She lives in many forms, but her makeup is the same. If you’ve not watched her on the stage, you’ve seen her everywhere else. On Tuesdays in March a company full of versions of her danced across your screen. BBC’s Agony and the Ecstasy was meant to curb your Black Swan fears. Surely they aren’t all obsessive. You wanted to watch the show of a ballet dancer’s real life. Offstage, the dance was even more of an edited performance. The mirrors were there, but the filmmaker’s smoke clouded our sets.
She loves that mirror. From the far corner of the studio she catches a glimpse of her fine, long neck. Once breathy wisps of hair now stick in wet, perspired tendrils against her pale nape. She quickly turns. Rotating from the waist up, she looks back at herself, a lithe corkscrew. She moves her right arm through the positions to an arabesque. Her fingers carry her gaze. She no longer sees her reflection, but she knows exactly how she looks: Shoulders down. Tummy in. Lift up off the hip. Chest out. Look up, look up, look up. Don’t sag. Mind the left foot turnout.
She tries to ignore the rumours. Ballet isn’t dying, some critics write. It’s already dead. What about me? She wants to know. She’s alive.
In the studio, she struggles to keep sweat from dripping into her eyes. Look up, look up, look up. She would like a sip of water, but she has jumps to do. Perspiration has soaked through her black leotard. She cannot hide the sweat marks all ballerinas have in the witching hour of rehearsal — under her breasts, on her pubis, down her crack.
Tonight, though, her brow won’t shine with damp. The only signs of work will be the flecked beads of sweat caught-out by stage lights, her heaving chest, and a perfection she cannot see. For those who watch her on stage, she is effortless, beautiful. What a talent, they say.
How do they know? They raved about Black Swan and Natalie Portman’s performance of Nina Sayers, who dances herself to death. They’ve even preordered the DVD. There’s Miss Page too, of The Red Shoes. “Why do you want to dance?” she is asked. “Why do you want to live?” she replies. The heroines are part of a long line of crazy ballerinas on a fanatical and fruitless quest towards perfection. Each one is the same — possessed, fragile and tortured. This must be the ballerina’s life if the films say so.
And what of Sarah Lane? Natalie Portman’s Black Swan ballet double says she deserves more credit, yet the filmmakers and choreographer disregard her claims. No one can be a professional ballerina in two years, Lane argues. Few, though, in the dance world stand up for her. Our Black Swan fears are confirmed. In the media, Lane looks obsessed. Like Nina, she is starving for attention — for the role. We can’t help but make comparisons. She begins to look like the oversized, fading Black Swan posters that hang on the walls of the Underground and watch us from below dark, winged eyelashes. A hairline fracture interrupts the porcelain, powdered finish of her face. We don’t know who is cracking.
For a wordless art, it seems we have lots to say about those eating disorders and battered toes. Between the psycho ballet thrillers, such as Black Swan, and dance-inspired fashion, (ballet pumps and ready-to-wear tutus), we continue to objectify and exploit the stereotypes — the starving dancer, the perverted director, the egotistical choreographer — rather than celebrate ballet’s rigour and the dancers who are talented enough to actually make it their job.
Everyone wants to wear her tights and layers and leotards. Everyone wants her pointe shoes and none of the pain. On her way home tonight, when all she wants is to put on pajamas, she’ll look at the pink, ballet-inspired flats on the feet of a middle-aged woman.
She cannot shake the hours and years in front of mirrors that have reflected the image of herself dancing: Pointe shoes at 11. Principal dancer by 24. Retired by 29. Maybe, though, she’ll stay healthy enough to perform through her thirties. It is difficult to imagine another life.
She looks and smiles like she’s in love because she is. She sees and knows the perfection audiences would rather not see or know, because who would pay to watch the joy and worry and focus and fury and love and ache and time and pain and falling arches and tiny sips of water in her short life as a ballerina? Lately, all anyone wants is crazy.