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Flash Film Reviews, 12-24: Hack Swans & Swains
'Black Swan' bleeds inauthenticity; 'Mao's Last' won't

By Harris Green
Copyright 2010 Harris Green

NEW YORK -- Among the assorted frustrations visited upon us during 2010, the most tantalizing for balletgoers was having two dance movies released in the same year. Instead of doubling one's pleasure, "Mao's Last Dancer," an Australian biopic, and "Black Swan," an unintentionally hilarious American horror film, failed to add up to even one movie that did justice to choreography and filmmaking, dancers and actors.

No dance movies had appeared since the similarly ill-matched "Billy Elliot" and "Center Stage" were released in 2000. Although its makers were so ignorant of dance life that they showed little girls taking class in tutus, 'Billy' did retain a grip on reality, thanks to director Stephen Daldry's gritty depiction of British life under Mrs. Thatcher; what saved the show, however, was casting Billy with the incandescent Jamie Bell, who came from a family of dancers. Director Nicholas Hytner allowed "Center Stage" to lapse into banality by scrupulously underscoring every cliché of dance life in its amorphous plot; fortunately, the producers guaranteed bursts of excellent dancing by drawing heavily upon American Ballet Theatre's roster when casting. Ethan Stiefel, caught at his considerable peak, would be reason enough to spring for the DVD. The 2008 sequel, "Center Stage: Turn It Up," the only major dance movie made in the interim, went directly to disc and never played in any theater anywhere. I haven't forgotten about "La Danse" (2009), Frederick Wiseman's long look at the Paris Opera Ballet; although artistic director Brigitte Lefevre gave a chilling performance as Mme. Dufarge, it was a documentary.

"Mao's Last Dancer" had a great story to tell and writer Jan Sardi and director Bruce Beresford tell it conscientiously, often solemnly, until the gamy hokum and lousy choreography endemic to dance movies prevail. Sardi's script is based on the autobiography of Li Cunxin, the Chinese-trained virtuoso who became a symbol of artistic freedom in 1981 when his defection during an exchange program with Ben Stevenson's Houston Ballet set off diplomatic tremors worldwide. Beresford recaptures both the loneliness little Li felt after being yanked from his remote village and shipped hundreds of miles to Beijing for rigorous Russian-style training and the oppression the mature Li experienced in Texas as Chinese bullyboy diplomats close in upon him. At such moments 'Dancer' recalls those heady days when Beresford's "Breaker Morant" (1980), Peter Weir's "Gallipoli" (1981) and Fred Schepsi's "The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith" (1978) sparked talk about "Australia's new wave" of filmmakers.

What ultimately swamps "Mao's Last Dancer" is Australia's old wave of dancemaking, embodied by the Sydney Dance Company's infamous artistic director, Graeme Murphy. After savoring Murphy's fogbound "Swan Lake" on a stage hung with greasy oilcloth and his five-minute version of "The Rite of Spring" that concludes with a sensational onstage bonfire, I found myself asking for what I assure you is the first time: "Where is Ben Stevenson when we really need him?"

It's difficult to believe but there's worse in store. When Li returns to his village in triumph, he finds his old Beijing teachers now living there so naturally he must defy jet lag and the cramps that an auto ride of hundreds of miles would usually induce to immediately tear through what looks like a Cirque du Soliel routine restaged for the Mosseyev. I regret to report that our star, Chi Cao, doesn't bear the slightest resemblance to Li Cunxin. Instead of the stunning body of a decathlete, the pounce of a tiger and a sunny personality, Chi has a wiry body, a flashy agility and a rather drawn expression much of the time. The producers of 'Dancer' wisely decided to avoid the current practice in nonfiction filmmaking of running photographs of main characters during the closing credits. After all, the makers of "Milk" had nothing to lose by allowing the audience to see that Sean Penn had only a passing resemblance to Harvey Milk, and the producers of "Fair Game" lost nothing by revealing that Naomi Watts was sexier than Valerie Plame.

My anonymous sources at ABT tell me that when director Darren Aronovsky was granted a tour of the company's premises to absorb some authenticity for his reality-challenged shockfest "Black Swan," he was surprised to learn no space had been set aside for psychotherapy. The director of the insistently depressing "Requiem for a Dream" would believe that nutcases and therapists are as common to ballet companies as masseurs and icepacks. Certainly, troupes with dancers as jangled as Aronovsky's heroine Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) would do well to stock tranquilizers by the gross, equip ballet masters with tasers and keep a closet full of straitjackets.

