Black Swan’s composition lesson Part 1

I recently saw the movie Black Swan, star­ring Natalie Port­man (in the role of a life­time?) and Mila Kunis. It is nom­i­nally about bal­let, and per­haps a bit (or a lot) about the kinds of men­tal insta­bil­ity that accom­pany artistry.

But there are so many very rich themes in this movie. Alas­tair Macaulay, the chief dance critic of the New York Times, wrote the fol­low­ing the­matic sum­mary in the Feb­ru­ary 9, 2011 NYTimes: (I think this is all non-spoiler, but read on at your discretion)

It’s a back­stager: Will poor hard-working Nina…get the white-black dou­ble lead role of Swan Lake, pull off its tax­ing demands, sur­vive till the first night and van­quish her rival, not to men­tion her ter­rors? It’s hor­ror: Nina’s life spi­rals out of con­trol for alarm­ing rea­sons appar­ently beyond her con­trol and indeed her com­pre­hen­sion. It’s psy­cho­sex­ual drama: Those forces come from her con­fused per­cep­tions of her mother, her sex­ual inhi­bi­tions, her ambi­tions and her increas­ingly schizoid fan­tasies. It’s a Tchaikovsky-soundtrack movie: Noth­ing about it is neater than the way Clint Mansell’s score is almost all taken from Swan Lake’s mate­r­ial, with a mar­velous use of the slow chords pref­ac­ing the ballet’s most famous pas de deux for an off­stage effect of psy­cho­log­i­cal sus­pense. Most pow­er­fully it’s a mod­ern exam­ple of that old genre, the woman’s movie. Nina’s loves are seen as repressed and illicit, her suc­cesses are shown as tri­umphs in an unnat­ural and inju­ri­ous art form, and she is duly pun­ished for these transgressions.

It should be noted that Macaulay’s review is largely neg­a­tive, and largely based on the view of a dancer. And I think he misses a very sig­nif­i­cant larger theme of the movie. He sees the movie in the tra­di­tion of clas­sic dance movies, such as The Red Shoes.

I saw the movie through a dif­fer­ent, per­sonal lens. I am not a dancer, and don’t dare attempt to say that I am the least bit knowl­edge­able about the dis­ci­pline. Instead, I am a cre­ator: specif­i­cally, a com­poser. Sev­eral responses to Macaulay come to mind. First, I must dis­agree with his musi­cal assess­ment; unless it was the raw Tchaikovsky score itself, I rather dis­liked the music’s bor­row­ings of Swan Lake. But I do agree, sec­ondly, that all of these themes are preva­lent and sig­nif­i­cant to the achieve­ment of the film. Yet they are sub­sidiary to the most sig­nif­i­cant theme.

And that theme (thirdly) is, most impor­tantly, a theme Macaulay misses (or only hints) at: the film’s true theme. He off-handedly men­tions the “white-black” dual­ity required of the lead role. Natalie Portman’s char­ac­ter is per­fect as the “white” swan–one who knows craft, tech­nique, and seeks per­fec­tion in for­mal­ized terms. She is repeat­edly admon­ished to let her­self go, to be free and wild, to become (in short) the “black swan” (or to at least give in to his/her seduc­tive qual­i­ties). Her char­ac­ter is asked to become a seducer. (What com­poser doesn’t want to seduce?) She is asked to use her craft in ser­vice to some­thing that tran­scends craft. To me, as a cre­ative per­son — as a com­poser — this is the most sig­nif­i­cant theme in the film.

For one thing, I thought of the famous split Schu­mann estab­lished for his artis­tic per­son­al­i­ties. I thought that one can hardly count the sig­nif­i­cant exam­ples in the pop­u­lar con­scious­ness of this kind of dual­ity, cer­tainly not in film. How does one rep­re­sent the strug­gle of an artist to be both intel­li­gent and emo­tional? In the film “Amadeus” (1984) we wit­ness the polite for­mal­ism of Salieri pit­ted against the wild-child genius of Mozart. But for com­posers (and cre­ators) every­where, we rec­og­nize the com­mon issue: how to rec­tify our train­ing with our wild-card pen­chant for creativity?

Artists any­where will instantly rec­og­nize the theme of craft rest­ing on the precipice of aban­don, of the intel­lect ver­sus emo­tion. To me, this is the most fas­ci­nat­ing aspect of the movie Black Swan, and I dare say that most artists of any stripe — com­posers, painters, what-have-you — will respond to this.

I’ll have more to say about this in Part 2. For now, I encour­age you to see the movie and think over how your own per­sonal artistry is rep­re­sented on celluloid.

About Richard D. Russell

This was written by Richard D. Russell, New York City based composer of fine music.