When The Red Shoes was released in 1948, it was the fifth triumph in five years for the director-writer team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The roll began with lyric wartime love stories: the haunting idyll of 1944’s A Canterbury Tale; the windswept romance of 1945’s I Know Where I’m Going; and the romance interruptus of 1946’s A Matter of Life and Death, which takes place on earth and in heaven. Then the focus shifted. Black Narcissus, in 1947, was the eerily eroticized tale of a nuns’ order in the high Himalayas. In 1948, The Red Shoes told the story—gorgeously—of a ballerina’s consuming need to dance. This unexpected, record-breaking sensation brought a new audience to classical ballet and sent generations of little girls to the barre.
Love. God. Art. Powell and Pressburger pursued their theme of passion into stark, steep, and sacrificial places. “A Matter of Life and Death” could work as the title for any of these films—especially the last two, which in ravishing Technicolor move from commitment to compulsion, Black Narcissus drifting, The Red Shoes leaping. As Powell later put it: “We had all been told for ten years to go out and die for freedom and democracy . . . now that the war was over, The Red Shoes told us to go and die for art.” The postwar audience understood this. It was the same principle under which Christian Dior was operating when he brought out his earth-shaking New Look collection of 1947. “Our civilization is a luxury,” Dior explained, “and we are defending it.” Not with bombs, he might have added, but with beauty.
The latest ballet film sensation, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, is not a descendent of The Red Shoes. Aronofsky is neither conversant with the art form of classical dance nor interested in the generative resources of an artist. Just as there are critics who think a ballerina’s performance will improve if she reads a good book, Aronofsky’s film implies that it will improve if she has hot sex. Such views are insulting. And if one goes into Black Swan expecting a “Technicolor fantasy”—as The Red Shoes was described in its day—the movie’s cinder-block cinematography will disappoint. Black Swan is really more of a schizophrenic fantasy with S&M intonations. The movie descends not from Powell and Pressburger but from that other British director, Alfred Hitchcock. And not the early, charming Hitchcock, but the late work: Psycho, The Birds, Marnie, Frenzy—psychosexual studies dealing with mother issues, hysteria, misogyny, and murder. Acknowledging his debt, Aronofsky has said that his much-read copy of François Truffaut’s interviews with Hitchcock “literally fell apart.” Black Swan sits squarely in the suspense/horror genre.
So where The Red Shoes celebrates the art of ballet, Black Swan demonizes it. Where The Red Shoes shows us transcendence in a scene from Swan Lake’s Act Two—the “white act” that introduces the white swan, a spellbound princess named Odette—Black Swan focuses on Odile, the seductive imposter swan of Act Three. Most balletomanes don’t care deeply about a ballerina’s rendering of Odile. Yes, there’s the technical challenge of those thirty-two fouéttes in the Black Swan pas de deux, an ordeal coming late in the ballet when a dancer is tired. And of course we want to see how each ballerina remakes herself in the key of evil—as a heart of darkness, a temptress in black tulle. But it’s not as if Odette herself isn’t a sum of darkness and allure mingled with purity and light. Odette is the true test for a dancer, not Odile. Odette is the summons to greatness.
The New York City Ballet is not a Swan Lake company. George Balanchine was clear on that when he discussed the ballet with Solomon Volkov. “How can you take the story of Swan Lake seriously?” he asked. “It’s time for a young prince to marry, he falls in love with a girl-swan, and naturally nothing good comes of it. It’s nonsense!” Also, Balanchine didn’t like the musical liberties ballerinas often took with the role, slowing down the tempos so they could stretch and “swan.” He wanted the music played as marked—or faster. Still, he knew that for much of the public, ballet=Swan Lake. In 1951, he premiered his own version, condensed and shortened to one act, dominated by the corps, and definitely uptempo (nycb dancers familiar with traditional tempi have frequently been dismayed by this insistence on speed). Balanchine’s take was no longer a story ballet but a tone poem on the subject of Odette. Tellingly, the black swan Odile was cut, gone. “We try not to drag out Swan Lake,” he said, “so that Tchaikovsky’s music sounds in all its beauty.” Left unsaid is the fact that Balanchine dancers weren’t schooled to be swans. They didn’t, and still don’t, have the Russian back—its pliant bending and bowing borne up from the tailbone. Deriving low in the spine, as well, is the gravity in port de bras that gives flapping arms the weight of huge wings.
“His major comment was always ‘larger, wilder, more creaturelike,’” Barbara Walczak says of Balanchine in Repertory in Review, “especially in the case of the very long-legged ballerinas. He seemed to be asking for more than anyone was able to give. In addition, all of the ballerinas were very tense about this role.”
They knew Odette wasn’t in their comfort zone, so much so that some would have been happier without the test. As Jacques d’Amboise relates in his fabulous new memoir, I Was a Dancer, the super-leggy Tanaquil Le Clercq “didn’t want to be the Swan Queen, ‘I’m not a swan, I’m a crane,’ she’d protest. But she forced herself to be a swan for Balanchine. He would push her onstage—literally, he would stand in the wings and shove her on . . .”
Maria Tallchief, who premiered the role in 1951, has said, “It was one of the most difficult things I ever did. I remember when George choreographed it; I could see what he wanted, but then I couldn’t do it. I think that he perhaps had in mind Spessivtzeva [a Russian], whom he always admired.”
Balanchine’s Swan Lake comes in and out of nycb repertory—large, wild, creaturelike—but as of 1999 there has also been a full-length Swan Lake in rep, the work of Peter Martins. This production has abstract backdrops by Per Kirkeby, the most effective being the tangle of blue-black paint drips that looms over the lakeside scenes and suggests a neurological storm. It’s a decor that wouldn’t have been out of place in Aronofsky’s Black Swan. Indeed, when the Martins production was performed this past February at nycb, all the Swan Lakes were sold out and Black Swan fever was heating up the house. Or was it Oscar fever? No matter. Joyless as it is, Aronofsky’s Oscar-winning film has put ballet front and center in the cultural conversation. And while the Martins production remains thin and flat, rushing the tempi radically, and the nycb corps often does look more like cranes than swans, the company has a bona fide Odette in Sara Mearns.
Mearns joined nycb in 2004 and her rise has been as steady as the tide coming in. She danced a premature Swan Lake (the Martins) in 2006, when injuries among the principals left the role open to underlings. I didn’t see her in the part but balletomanes were buzzing—she’d handled herself with aplomb. Mearns has long legs and long, strong feet, but she doesn’t have a typical City Ballet bee body. She’s wide in the shoulders, wide in the ribcage, even wide in the face, with a square Grace Kelly jawline and high wide cheekbones. In contrast she has a tiny waist. But then there’s the overdeveloped leg muscles. So she’s a constellation of extremes that add up to lush, plush power.
In 2007, when Mearns danced the role of Lilac Fairy in The Sleeping Beauty, it all came together. Unusual among women at NYCB, where épaulement is on the skimpy side, she used the broad set of her shoulders and ribs to find amplitude, a serene space around torso, head, and neck. This wreath of space—a feeling of sovereignty—is necessary to ballerina roles and to Lilac Fairy in particular, though today it’s less common, perhaps because so much contemporary choreography doesn’t require it and actually doesn’t want it. Mearns’s dancing had a fullness we’re not used to seeing at NYCB, where linear sweep is the rule, and it set her apart.
She wasn’t, however, without challenges. As Sugar Plum in The Nutcracker, it was discernible that Mearns’s turnout, the way the thigh rotates open at the hip, was not quite “easy.” Moving the leg en l’air, through à la seconde and back into arabesque, there was something awkward, a bit of a hitch. And yet her concentrated attack, her continuing reach, was impressive. It was intelligence at work—you could see it—but it’s hard to say whether it was the body leading the brain or the brain—the will!—pushing through the technical kink. This is one of the mysteries of ballet dancing as an art and why prescriptions of “more books, more sex” are irrelevant. The iridescence of a dance performance happens almost ecologically, within the fertile mix of training, hunger, heat, rehearsal, muscle, mettle, and music. Out of this emerges the flash of the dragonfly, the refraction of the marsh, the metaphysics of the swan.
Mearns just kept besting the problems. In Jewels, in 2008, when she debuted as the lead in “Diamonds,” her authority was complete. Her turnout in the role’s revolved and shifting extensions was smooth, and she counterpointed those whorling arabesques and ebullient spirals with a chilly stillness in sous-sus (“under-over”—a position on pointe in which the legs and feet catch together so tightly only the front leg is visible). An unmelting icecap, Mearns seemed to expand the role’s height and horizons. Precocious, she understood “Diamonds” better than many seasoned dancers before her, including Kyra Nichols, who couldn’t help pulling the role in around herself like a fur collar, selling it a little, melting it.
