Perfection, Control, and Inner Authority: a Black Swan Symbolic Review

by Colleen Szabo

Black SwanThe swan is a universal symbol of transformation, since it morphs from a rather ungainly grey cygnet into one of the most graceful and comely of animals. Black Swan is the first very clearly female “enlightenment movie”, as I lightly call them, using the alchemical symbolism that’s prevalent in fairy tales, that I remember viewing. Black Swan cheats more than a little in achieving this position, since it’s heavily reliant on popular fairy tales for its content. Transformational/enlightenment tales in film are usually focused on either masculine heroism, which portrays an aspect of personal transformation for either gender, or reclamation/rescue of the anima, a man’s abandoned or repressed feminine side. This cinematic leaning in the direction of masculine heroism and rescuing the female is undoubtedly the case because most film-making is done by men who live in male-centric societies.

Black Swan focuses on the reclamation of a woman’s repressed feminine aspects, as well as developing intimacy with, connecting with, masculine inner authority. The protagonist, Nina, also develops the ability to, the courage to, express her creativity in “the world”, a developmental step which results from her successful inner connection-making and reclamation. This courage to manifest one’s authentic creative expression is one of the sometimes semi-heroic tasks we often see depicted in films. I’m approaching the film from the viewpoint that the reclamation project Nina is on is basic shadow work, in Jungian terms. The shadow is all of the suppressed and repressed and unclaimed aspects of the psyche and of experience. Connecting with, understanding, and accepting these hidden and often scary aspects brings them into our lives as creative powers and options that were previously unavailable to us. Based on the law of opposites, that every human experience has its duality, its yin and its yang, shadow work is also the bringing together of these opposites into our waking consciousness. Termed the coniunctio in alchemy, or integration, this experience of holding the tension of opposites may be, for example, part of understanding that behind our mask of conditioned, passive, feminine “goodness”, anger and aggression hide. That’s one element of Nina’s transformation in the film.

Nina will also work with the human experiential duality of control and flow. Usually, one of any given human experiential duality pair has been asleep within us, though it often literally haunts our dreams. For example, often women who have dreams of male attackers are afraid of manifesting some creative expression in the world. The masculine energy of worldly expression, when suppressed, becomes increasingly aggressive, a coiled up spring of psychic energy which bursts out seemingly randomly, as an attacker might spring out of the dark. Since the masculine manifestation energy is feared, being treated like an enemy, an unwanted potentiality, it acts that role in the psyche. When the masculine energy is embraced, made conscious and utilized, the power which previously drove the dreamer’s fear can be used for manifesting. Women often have to develop agency, do transformational work to express worldly forms of human manifestation, to get their gifts “out there”. Manifestation, especially in a patriarchal society, requires the utilization of some masculine energies, skills, attitudes and values, though most Euro-Western women these days have learned more about masculine ways of operating than men have of the feminine.

The filmmakers used some very obvious clues signaling the underlying plotline of shadow work, as is the case in the story of Swan Lake, the ballet Nina dances in. Most obvious is the use of black and white. Black and white, as in the yin/yang symbol, represents duality and its opposites. Shadow stuff is black, stuff we are unconscious of and about, whether or not it is something our society would deem “bad”. Nina begins the film always dressed in white and a little doll-like pink coat. Her shadow selves, Lily, Beth, and Nina’s mother, wear predominantly black. As Nina begins to unfold her shadow self, she starts to wear more grey, as does Lily. The final scene, where Nina dances the black swan part, is where we see her all in black at last, having recovered some aspects of her shadow stuff.

Shadow work is a part of the ancient art of alchemy, or transformational magic. Alchemy is the art of transforming our base metals, our life’s ore, that which we have been given from our fates, our families, and our other life circumstances and events, into the gold of consciousness, “spirituality” in contemporary American parlance, or transcendence in the words of Thomas, the ballet director in Black Swan. Alchemy, as Jung wrote about it, uses three colors to describe the basic trajectory of human transformation: black, white, and red. Fairy tales sometimes do the same, pointing to their office as wisdom tales, stories of personal transformation. The well-known women’s transformational story Snow White opens with the three alchemical colors, signaling the story’s alchemical bones. There are the mother’s three wishes for her daughter (skin white as snow, etc.) as well as the ebony window frame, white snow, and red blood. The black, the nigredo, of alchemy represents falling into the shadow world of chaos and fear and darkness and suffering, a first step in the transformational process. Next red, rubedo, a color with ancient religious roots as the nourishing blood of earthy passion and love, symbolizes sacrifice, the moment of death, the letting-go of the old. White, albedo, is the symbol of purification, of the new consciousness which follows the darkness and sacrifice. White acknowledges the fact that something new has been brought to light. Some shadow material has made its way up to the daily waking awareness, and is no longer shadow.

