“Black Swan”: Mental Health Conditions of Ballet Dancers

If you haven’t yet seen the psychological thriller/horror film Black Swan (2010), here’s a description from journalist Carlin Flora, a former writer/editor for Psychology Today:

The new film ‘Black Swan,’ directed by Darren Aronofsky and starring Natalie Portman, is a mesmerizing tale of a young woman’s descent into fear and paranoia.

Portman plays Nina, a ballet dancer with a major company in New York City. As a sheltered good girl, Nina is naturally suited to the pure and intricate ‘White Swan’ role in ‘Swan Lake.’ But that same leading part also requires her to portray the seductive and malicious ‘Black Swan.’ To nab the all-important spot, Nina must draw from the deep well of aggressive, passionate, and dark feelings flowing underneath her obedient, child-like persona.

That process unhinges Nina in a series of scary and heartbreaking scenes that leap between reality and psychosis. Her previously controlled and co-dependent relationship with her mother, a typical former-ballerina-turned-stage-mom (played by Barabara Hershey), explodes into a violent pas de deux. And Nina compulsively harms herself, scratching her back until she appears to have the wing-shaped ruptures of the swan she so desperately wants to become on stage.

And here’s the trailer:

Totally out of character for me, I hadn’t actually read the reviews before going to the theater with my viewing companions. For what it’s worth, none of us wound up liking it. In fact, we got a lot of mileage out of mocking its overblown style.

As did a Saturday Night Live skit starring Jim Carrey as Nina:

Black Swan, however, was quite well liked by many critics. Indeed, it took a diligent search to find some validation, but I finally did—“Fowl Play: Black Swan Is An Overhyped Ugly Duckling.” The writer? Rex Reed of the New York Observer:

This exercise in hysteria is so over the top that you don’t know whether to scream or laugh.

…The big problem is Darren Aronofsky, whose corny vision of madness is more hilarious than scary. Borrowing every ballet-movie cliché from The Red Shoes and Spectre of the Rose, among others, he’s jerry-built an absurd Freudian nightmare that is more wet dream than bad dream, with all the subtlety of a chain saw.

But what about perspectives from the mental health field? I conduct a different kind of search—two articles, one called “‘Black Swan’: Psychiatrists Diagnose Ballerina’s Descent” and another, “‘Black Swan’s’ Psychological Spin,” catch my attention. I’ll highlight a couple of the main observations.

For starters, at least a couple psychiatrists take issue with the portrayal of Nina’s hallucinationsSteve Lamberti states that psychotic hallucinations are generally auditory, not visual. Dolores Malaspina seems to agree and adds: “The audience, she says, should think of the harrowing visions as fantasies rather than actual hallucinations.”

Psychologist Jonathan Abramowitz points out another flaw—it’s unlikely for psychosis and an eating disorder to co-exist as they do in the film. He adds, “‘People in psychosis are not in touch with reality. With eating disorders and OCD, they are too in touch with reality.'”

And what about the “psychotic” nature of the film itself? Which bizarre events in the movie are real and what’s only imagined by Nina? Does anyone really know by the ending?

Judging by the myriad of similar questions I find online—along with many differing answers—there’s a lot of confusion out there.

Finally, and so importantly, what do actual ballet dancers think of the film? Here are several who’ve commented:

Tamara Rojo: “This is a very lazy movie, featuring every ballet cliche going. If you want to look at the dark side of ballet, do it properly, don’t just give us shots of a ballerina suddenly vomiting. Nina’s mother was beyond the cliché of a ballet mum – she was a psychopath. And the only people who looked like they were having a good time were the ones having sex.”

Ashley Bouder:”We all know those stereotypes of the ballet world: the stage mom, the anorexic or bulimic, the other ballerina out to get your roles, the obsessive perfectionist, etc. They are all represented in this movie to an extreme level. But all these things don’t bother me. That is not what the movie is about. This is a psychological thriller about a delusional girl. This is no one’s ballet movie. Yes, the main character is a ballerina, but this is about her mind more than anything else. It is hard to tell what the reality is and what she is seeing. It truly sets your head spinning.”

Jennifer Kronenberg: “If taken simply at face value, the film is utterly ridiculous. It is also most important to remember throughout the film that it is not a factual depiction of the real ballet world. It is the world as seen through the eyes and mind of an emotionally disturbed, very neurotic young girl whose social development has been severely arrested. She’s incapable of coping with the stresses and pressures of a competitive world and allows herself to be consumed by her own self-destructive demons.”

Rebecca King, from her blog Tendus Under a Palm Tree: “I think this movie has provided the ballet world with a lot of attention, but is it the right kind? I don’t think so. Though I generally enjoyed my movie-going experience last night, I did get the giggles a few times in the beginning, where most of the cliches resided. I think this film paints ballet in a tainted light and when people think of ‘Swan Lake,’ they will always be reminded of Darren Aronofky’s ‘Black Swan,’ instead of the centuries old masterpiece danced on stages around the world. To me, that is a shame.”

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