Mearns returned to Martins’s Swan Lake last year and took it to another level. The scale of her dancing was immense, as though her work in the Gothic vaults of “Diamonds”—its high-sprung ceilings—had helped to enlarge her already compelling instinct for deep space. When Mearns is onstage, you know what’s hitting you. Her Odette is curvaceous and fully stretched, swift and cool, a glamour blonde, those haute cheekbones setting off the full mouth and the fringed eyes. She has a way of putting her large beautiful face before the audience that is pleasurable and old-fashioned (it makes you realize how few faces these days project to the back of the orchestra or up to the gods). The way she looks, the way she moves, everything about her is upholstered in white satin. And unlike Suzanne Farrell, who is the model for “extreme sport” at NYCB, Mearns operates from a stable base, a fifth position that is as technically secure as Middle C. One could argue that you can’t dance Odette-Odile without a stable base. Farrell, a dancer so chromatically alive she seemed to fly across the keyboard, was amazingly unmoored, her fifth rather slippery. In his memoir, d’Amboise relates that Farrell “had danced the full-length Swan Lake after she left NYCB, and had hurt her knee doing it.”
But Farrell isn’t Mearns’s model; a Russian is. “Makarova was and still is my all-time inspiration,” Mearns said not long ago. “I still have the tape of Swan Lake that she performed in 1976 at the New York State Theater. I would watch it over and over again. It’s not all about the steps; she cared about every little movement of her arms, how she closed her feet in fifth.” You can see that same care in Mearns, yet coupled with her own G-force through the phrase. She danced the Martins Swan Lake again this February, drafting extra momentum off Black Swan, and looked as spectacular as ever—spinally pliant, her magnified precision sustained and thus superb.
It’s elating to see a young dancer throw herself into a role as difficult as Odette-Odile and come up with such a volumetrically big, bold, and correct execution. But big isn’t everything, and Mearns still has a ways to go. Despite the size of her performance, it doesn’t send waves radiating beyond her wingspan. Mearns gives us Balanchine’s “larger, wilder” swan, but she hasn’t yet experimented with lambency, or the shadows that frame the flicker. While her attack is certainly impressive, perhaps if it were variously softer, smaller, absorbed into musical contours that are allowed to be larger than she is, this Odette would be more songful, more imaginative. In short, Mearns lacks a light touch. She lets her power—her appetite for power—get the better of her, with the result that her dynamic loses lyricism and becomes predictable. In fact, in yet another of the mysteries of ballet, the impression left by her performance, the memory I carried away, was of an effortful Odette—too pushed and too loud.
And what of the black swan? Mearns’s exultant Odile was different from her charging Odette in facial expression only, meaning that she brought the same structure of attack to both. If you go to Mearns’s inspiration, Natalia Makarova, in the performance of Swan Lake that was the historic first ballet from “Live From Lincoln Center,” broadcast nationally on June 30, 1976—now viewable on YouTube—you see a mature vision of the role. It’s just one vision, but a legendary one. As Odette, Makarova is always centered, always quiet, never pushing, which lets her body float. Her supporting leg is often more profoundly, visibly energized than the working leg in arabesque or developpé, and this gives her poise. Her gaze is inward, shielded it seems, by her port de bras, her white wings—she’s not really connected to the world. And she is queen of the swans not because her reach is longer than that of the others, or her leg higher, but because her silence is more eloquent, her humanity more pronounced. As the black swan Odile, Makarova brings her gaze up and out. Her poitrine is open, figuratively bare-shouldered, because she has no experience of wings. She is clearly a fake, as should have been obvious to Prince Siegfried, but he is excited, blinded by desire. The performance as a whole contains many small but stunning moments. One in particular is unforgettable, an image both subtle and prophetic: it is Makarova’s port de bras at the end of Act Two, when Odette turns back into a swan, the water calling. Her arms do not wing upward in flight. They breathe outward from the shoulders, a rippling horizon line as calm as the surface of a lake, the water that is her home and will become her grave.