swan pas de deux" in the third act, the scene that made me fall in love with the film and got me intrigued in the ballet. Watching the prima ballerina spin endlessly, the applause in the audience rising, I could almost see black wings.
I was absolutely in awe of the strength of the dancers, how effortlessly every pirouette looked, how they seemed to glide across the stage, how easy those lifts looked. I can only imagine the hours of practice, and suddenly understood the anger of Sarah Lane, the soloist with the American Ballet Theatre who came out after Black Swan had garnered accolades to talk about her role as Portman's dance double. Everything was resolved in the end, and nobody will ever really know just how much or how little Portman danced in the film. That said, we can all acknowledge that something beautiful was created from hours of work, and the hours of practice the dancers of the State Ballet Theatre of Russia put into their performance were as evident as the result was mesmerizing.
As the ballet reached it's conclusion, I kept the ending of the film in mind, with Nina suffering a fatal stab wound to the stomach and dying after dancing Odette's suicide, breathing out her last words: "I was perfect." Watching Siegfried battle Von Rothbart onstage, I half-expected the wizard to come out triumphant as the prima ballerina's pained face fell off a cliff.
That's when I remembered one of the things Swan Lake is known for: its alternate endings.
This production ended with Von Rothbart injured, half-flying off the stage, as Odette and Siegfried rose triumphant, and the audience rose with them in a standing ovation. After a week filled with so much death, and during a time when we're all supposed to be happy, to say it was uplifting would be an understatement. It's nice to know that light can be found in darkness, and can even shine so bright it upstages the shadows.
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