The film begins with a dream Nina has, of dancing with the bad guy of the ballet Swan Lake, Von Rothbart. Swan Lake‘s story is solidly seated in fairy tale symbolism and themes, and Von Rothbart is an evil sorcerer. A sorcerer or witch, and their spells, amount to a fairy tale personification of our psyche’s unconscious, habitual, stuck behaviors. One earmark of the shadow’s presence or influence is an inability to control ourselves, to choose to do something different and implement that choice. The most obvious and pervasive evidence of shadow, especially in contemporary America, is found in addictive behavior patterns. Ascribing our situations of choicelessness and compulsive behavior to a witch or wizard is something we quite literally do all the time, when we blame others, our parents, for example, for our inability to live up to our own potential, to live differently. We can blame or project onto others great and good things, as well as bad things. Either way, when we dance with our shadow sorcerers, we are like the perplexed puppet Nina acts when dancing with Von Rothbart. We are dependent on others for our experience of life, acting and reacting in ways that don’t serve our personal development. We are stuck, under what feels like a spell. Nina’s Von Rothbart dream signals her coming descent into the scary unconscious nigredo, the shadow.

We then are presented with the situation as it stands. Nina’s daily life concertedly excludes shadow and darkness. Nina is living in her pink and white childhood room, and her stuffed animals and ballerina jewelry box shout the fact that this woman has been delaying her personal growth in some ways. Her mother is still helping her dress, tucking her into bed, preparing Nina’s “pink” meals (as Nina remarks at breakfast one morning), giving constant advice. Their relationship would be described in family therapy as “enmeshed”. One cannot move without the other. Nina is like the Sleeping Beauty; her castle is asleep, because the parents wanted only the white, success and happiness and gifts of light, and forgot that the darkness was needed for transformation and growth, as the seed must be held underground. She is developmentally stuck without any descent into the dark.

Thomas the ballet director, Lily, Nina’s mother, and Beth represent, or reflect, new, or previously buried, aspects to Nina. Since I watched with a symbolic eye, I didn’t realize the average moviegoer saw the film as a thriller. IMDB’s synopsis says Nina “slowly loses her mind as she becomes more and more like Odile, the black swan.” Surely our revelations of new perspectives and of buried aspects can seem like insanity, especially if it happens fast — as it surely must in a film. However, the insane bits in the film — the wings growing, the imagined sexual intimacy with shadow aspect Lily, the mother’s talking pictures, etc. — are metaphorical descriptions of discoveries Nina is making about her inner self, about her shadow stuff, though they could also be reflected somehow in her life’s outer events. Fairy tale and myth work the same way, blurring the line between inner and outer; that’s the nature of metaphor. Since film has no narrative (usually), it (usually) has to portray the inner life with metaphor, and events which seemingly happen in “the world”. Back in the day, this reliance on metaphor designated such a film as an “art flick”.

Another ubiquitous healing/transformational symbol or metaphor in the film is the mirror. Professional dancers are by the nature of their work seriously involved with physical image, how they look. Snow White also famously uses the metaphor of mirror. As soon as Nina gets up, she’s in front of her little-girl-room mirror, and the filmmakers chose many scenes where Nina sees herself reflected in mirrors and windows to get the fact of her self-consciousness across. Nina’s reflections also work well as a device for showing the audience what she is seeing when she looks inside herself, experiences her life below the surface appearance. This is why it seems she’s crazy, when the unusual reflections are taken literally by the audience. Shadow work entails this inner looking at oneself, or at least a switch from an external experiential focal point to an inner one. We have to get the shadow’s side of the story into our waking consciousness, and the mirror can depict that side for the audience.

