Thursday, January 13, 2011


Lypsinka and Black Swan

In the movie Black Swan, there is a moment where the tortured ballerina Nina, played by Natalie Portman, insists on rehearsing the night before her big debut. She is in a studio with a pianist who, we are to assume, is fatigued and annoyed to have played Tchaikovsky's score hours on end. "I'm going home. I have a life," he huffs. And strides out.

When I saw this scene--a brief flicker of life in an otherwise mordent movie--I sat up. I recognized the pianist. Unlike Portman, who is not a dancer, the pianist was real. I had seen him around Steps, where I take ballet class. I waited patiently for the credits, found his name and cross-referenced the list of musicians at Steps. His name, John Epperson.

"Yeah, so?" said my dance teacher. "He used to play for me. So what?" (Oh, you hardened New York ballet-types).

"Did you know," I pressed, "that he is Lypsinka?"

Now *this* was interesting.

It's also a measure of how fascinating New York is, that someone can be the rehearsal pianist of choice for ABT and for the Steps pro-classes, while also having an unusual an interesting talent of his own.

In New York (and, yes, other world-class cities), people are many things, all at once. You might be a bank teller, but you might also be a comedian who is reviewed by the NY Times or the New Yorker or Time Out. You might work at a cheese shop, but have a devoted cult following for your CDs, and sell out the room every time you perform at the Time Cafe. I've known "famous" punk musicians who earned extra money by moving furniture. Lots of performers teach--which is less stressful on the joints than being a "man with a van." But the reality is that most true and dedicated artists don't live inside a protective coating of money and celebrity, in which a shopping trip doubles as a "outing" for the paps. Most artists work and work hard, and are acutely aware of the distinction between the grind of earning a paycheck and the imaginary space where art and magic are made. As I get older, I sometimes think that this division is harder to maintain. When we are younger, ambition and a belief in a better tomorrow casts a romantic pall over a bed-bug infested apartment. Over time, these things change. It can be harder to make magic.

Which brings me to Black Swan. Friends have been asking me for an opinion--I get to so few movies these days, but a babysitter helped me out so I could go. Much has been made of what real ballet dancers think. Here, for example, is Daniil Simkin's Tweet, which I carried in my head as I watched.

Black Swan was a fascinating sensationalistic exaggeration of 'our' ballet world, though in its essence shockingly accurate. Loved it. #fb

Well, yes. The movie was a stereotype and awfully exaggerated. Later, I kept wondering--because I'm a writer--how the the script was written in the first place. If you were to look at the surface of a dancer's life, then Nina's story might seem possible. Here, for example, is an NYTimes article on NYCB dancer Kathryn Morgan. The article was published in 2006, when Morgan joined the company as an apprentice--she's a soloist now (and such a lovely dancer!). The article notes that Morgan: lives in a one-bedroom with her mother, and:
"wore a pale pink leotard and tights, the color emphasizing her youth. As always, her dark hair was swept into a French twist. She wore no jewelry. The apprentices’ deer-in-headlights expressions were offset by the gum-chewing nonchalance of veterans like Carrie Lee Riggins, who joined the corps in 1997."

The article continues. Morgan was plucked from the apprentice ranks to play Juliet--a fresh approach--not unlike the way Nina is plucked from near obscurity to play the Swan Queen.

“The intimidation factor is still so high,” she said, while acknowledging how welcoming the company was. “I don’t want to mess up and have everybody think, ‘Why is she here?’

Unlike Nina, however, the real life ballerina Morgan nails the performance, and nearly everything after, and continues her ascent. She continues to be a favorite among balletomanes, who love to look at dancers in the corps and predict who will one day be a star.

But unless you care about ballet as ballet, this might not be interesting. What might be interesting instead, is something more . . . lurid, like Gelsey Kirkland's best-selling memoir "Dancing on My Grave." There, you will find lots about the dark side of dance, about abusive choreographers and male partners and bulimia--all distractions from work and art. She writes:

`How was it possible that Misha's resources as an artist, so evident in performance, were different from those of his basic personality?'

That's Misha as in mikhail Baryshnikov. As in--she's naming names! Gossip!

Remember Nina's relentless search for something beyond the safety of technique in ballet? Here is what Kirkland Tweeted (somewhat recently).

Technical perfection is insufficient. It is an orphan without the true soul of the dancer.

Now with these two bits of information--if we extrapolate out--we have the story of the tortured life of an artist. This is what we want artists to do and be, if we are honest--to live darkly, to demonstrate that a life spent living for art is really not easy, that it might be better to remain a bank teller after all. Put all these things together, and you have a movie like Black Swan.

Except . . . most dancers don't kill themselves. The movie is an exaggeration. And as time goes by, I like it less. I think Aronofsky did a wonderful job of using Portman's flat-toned voice and presence to create a character who seemed repressed and anxious. I enjoyed the special effects, which went a great way toward transforming Portman into a black swan. But I didn't love the movie. It didn't show me why anyone would ever want to dance at all--there was little of the beauty of dance (which Winona Ryder's character is said to embody). The world of dance looked like torture and camp. And I found the rather one-note atmosphere tedious after a while. Thank god, then for Lypsinka.

