A dancer dies twice – once when they stop dancing, and this first death is the more painful. – Martha Graham
The 2010 film Black Swan is a deeply wise and convincing psychological account of the inner journey required of the ballerina protagonist in order to fully embody the dual female lead roles in a production of Swan Lake.
In Tchaikovsky’s original 1877 ballet, an evil sorcerer has condemned Princess Odette to live as a white swan during the day. Only at night, by the side of an enchanted lake created from her mother’s tears, can she return to human form. The spell can only be broken if one who has never loved before swears to love her forever, and Prince Siegfried does just that. But at a costume ball in which Siegfried must choose a wife, the sorcerer arrives with his daughter, Odile (the black swan), whom he has transformed to look like Odette, and Siegfried chooses her. Realizing his mistake, Siegfried hurries back to the lake and apologizes. She forgives him, but his betrayal cannot be undone. Rather than remain a swan forever, Odette chooses to leap into the lake and die, as does Siegfried. Ascending to Heaven, they remain united in love.
Since the original performance there have been dozens of productions, with all kinds of different conclusions, from tragic to happy. A lake created from her mother’s tears! Doesn’t that image speak to us all in this time of pandemic and environmental collapse? The binary opposition of Odette-Odile / black-white evokes the polarity of conscious-unconscious, or persona-shadow. On the sociological level, it also evokes issues of race in America. (We find the dark or even projected other in many films. Gershon Reiter’s book The Shadow Self in Film addresses this theme. )
These opposites are in a dynamic tension in the form of extreme control of the body and its opposite, the need to abandon the ego and lose one’s self (mythologically, Apollo vs Dionysus, or perhaps Athena vs Aphrodite).
This is the psychic territory that Black Swan invites the viewer into. The plot revolves around a production of Swan Lake by a prestigious ballet company. It requires a ballerina to play the innocent and fragile White Swan, for which the emotionally cold Nina is a perfect fit, as well as the dark and sensual Black Swan, which are qualities better embodied by her earthy rival, Lily. While her delicate innocence and demeanor combined with technique and discipline are perfect for the White Swan, her challenge is to go beyond herself and undergo the metamorphosis into the Black Swan. She must be both/and rather than either/or.
Her quest is complicated by her relationship with her domineering mother, who long ago abandoned her own dreams of being a great ballerina, only to live her obsession through her daughter. Nina is 28 years old, the same age at which her mother had retired, but she lives emotionally as an innocent young girl, in a pink bedroom full of stuffed animals. “Nina” means “little girl” in Spanish. Her last name is Sayer (from which the story may well take us through “Say-er,” “Say her,” “Say her name,” and possibly all the way to “See-er” or “Seer.” We’ll see. Her mother seems to play the role of the sorcerer who keeps Nina trapped in the mother realm and unable to become whole.
Meanwhile, the name Lilly (rhyming with “Odile”) evokes the lily flower, which represents both chastity and the purity achieved through death. Dan Ross writes that Lilly
…is the familiar form of Lillith, the first woman who rejected Adam because she would not submit to a man. Lillith was considered evil because she was uninhibited and unrestrained, so she was banished (to shadow). This is a perfect description of Lilly who is all that Nina is not. It is not surprising that Nina fantasizes making love with Lilly.
The intense, competitive pressure and her obsessive perfectionism, combined with Nina’s desire to escape her mother’s spell causes her to lose her tenuous grip on reality and descend into hallucinations, suspicion, betrayal and apparent violence. Many reviewers focus on Black Swan’s depiction of madness. Yes, but to only perceive the film on this level is to miss its deeper significance for the viewer. Jadranka Skorin-Kapov writes,
…the film can be perceived as a poetic metaphor for the birth of an artist, that is, as a visual representation of Nina’s psychic odyssey toward achieving artistic perfection and of the price to be paid for it.
As progressives in 2020, nearly twenty years since the beginning of the “War on Terror”, when we are assaulted daily by the latest pronouncements of our pathologically narcissist leadership, we remember the words of Blaise Pascal: Men are so necessarily mad, that not to be mad would amount to another form of madness. As archetypal psychologists, we know that that society prefers to label anyone who questions our consensus reality as mad. And as mythologists, we remember that the original meaning of the word “competition” is petitioning the gods together. In a Jungian fantasy of individuation (or better, as James Hillman would have argued, Psyche and Eros), there is no binary opposition between Nina and Lilly. They are co-conspirators (“conspiracy” – to breathe together) in the opus, or great work, the soul work of the loss of innocence.
Nina is constantly looking into or reflected by mirrors in rehearsal spaces, dressing rooms, bathrooms and train windows. Clearly, she is encountering shadow aspects of herself, especially when Lilly appears as friend, rival and lover. This psychological challenge mirrors Tchaikovsky’s own enchanted lake, which was created from the tears of Odette’s mother. Ultimately, as part of this dance of self-knowing, the two begin to battle in a dressing room during a break in the performance. Nina throws Lilly into the mirror and breaks it before (in her hallucination) stabbing her.
From a psychiatric point of view, Nina is “cracking up.” But traditional wisdom would see this as an essential, if dangerous step in the breakdown of an ego, a constricted sense of identity, a fall out of the familiar into the liminal. Only then, as if she has incorporated Lilly’s essence, as if this scene was a metaphorical Eucharist, can she embody the black swan, which she does fully in the following act. Hillman places the movement toward black in an alchemical context:
Therefore, each moment of blackening is a harbinger of alteration, of invisible discovery, and of dissolution and of attachments to whatever has been taken as dogmatic truth and reality, solid fact, or dogmatic virtue. It darkens and sophisticates the eye so it can see through.
Nina’s soul opus moves in two seemingly opposite directions: towards incorporating her dark twin, and away from the suffocating grasp of her mother. But neither movement can happen without the simultaneous work of the other. Nina fully inhabits or embodies the Black Swan in performance, thus achieving her goal of perfection, only after she has broken from her mother, broken her dressing room mirror and broken Lilly’s (or perhaps her own) body.
Read Part Two here.