The key issue of perfection, the one which will close the film, is raised very early on, as a new female soloist is being chosen for the upcoming Swan Lake production. The ballerinas chat in the dressing room about how the ticket sales are down, and the previous principal ballerina, Beth, is getting canned. The theme of renovation, of sacrificing the old, the rubedo, is in the air, a theme which enters many a transformational fairy tale. Nina thinks Beth, the old ballet queen, is perfect, but, as a shadow aspect, Beth is going to prove otherwise. She’s going to give Nina a previously unseen, sordid perspective behind her reign as queen in the ballet company. She will reveal ways in which striving to fulfill one’s creative destiny, to manifest authentically, can bring up hidden fears.

Beth also brings into Nina’s hyperprotected life the necessity of sacrifice, letting go of the old, which comes with taking on new levels of responsibility, with opening to a more whole way of being in the world. From the internal mirror’s eye view, Beth will join Nina’s Mom as metaphor for dying forms of Nina’s internal female authority. This authority, its attendant choice making, and its responsibilities such as self-protection, is power that Nina had been giving away to Mom and Beth, which she will claim for herself by the end of the story. She will then be capable of making her own choices, caring for herself, rather than conforming to her internalized protective mother authority, and imagining herself as subservient to some inner perfect Beth ideal, which is by its very nature as “ideal”, nothing more than a constraining idea. This nigredo stuff which needs to be sacrificed is personified in the fairy tale Snow White by the wicked stepmother/witch.

Thomas sets up the duality of perfection early, when he tells Nina, “But the black swan? It’s a hard fucking job to dance both. I see you getting obsessed, getting each and every move perfect, but you never lose yourself.” This duality between perfection/control and flow/getting lost, merging with the creative force, governs creative manifestation. Artists in every medium always teach us about this duality, which can be applied to the creation of a human life in general. The masculine ability to discipline, to control, to persistently learn how to use a paintbrush, to play an instrument, to build muscles, which Nina already works with, is optimally paired in the art making moment with the feminine intuitive ability to relax into the grace of embodied, animal-like presence. Thomas is asking Nina to discover the shadow perfection of her innate feminine wildness and naturalness, find her creative flow, closely associated with what we call intuition — qualities Lily, with her black swan tattoo, already possesses. Maybe because I live in a malecentric society, even women of my social demographic (the same as Nina’s) have to frequently reclaim their feminine ability to flow intuitively and instinctively. Then the masculine power of perfection that’s already been developed will morph into a different kind of more balanced perfection, as Nina witnesses to in the end of the film.

Thomas tells Nina later, “Perfection is not just about control…surprise yourself so you can surprise the audience. Transcendence.” As the male authority, a soulful animus aspect from the shadow perspective, and the orchestrator of Nina’s transformation story, Thomas is wise to the gift of surprise, which can be an important element in experiencing transcendence. Transcendence, in alchemical terms, is described by the cuniunctio, conjunction, the state beyond identification with one or the other side of a given duality, any good/bad, control/flow, masculine/feminine — or ultimately with duality, period. As in the old Zen stories about enlightenment following a surprise whack on the head by the master, surprise bypasses the ego’s defenses, allowing us to drop ego’s usual control of our consciousness. Surprise (laughter is one common example) helps us to temporarily, at least, escape the sorcerer’s spells, which depend on our seeing the imaginary Sleeping Beauty walls built of old habitual, expected ways of being and doing.

Truthfully, we are our own most constant audience, thus “surprise yourself so you can surprise the audience”. In this way, Thomas points out to Nina that changing her world, creating personal agency, begins with changing her own life experience. This responsibility for our own experience is what most people avoid, but it must be learned in order to express deeply and authentically. Accepting responsibility for the way they experience life in their own skins is the line artists are often called to step over. They must choose and validate their inner experience above, or as at least equal to, their socially conditioned experience. Otherwise we daily fail to surprise ourselves; we don’t know that such surprise is even part of the game, because we are still stuck in childhood’s effort to please the individual, or social/governmental parent — or rebel against it.

