Ballet and Black Swans
If you are feeling that your brain is very happy and content and have a desire to change that, I would encourage you to watch Swan Lake and immediately follow it with Black Swan. The juxtaposition of the smooth, ethereal dancing of Tchaikovsky’s ballet– which was first produced in 1870– and the gritty and rather disturbing Black Swan is rather drastic. However, the two are more similar than may be initially thought especially when the music is considered.
It is a testament to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s prodigious talent in composition that the music of Swan Lake is versatile enough to be used in a Ballet and in Black Swan. If you are unfamiliar with either the ballet or the movie, I shall attempt to come to the rescue here and here. There is one particular piece of Tchaikovsky’s composition that I would like to focus on, and that is the Swan Theme (of which I shall embed a video at the bottom). In the ballet, the music is used to underscore the moment when our fine hero Siegfried and his new-found love, the Swan Princess Odette, are separated by the nefarious von Rothbart who is to blame for transforming Odette into a fowl in the first place. In typical Hollywoo– errrr, Russian fashion, Siegfried vows to marry her to break the spell. How exactly this is communicated through dance I shall never fully understand. This is a touching moment in the ballet, as it portrays Siegfried’s love for Odette. In Black Swan, the Swan Theme, which is the most well-known segment of the whole score, is only hinted at (it is played in 8-bit form as Nina’s ringtone, and a variation of the theme is used in the very opening of the movie) until the finale of the movie where [SPOILER] Nina discovers that she never killed Lily, but instead stabbed herself in the stomach with the glass. What is of interest is how the same music functions so differently. As noted before, in the ballet the theme is used to underscore romance, and Siegfried’s intention to save Odette from the tyranny of von Rothbart. In Black Swan, the theme is used as the utter climax of the film where Nina realizes that she has let herself go and “lost herself” in the role of the Black Swan.
The question that arises, for me at least, is: In which instance is the music more powerful? Does the music fit the ballet or the movie better?
In my relatively humble opinion, the music was used to incredible dramatic effect in Black Swan, which causes me to go as far as to say that it surpasses the original usage. Of course, this can be viewed as a sacrilegious statement, especially in the eyes of our good friend Walter Benjamin who was discussed in an earlier post. Benjamin would say that it is impossible to replicate the Aura of the original composition and usage, thus making the use of the same theme in Black Swan inferior. This is a point of conflict for your dear author. as I truly do understand the brilliance of Swan Lake and Tchaikovsky’s composition. I don’t however, believe that “original” is synonymous with “the best”. Tchaikovsky was accused of “borrowing” the Swan Theme from Wagner’s opera Lohengrin. However, no one remembers Lohengren in the same way that they remember Swan Lake. Is the original still superior if the “remake” is better in every conceivable manner? I am not saying that Black Swan is better than Swan Lake. That would be preposterous and would likely result in me ending up on some sort of The-Secret-Organization-of-the-Defenders-of-the-Superiority-of-Ballet-Over-Other-Media Orginization’s black list. I am, however, saying that to me, the usage of the Swan Theme is more powerful in Black Swan than in the original ballet. I strongly encourage anyone to disagree with me and to voice your concerns of my incredible ignorance in the comments. In the mean time, have some swan: