Once upon a time, I was a little girl who, as my oldest friend likes to put it, loved to wear cute little dresses, then swing on the monkey bars and play with the boys. (I like to think this is still a fair representation of my personality.) I also squeezed myself into a leotard, tights, and legwarmers, then shoved my tiny feet into pastel pink ballet shoes and clung to the bar for dear life as I strove for a plié in fifth position. I was no ballerina, but ballet occupied a part of my growing brain that nothing else could. I ached for the exquisite beauty, strength, and poise of the ballerinas striding and leaping beneath the hot white lights in The Nutcracker. I never danced en pointe, eventually grew out of the legwarmers, and started playing softball, but ballet continues to fascinate me. Though I’m drawn most often to drama, satire, and horror, I can hardly resist a ballet movie…and it’s interesting how ballet fits so well in those genres.
The trailer for Darren Aronofsky’s highly anticipated thriller Black Swan released recently, and it made me think: why does a movie that focuses on ballet dancers appear so utterly bizarre and frightening? Black Swan tells the story of prima ballerina Nina (Natalie Portman) who is cast by artistic director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) in the role of the swan in Swan Lake. Rival dancer Lily (Mila Kunis) provides an eerie doppelganger for Nina as the two battle it out for the lead role and the love of the artistic director. Aronofsky’s films are often bizarre, surreal, and spooky; Black Swan looks no different—but if there’s one director who can do beautiful and horrific at once, it’s Aronofsky.
Ballet is an art form, a style and grace of movement that captivates so many because it is so extraordinary. So why is it, then, that so many movies about ballet are horror-influenced?