And yet . . . (I change my mind again) . . . as time goes by, I do think the movie did capture something about making art. Wendy Whelan (principal with NYCB) wrote this about Black Swan.

No performance is a perfect performance but some performances allow for the feeling of perfection. Achieving this moment of ecstasy easily validates all the pain and struggle of the art form by taking us (and possibly our audience) for a moment to a world beyond our own.

Most art, the saying goes, come from a place of play. There was a young girl in ballet class this week, who you could see just loved to move. After class, the teacher and I talked about this young girl. Would she advance? Would she put up with the hours of work, the criticism, the injuries? The subjecting herself to judgment?

"You have to have a thick skin or be really lucky," said my teacher.

"Or stupid," I said.

She laughed. "Or stupid."

I would say that in the year after my novel was published, I spent most of the time in this weird purgatory. It didn't help that I was pregnant, and still extremely upset over the loss of my father. But these things are incidental. When you go from taking something--dance, a book--from a place of play, to the marketplace, in which you are judged, in which you are challenged to find some kind of self-worth, while others are deciding if you have any worth at all, it can be brutal. This is why I find myself admiring and feeling very forgiving of artists who are known for their diva-like behavior. It's a wonderful kind of blind, self-protective behavior. I wish I had it.

Occasionally, an artist gets it all--mental health, wonderful family and friends, plenty of money and just enough struggle to continue to grow and develop in constructive and not destructive ways. But this is so rare and the human psyche--in fact the world--isn't set up to support art or artists in this way.

And in light of this fact, I did find that Black Swan did reveal something quite profound about the cost of making art, of submitting yourself *on faith* that years of training, of writing, or practicing, will actually matter in a way that is public. Because by the time any of us are adults, we rarely paint or compose just so our mothers will pin our accomplishments on the refrigerator. We want you to care. We are afraid that you might not care. And in this tension--the personal struggle and the struggle for acceptance--there is a very, very deep abyss in which a sensitive mind could easily become trapped.

This reminds me of an interview I heard on NPR with Aronofsky. I'm paraphrasing here, but he said something about how when he was younger, he used to encourage students to follow their dreams etc. Then he spoke movingly about how hard it had been to make Black Swan--despite the success of The Wrestler. Now, he said, (and I'm paraphrasing) he found it hard to be quite so idealistic and encouraging. Hearing this, I thought: "Et tu?"

"It ought to be enough in life to be a good person," my Aunt once said to me.

"It isn't for me," I said. And she looked very concerned for me. And now I know why.


thanks for the comprehensive write-up of your feelings. i think i had more pure enjoyment of the movie than you did, just because i'm not as educated on all its background as you (alas, you'd think education should make us happier, right? and yet it never does... ;).

also interesting re: your aunt. i have no comment on that.
Well, we can still have the whole "what was real and what was not" convo! I, for example, did not buy that she dies at the end.

As for being educated--we have the same education! I may just think too much and in ways that are neither practical nor necessary . . .
Well, we can still have the whole "what was real and what was not" convo! I, for example, did not buy that she dies at the end.

As for being educated--we have the same education! I may just think too much and in ways that are neither practical nor necessary . . .
Hehe, I thought you were going to link to me regarding the diva attack (I'm always complaining about Vishneva's melodramatic curtain calls) - glad it was Talese instead:)

What a wonderfully thoughtful review! I think you hit the nail on the head for me when you said something about how ultimately the film didn't drive home the beauty of ballet to you (or something like that). I think that was my basic problem too. I thought it was campy and I laughed throughout but at the end of the day I just didn't feel Nina's struggle; I didn't empathize with her on a fundamental level. And in order to be truly moved by a movie I have to have some sympathy for the main character. The film was just too silly for that for me.
Hahaha! Tonya, I would bet that she was trained to do her curtain calls like that--like it would feel weird to her not to. I mean, I guess after a certain point in a foreign country you'd notice that you were the *only* one behaving that way . . .

I figured you'd understand my point about the movie not demonstrating love for dance. of course, that was not the point of the movie. But most people become dancers because they do love it--even if push parents and teachers were involved at some point.

I liked the little scenes--Georgina Parkinson going over the arms, the violinist suddenly being added to rehearsal, the pointe shoes, etc.

But I do maintain it was a pretty powerful depiction of someone undergoing this awful and visceral transformation due to the tension between wanting to do something well and wanting to be expressive. It definitely happens to artists of all disciplines.
Pardon me for correcting you, but Georgina Parkinson does not appear in the movie Black Swan. She was, however, coaching Portman and Kunis when she (Parkinson) got sick, and died shortly thereafter.

I'm pleased that the appearance of my hideous maid John Epperson amused you.

Kind regards,
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