Nina dances at Lincoln Center but don't confuse her employer with ABT or New York City Ballet or any other company on Earth. Its classes are taught in a space as commodious as a basketball court with stadium seating in tiers at one end. No mere pianist could supply worthy accompaniment for such a facility, so a violinist or a chamber orchestra join in on occasions. Because this is an Aronovsky company, tempers are especially taut as rehearsals begin on a ground-breaking new production of "Swan Lake." One ballerina trashes her dressing room when she is passed over for Odette/Odile. Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), the tall, dark and handsome choreographer, doesn't hesitate to grope Nina's crotch to bring out her sensuous Odile side. (Where is AGMA when you really need it?)

Ever subtle, Thomas also advises Nina to heighten her repressed sensuality by masturbating. Her writhing in bed while her childhood menagerie of stuffed animals looks on actually achieves a rare poignancy. Generally Aronovsky favors close-ups of split toenails and bleeding fingers. When Nina appears to be undergoing an ornithological transformation, we are treated to shots of her toes growing together into a webbed foot and abrasions on her shoulder blades sprouting nasty little feather-like growths that cannot be easily plucked. After being limited mostly to filming people dressed in black or white or both, cinematographer Matthew Libatique pounces on these gory subjects. The only lighthearted character in this gloomy company is Lily (Mila Kunis), who blows in from San Francisco, and she soon becomes a rival. If sharing her drugs with Nina doesn't set off alarm bells, what about that pair of black wings tattooed on her shoulder blades? Nina seriously considers killing her.

Now do I have to tell you that Nina still lives with her Ballet Mother (Barbara Hershey)? That the mother will eventually remind her in a suitably sepulchral tone that she gave up her ballet career when Nina was born? It should be easy at this point to tell where the ballet-savvy moviegoers are seated in the theater: They are the people with their heads together, giggling as they whisper the names of ballerinas whose careers were not ended by motherhood (Kyra Nichols, Darci Kistler, Natalia Makarova, Julie Kent, Alessandra Ferri, Jenifer Ringer, Irina Dvorovenko, Nina Ananiashvili ? just for starters).

They will also be the ones stifling guffaws during the marvelous scene set in the theater, apparently during a dress rehearsal of "Swan Lake." The new production hasn't premiered, yet Nina, in costume and makeup, makes no attempt to go onstage although the music the orchestra is pounding out is only hers to dance. Maybe Thomas Leroy has kept his promise that this "Swan Lake" will be different. Maybe Darren Aronovsky wouldn't know the difference if he had. The scenery, by the way, looks like giant blocks of styrofoam originally intended for immense packing crates.

Initially the script assigns Nina a doppleganger in keeping with the Odette/Odile two-in-one theme, but after a few pointless encounters between Nina 1 and Nina 2, the idea is dropped. There's nothing like a doppleganger to boost a movie into a truly eerie realm. Aronovsky and his three writers settle for more easily achieved jolts, like a grisly shot of a split and bleeding toenail, that plucky little feather and Nina's homicidal fantasy, enhanced by terrific sound effects.

"Black Swan" made the tabloids well before it went into release. Her sensational crash diet slimmed the five-foot-three Portman down so drastically she was left with that grimace of ingrown anguish few Oscar winners lack. Extensive work at the barre left her with an acceptable port de bras for close-ups. ABT soloists Sarah Lane and Maria Riccetto stepped in for the few distant shots of Nina actually dancing, in what looks like modified Petipa. ("The Red Shoes" had a star, Moira Shearer, who could actually dance, along with dialogue that was often witty.) Equally tabloid-worthy was the affair with NYCB principal Benjamin Millepied, Portman's on-camera partner (and choreographer of the film's ballet sequences), who broke with his girlfriend to become Portman's partner off screen. Aronovsky entrusts Millepied with only one line of dialogue, but it could have been regularly uttered throughout "Black Swan" by just about everyone: After a mistake made onstage by our overwrought Nina causes him to drop her, he exclaims, "What the fuck?"

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