Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Black Swan, Eating Disorders, and So On

So recently I was asked to respond to some of the hoopla going on lately about ballet dancers and eating disorders and Black Swan and so on. I wrote this as a guest blog for a bigger site but time restraints made them unable to post it so...here it is now, haha. This was somewhat ins response to this post.

There’s some kind of artistic hunger ingrained in us as young ballerinas-in-training. I’d sit in the wings of the second act of Boston Ballet’s Nutcracker entranced by the lights, the beauty, the precision onstage. Behind me was the blackness of backstage, the scent of Tiger balm, the whining dancers, the clunk of props. I was so lucky to see both sides of this elite world.

I ached to be a part of it.

That hunger for opportunity is the true meaning of a starving artist. We can be deprived of so much as ballet dancers – a childhood, a prom, a stable career. But our appetite for art supersedes all that.

It’s an addiction really, that obsession for perfection. During one summer at Boston Ballet I was living at home, an hour away from the city. While all my fellow students returned to the dorms for their dinner break between rehearsals, I stayed to take an extra class. We already had two technique classes a day, plus rehearsal and maybe Pilates. It wasn’t enough for me – I’d take men’s class during our lunch break and more technique at dinner. I loved it.

While training in New York City (and taking an overload college course schedule and holding an internship) I used to get to the studio early on Fridays for an extra semi-private class with my favorite teacher. I’d dance 6 hours without a break. That last push at the end of the day felt amazing.

Years later as a professional, I would do three shows a day at Radio City Music Hall and then run across town to take a class or two at The Ailey Extension. It just made sense to me to do more. Ballet was my life.

Is my life.

Because I’m mostly freelance, there’s this constant fight to find a job. A fight with myself, with my body, with my competition. Every day in class we’re told what’s wrong with us. We stare hours on end at our bodies just in a leotard in tights. It’s frightening honestly, but we often blame the mirrors.

Oh I can’t stand at that barre – that’s a fat mirror.

Aronofsky’s film Black Swan really captures that mental struggle we face daily. Though Nina’s (Natalie Portman) actions are obviously taken to extreme, her intentions and motivations are completely realistic. She wants to be perfect. She wants to be thin. She wants her role. NYCB principal Wendy Whelan has it right when she says, “Dancers learn to take on these subtle head-trips every day.”

Though there has been much discussion about the film’s depiction of eating disorders, I actually think it did well in not making that a huge focus (as other silly ballet movies like Center Stage did). The truth of the matter is that ballet dancers can’t maintain these kinds of training schedules without eating anything. And those who don’t eat don’t last very long. Where would the stamina and strength come from?

During my season of 17-show weeks at Radio City I’d eat at least three big meals a day (I’m talking bacon and eggs, big plates of pasta, chicken parm…) and I still lost weight unintentionally. Though ballet is anaerobic exercise, it still burns calories fast as muscles tone. I don’t think Portman and Kunis lost 20 pounds each just to look like ballerinas – their training to dance like ballerinas naturally thinned them out. With a professional schedule you’re going to lost weight whether you’re eating nothing or everything.

Our bodies are our tools. Unlike a painter whose brush is not physically a part of them, our art and our selves are one in the same. Our entire self-perception falls prey to that – healthy or not. We’re not hungry for carbs. We’re hungry to dance.


Anonymous said...

LOVE this post!!! You must be tired of the stereotypical arguments about ballerinas and their weight. Wish the world would read this post and see that not all ballerinas are anorexic. I admire your candor and your grounding. For such a young woman it appears you have your head on straight and your careers on track. Congratulations...from your #1 fan

Toni Sciarra Poynter said...

Excellent post, and I love how you are connecting artistic hunger with the "head trips" of dance--which also become head trips about the body, since how can you separate the dancer from the body that dances? Striking that balance of being thoroughly objective, yet nonjudgmental, about one's body is very difficult. As a mere adult who takes dance classes alongside performers, I hear them talk constantly, and very matter-of-factly, about what directors and producers are looking for at auditions. They are subjected to ceaseless scrutiny and judgment based on body type and appearance. To ignore that fact would be like applying for an office job without knowing how to type--a sorry waste of time, especially that of the applicant. So...yes, the body is critical. And being critical of the body is critical. But being critical in a way that opens body and mind to progress is key - as you note, no dancer can dance without sustenance, in every sense of that word. Thanks for your thoughtful post on this.

Fiona Place said...

I saw the movie Black Swan the other day and was struck by its external representation of an empty self, a woman in extreme distress. We saw the world through Nina's eyes, her unreliable eyes, her narrow prism of fear and confusion. It was remarkable viewing yet strangely unsatisfying - in part because we didn't learn anything, Nina didn't learn anything - we were stuck in her world, a colourless and dead universe. We did however learn what it is like to be stuck. To feel empty.
Nina did not have a stable, robust sense of self, she could not experience the world as most of use do - instead her fragmenting self needed all her energy to stay in the present, to survive minute to minute.
The pain in her eyes, the distress Ms Portman was able to convey was spine-chilling - Nina was a shell, a woman without any substance. This is not to say Nina didn't want substance - she did - but she had no idea of how to get it, to connect to others.
To my mind Ms Portman vividly portrayed the emptiness experienced by many women with eating disorders and in particular anorexia nervosa.
As the author of Cardboard: A woman left for dead I could see so much of Nina in Lucy, Cardboard's main character. Lucy too, couldn't couldn't feel the world and experienced herself minute to minute with no sense of continuity or robustness.
Where the two differ however is that Nina could still perform, or at least in the movie she performed, in real life most women in this situation cannot work, cannot bear commitment or responsibility. Of course there is the possibility that Nina was imagining everything - that she was in her bedroom the whole time and not on the stage - but that is another debate.
What is of interest is what this movie can teach us about how it feels to have a fragmented self, what lengths someone will go to to try and maintain a sense of control. Starving does give Nina a sense of control, it also leaves her stuck. And without understanding, without treatment she is literally unstoppable.
It doesn't however have to be this way.
In Cardboard Lucy - who is as fragmented as Nina - is fortunate and able to write herself out of the stuckness, the emptiness. And unlike Nina who cannot change, cannot change direction, she does learn to experience herself as a whole, a whole that can have mixed emotions, is fluid and in tune with her surroundings. A woman who no longer needs to keep starving, to hurt to feel alive.