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Tying the ribbons tight
by Louise Jolly| Brighton, UK
Monday, 28 February 2011
tags: clients & brands, culture, europe, making sense, semiotics
For brands which champion female authenticity and naturalness, Darren Aronofsky’s ballet film Black Swan would be the stuff of nightmares.
The film follows popular ballet mythology in showing the fetishistic self-mutilation that lies behind the perfection of classical dance. Dancers force their feet into their shoes, criss-crossing the ribbons and tying the knot tight. They continuously stitch and re-stitch their costumes. And they starve and scar themselves in mysterious and barely conscious rituals of self-harm.
All these processes – suturing, binding, scarring – apply beyond ballet to symbolise the wider ways people cut themselves to fit the pattern of their social and economic ‘roles’. Despite the recent vogue for celebrating whole and authentic expression, Black Swan shows that the very possibility of social identity is founded upon painful artifice and elaborate construction.
The film also turns on the radical split that characterises classical ballet in popular mythology. On stage, all is perfect – ‘so pretty, so pink’ to quote a line from the script. But behind the scenes all is carnage: poisonous rivalries, vomiting in the toilet, drugs, sexual abuse, and bleeding feet.
It’s this very narcissistic divide between light and dark, ‘white swan’ and ‘black swan’, that authenticity-focused brands like Dove try to heal. By challenging the desired on-stage perfection of feminine identity, they seek to tidy up the back-stage mess too.
But the film attacks this split in a completely different way. It collapses the whole distinction between ‘on stage’ and ‘off stage’, fiction and reality, into a generalised hallucination – the darkness of the ‘black swan’ breaking out of the dressing room and taking over the entirety of the film’s theatrical and psychic architecture.
So, in the end, all that binding and sewing, cutting and starving, comes to nothing. In fact, it achieves the opposite effect, triggering the complete breakdown of the stage set of subjectivity, and destroying the boundaries that separate illusion from reality.
In a way, it’s another take on the familiar idea of the ‘return of the repressed’. When the bondage of culture reaches an intolerable extremity, all hell breaks loose. But the film also plays with the boundaries between nature and culture in a more unusual way – staging a deliberate and conscious exacerbation of cultural artifice in order to unleash an explosion of natural energy.
Mainstream Western philosophy has usually claimed that nature lies somewhere outside culture – often before, as its pre-existing foundation. But Black Swan suggests that maybe nature lies at culture’s outer limit – and that we have to go to an extreme point of artifice, ritual and restraint in order to find it. So, in the film, the dancer turns classical mimesis into shamanic metamorphosis, using extreme classical perfection to invoke nature – and to call in the black swan in its physical reality.
With this idea, the film joins more marginal philosophical traditions spanning East and West, Indian tantric practice and European sado-masochism offering two key examples.
A ballet film, the tantric tradition and de Sade may sound like an unlikely nexus. But all involve using elaborate ritual and artifice – culture at its most extreme – to break through to the other side.
© Louise Jolly 2011