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16 February 2011

Black Swan Review Series: Dark Perfection, “The Internal Process of the Performer”

First published on February 16, 2011 in “The Chair.” Written by Rob San Miguel

“Art is a guarantee of sanity. That is the most important thing I have said.”
Louise Bourgeois

“She’s insane,” as many moviegoers may assume.  Within the confines of dark theaters all over the world, some of us may take the easiest explanation and simply place Nina, the Swan Queen, in the loony basket along with her putrid eggs and frayed white and black feathers soiled with blood.  Nevertheless, if you dare to see Nina in the eyes of an obsessive perfectionist artist, Nina is nothing but insane. She is, in fact, the most rational of all the ballet dancers in the “Black Swan” ensemble because she knows exactly what must be done to get everything “perfect.”  Put yourself in her shoes, figuratively speaking, and you might comprehend her motivation.  One must understand that a true artist is brazen and has no sense of self-preservation for the sake of his or her craft.  Most artists, especially performance artist like actors and dancers, rely on superficial camouflage to highlight their transformation into their characters. Sometimes, the deceit works and we see more of the mask rather than the real transformation.  I am sure you have watched countless actors who thought that by merely looking like the characters, their job is done.  

On the other hand, some great thespians do intensive character research and internalization that they simply alter their stance, incorporate gestures and a slight change in voice and they become the character.  They cease to be the actor.  Why is this so? It is because the transformation had already taken place deep within the actor, and so everything external is simply a physical manifestation.  Think Meryl Streep in “Sophie’s Choice,” Holly Hunter in “The Piano,” Nora Aunor in “Himala,” Heath Ledger in “Brokeback Mountain,” Gong Li in “The Story of Qiu Ju,” Daniel Day Lewis in “My Left Foot,” and Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster in “Silence of the Lambs.” 

In “Black Swan,” we are not watching Nina undergoing her difficulties getting into character.  We are actually inside Nina’s mind, definitely not in the entire movie of course. The deceit of “Black Swan” is its absurdity. The key is to know the exact moment when we went deep inside Nina’s mind. When did we move from outside to inside? When did we occupy the seats in Nina’s mind, right in the center of her internal struggle to play both the White Swan and the Black Swan?  Did you notice when? All these will explain the supernatural or surreal experiences that we witness afterwards. As Nina grew closer in fully internalizing the character of the Black Swan, we get to see her darker side, the amoral fowl, and the tools that she boldly uses to conjure her darker sweet bird of youth.  We witness Nina split into two. Once we get in her head, we also see things differently.  For all we know, everybody in the ballet company is as dry and boring as a day old shoe mold.  All the excitement and terror that we see are all from Nina’s internal processes as a dancer.

Contrast that to Lily (played by Mila Kunis) who is more of the physical dancer/actress.  She develops her character based on external tools.  In fact, you might even say Lily’s portrayal of the Black Swan is not a stretch at all. She is already a black swan in real life. She is impulsive, bitchy and her tattoo on her back is a mark of a mediocre female performer.  Nina, on the other hand, is not. She is the white swan and so she must ransack her innermost psyche to pull her black swan out.  In this process, she must use all her tools.  She must entertain her anger and resentment towards her mother.  She must allow herself to explore sexual adventurism, real and imagined, to understand the motivation of the black swan. The closer she becomes the black swan, the scarier the scenes become.  When she finally becomes the tempestuous fowl, she not only feels it, she actually believes it.  Remember that very powerful scene when black feathers were piercing out from her skin; she does not rejects the black swan anymore. She succumbs to her will. Only we can see her internal transformation. The ballet audience just sees Nina dancing. When her dance ends, the audience just sees Nina. We, however, see her transform to the sultry sinister swan.  In the climax, the apex of Nina's portrayal, to reach her goal of performance perfection, Nina executed her final sacrifice in the name of art. The white swan must be defeated and die bleeding.  Nina is the quintessential perfectionist method performer, one perfect performance is better than countless mediocrity.

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