December 07, 2010

What’s the most demanding sport? A 1975 Journal of Sports Medicine study by James Nicholas, an NFL, NBA, and NHL team doctor, ranked 61 sports on 18 different measures of physical pounding endured and athleticism required. American football came in third and bullfighting second. Yet the most difficult sport isn”€™t even a sport: ballet.

The cult of ballet is such an all-consuming vocation that injured ballerinas frequently find themselves washed-up before 30 without having given much thought to what to do with the rest of their lives. All they”€™ve wanted for the last 25 years is to dance, and now they can”€™t anymore.

An eccentric millionaire friend of mine makes it one of his philanthropies to deprogram involuntarily retiring ballerinas. He points out to the depressed ex-dancers that being beautiful, refined, and lithe can actually lead to a fulfilling second career as a rich man’s wife. “€œBut all the men I know are gay,”€ they reply in disbelief, “€œor they”€™re untrustworthy pick-up artists or the married fathers of little girls who want to be me.”€

“€œYes,”€ he says, “€œbut I know lots of wealthy bachelors who aren”€™t. They”€™re software-startup nerds.”€

I was reminded of my friend’s often-successful matchmaking efforts to conjure up happy endings while watching Darren Aronofsky’s hysterical (but not necessarily funny) The Black Swan.

Is this backstage ballet tale a prestige melodrama, cheesy erotic thriller, horror movie, or camp comedy? The viewers in the audience’s front-left quarter howled with laughter throughout, while the audience near me sat in silence.

“€œWatching Portman act always sets me to musing about whether it’s not too late for her to become a pediatrician.”€

The Black Swan‘s central problem is that the heterosexual Aronofsky, who directed Mickey Rourke so well in The Wrestler two years ago, appears more inspired by professional wrestling than by ballet. Despite Aronofsky’s undoubted cleverness (Harvard Class of “€™91), he seems to love the idea of ballet far more than he cares for ballet itself. A film stronger on analysis than artfulness, The Black Swan‘s dancing, while competently filmed, is seldom electrifying.

Aronofsky’s intentions can”€™t be understood in isolation from his last movie about quasi-athletes”€™ alarming dedication, The Wrestler. Rourke portrayed a charismatic old professional grappler crucifying himself in training for one last comeback that will surely kill him. In The Black Swan, Natalie Portman plays a bland young dancer, a Little Miss Goody Toe Shoes, who destroys her health and sanity to be the prima ballerina in Tchaikovsky’s high romantic masterpiece Swan Lake.


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