Find yourself, lose yourself

Black Swan shows the best and worst extremes of art and letting go

BY MICHELLE MORRA-CARLISLE – As the closing credits for Black Swan started rolling, the woman I was sitting next to turned to me and said, “Weird, eh?”

Yes, the darling ballerina who first graced the screen had gone off the artistic deep end. There comes a point in Black Swan where everyone in the theatre realizes it’s more than just a movie about an angst-ridden dancer. We fidget, uncomfortably bracing ourselves for what’s next.

Natalie Portman’s character, Nina Sayers, is a disciplined dancer whose entire focus is on keeping it together. That means being sweet enough to keep her unstable and manipulative mother (Barbara Hershey) from unraveling, quiet enough not to elicit the wrath of her catty fellow dancers, and having full control over her every ballet move. That self-discipline makes her the ideal White Swan for Swan Lake – her big break – but her choreographer Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) doubts her ability to embody the sensual darkness of the Black Swan. In a grueling rehearsal, the sexy and cruel Thomas says, “Perfection is not just about control. It’s also about letting go.”

I’ve heard it all my life: “Don’t hold back,” said last summer’s singing teacher. “Why do you sit up so straight?” wrote some kid in my yearbook. “If that’s fortissimo I’m a monkey’s uncle,” said my childhood piano teacher. It took me decades to loosen up a little. What was I afraid of? Like Nina, I did have a fear of the unknown. What would I be if not sweet and obedient? A haughty, slutty prima donna? An irresponsible bohemian, like my high school teacher who left his beautiful wife and kids to “find himself” as a musician? I once heard a heartbreaking interview in which Joni Mitchell said she’d had no choice but to leave a loving relationship to pursue her songwriting because she didn’t want to end up a frustrated artist like her grandmother who “banged the door off its hinges.” Art often comes at a very high price. I suppose I did and still do fear those things, which is why I watched Nina with fascination.

Letting go terrifies her. And like many scary things, it makes her determined to transcend her fear and do something remarkable. Director Darren Aronofsky takes this concept further than others have. That’s where the weirdness comes in. Nina’s ballet progresses in tandem with her mental unhinging. Aronofsky has fun with that, freaking out the audience with unexpected scenes where Nina self-mutilates, masturbates, and has sexual fantasies of her choreographer and her new dance pal (Mila Kunis). As she starts to confuse reality and fantasy, so does the audience: Did I just see her skin get bumpy, like poultry flesh, just before she grew (and ungrew) feathers? Who was that in her bed just now? Did she really just commit a horrible crime, or not?

Black Swan is a study of madness. It also raises the age-old question: Is great art only possible with great sacrifice – of our financial stability, our committed relationships, our minds?

Though a glimpse at Nina’s home life makes it clear her mental condition would be no different without ballet, dancing is a perfect vehicle for her to manifest her crazy perfectionism and, later, even crazier letting go. Is it possible to deliver a stellar performance without completely losing ourselves? Brilliant artists throughout history, from Van Gogh to Mozart to Hendrix, have given art their all. Some might say they went too far, but we will remember their works forever, unlike the works of us “sane” nine-to-fiver artists who squeeze in a little bit of art between our candle parties and kids’ gymnastic classes.

Letting go is the hardest thing to do, not only in art but in all aspects of life. Yet the experts – Buddhist monks, veteran 12-steppers – claim the result is pure bliss. Why fight it?

In relationships, control feels mean and ungodly, and letting go feels gracious and kind. But when it comes to art, why does letting go feel like a heathen act? Maybe art has a dark side. Or is it all light and brilliance? According to Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way, it’s a myth that art cannot coexist with all other aspects of a fulfilling life. She claims we can have it all – fame, fortune, even spiritual enlightenment, and that producing beautiful art is not selling our souls. On the contrary, she says, art is something God wants us to do.

Madness, good and evil aside, Black Swan is a reminder of how fun and liberating it is to surrender to art. What a thing to fantasize about. Breaking all rules, I could paint all of the furniture in my house lime green. Turn out the lights, light a candle and play piano all night long with the windows open. Take a six-month sabbatical to glue together discarded car parts and computers to make a giant sculpture. Dance naked in the jungle, or on a rooftop. Would I go to hell or have found heaven?

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