Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan has been pulled apart by film critics and balletomanes alike. And now me. I only want to state that after working for The Royal Ballet for four years not once did I see a Portmanesque fall into insanity and feathers: all the dancers I know are pretty down to earth people. But Black Swan isn’t trying to educate or inform about the ballet world. It is a psychological thriller which is particularly notable for its depiction of physical pain, which had cinema viewers (including me) over the country clutching their hands, backs and arms in empathy. A world away from the majority of modern films which seem to sidestep real pain in violent scenes, or sensationalise it so much that the audience can find it hard connect to the images on the screen.
Black Swan leads the viewer through Nina’s (Portman’s character) sadomasochistic descent into psychosis, a technique which necessitates the deletion of any other character’s point of view or levelling objective input into her experiences. Nina begins to see her own image everywhere: moving in the ballet mirror, on the subway, even in her own bed. The film necessarily edits out the collaborative nature of the creation of ballet to create its psychological edge.
I loved Black Swan, but if you want to get a feel for what is going on in the modern ballet world then you need to look elsewhere. That’s why I enjoyed The Royal Ballet’s choreographic creation at its next door neighbour, the Apple Store, this Saturday. The art of ballet and its collaborative ethos was set against the backdrop of the Apple Store, a company which has spearheaded modern interactive technology and digital collaborative enterprise. The group from the Royal Opera House, led by Royal Ballet dancer and choreographer Kristen McNally, used the audience’s input to create a new ballet to the music of Kanye West’s new album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. With a little help too from an iPad, where audience members could draw pictures to inspire the choreography, and a live twitter feed for audience members to write the responses to the work in real-time, the team worked all afternoon to put together the new piece. Dancers Thomas Whitehead, Ryoichi Hirano, Jonathan Watkins, Yasmine Naghdi and Jacqueline Clark did some fantastic work, culminating in a demo of all the choreography created. Ballet was shown to be, at its heart, a collaborative art form responding organically to its setting.
Ballet is not just some re-creation of centuries old choreography and tradition but something reactive and responsive to the here and now. In direct opposition to the presentation of a ballet-enclave in Black Swan, here the public could see how the contemporary world can be mirrored and explored through its physical movement. You could literally see the ballet expand and evolve before your eyes.
And instead of the palatial setting of the Royal Opera House, where it is often hard to catch the facial expressions of the dancers, here you could watch up close as the group descended into fits of giggles as a step went slightly wrong or someone moved into the wrong position, or hear their exhausted gasps when performing a particularly difficult move. Far from Nina in Black Swan, these were real people engaging and engaged with the people around them in the creation of something new. The technical expertise and the real effort of the dancers could be seen up close and personal, in a welcoming down-to-earth way.
For any art form to survive and stay valid in the contemporary world it must keep apace with society’s movements. This event showed to a new audience that ballet is able to do just that. In amongst its iPad 2s and iPhone 4s, the Apple Store creates a tangible sense of regeneration, sophistication and technical prowess. And this dynamism is what Kristen and The Royal Ballet managed to capture using their own art form, too often misunderstood and condemned for not keeping up with modern times. The Royal Ballet is not necessarily what you think …