Nina got the prima ballerina part because she bit Thomas- surprised him, and herself, as well. Her shadow, natural animal ability to instinctively defend herself from sexual aggression was close enough to the surface to act, though Nina, because of her social conditioning, assumed that her animal-like behavior would bring nothing but rejection. She didn’t count on Thomas’s deep wisdom, his ability to recognize her inner black swan’s readiness to come forth hidden within the action. Despite their beauty, swans are actually rather nasty, aggressive creatures; I’ve known some. Sex is the other big theme in the film, actually, as is the case with lots of transformational films. The act of sexual intercourse itself isn’t so important in shadow work, though a depiction of sexual intercourse is a metaphor for a joining of opposites. In alchemy, the act of human intercourse symbolizes the hieros gamos, the holy inner marriage of transcendence. The intimate connection between male and female bodies represents the dissolving of duality, possible even if the two participants are of the same sex. After all, we all are half male, half female, in theory.

Nina’s “dream” of sexual intimacy with Lily represents the inner meshing of her masculine, controlled approach to her art, and Lily’s relaxed, feminine flow. It is a prelude to the event in the dressing room where Nina “kills” Lily. In symbolic story, the death of some character can signal the fact that the characteristic they once depicted is no longer experienced by the protagonist mainly, or only, in the outer world, in other people. The characteristic has now been claimed for ourselves. That’s why the stepmother has to dance herself to death, and the old king must die. When control and flow are integrated, intimately connected, in Nina’s conscious waking life, there is no need for Lily to carry naturalness and flow for Nina any more as a seemingly separate quality. The sexual part of a transformational film adds tension and engages the audience, too, because it is this tension between the opposites that is so fundamental to human life, to other animals and to plants and to the gravity which holds the Earth in place around the sun and who knows what all.

Thomas, as the only wisdom figure in the film, uses this sexual tension in an object lesson designed to push Nina into discovering her shadow black swan. He turns her on sexually when they are alone one evening, and then walks away, telling her what had just happened; he just seduced her, but she was supposed to be seducing him, seducing the audience. Nina is terrified by the prospect of seducing because it is associated with being seen as a whore, and the shadow whore shows up as soon as she has the Swan Lake part, when she finds “WHORE” written in the mirror of the backstage bathroom. As a very attractive, overprotected woman, she has undoubtedly been trained to behave in ways which would be unmistakably UN-whore-like, with her little girl coat and her hair tied back severely. She’s avoiding that particular responsibility of human adulthood. Sex for her is in the shadow, as Thomas knows.

Yet the lurid shadow side of sex haunts her throughout the film, when a horny old guy makes lewd gestures on the train, when Beth accuses her of being a whore. This is the haunting, dark, shadow side of her repressed sexuality coming up, her guilt and fear and discomfort with relaxing and enjoying herself, letting go, living a little, as Lily and Thomas say, with even masturbating. The fact that she is so enmeshed with her mother is clearly one reason for this shadow-heavy state of affairs, as Nina starts getting totally into a hot and heavy masturbation in her own bedroom, which for most people would be private space, only to see her mother in the chair, which puts the end to any of that uncontrolled, self-intimate fun. Her mother is still trying to protect her from sexual relationships, which she fears could derail the controlled professional dancing goals both she and Nina have invested in for so many years. Also, Mommy fears that Nina will repeat her “mistake” of becoming impregnated by a man who will not help in child raising.

Nina’s mother is the most obvious loan from Snow White, though there are many transformational tales for girls and women that feature the evil stepmother. In fact, folklorists I’ve read say that the older versions of Snow White and other “stepmother” stories were about mothers, not stepmothers. The stepmother thing was supposedly added as a clean-up when the collectors two or three hundred years ago wanted to publish the oral tradition as collections of children’s stories. They didn’t want to freak the little kiddies out. It is widely agreed upon that these male authors, who obtained their stories from women, Christianized, moralized, and otherwise updated the tales to fit their own post-Enlightenment perspectives. Indeed, there are few contemporary lovers and publishers of fairy tales who are in agreement with the symbolic, transformational perspective here presented; more “scientific” historical and psychosocial interpretation are most popular. So I was happy to see the mother depicted as — the mother! Mostly because, from a symbolic perspective, it states a great developmental truth; our parents and other caretakers live within us in outdated, distorted ways, and as long as we don’t explore how it is that we harbor their presence for good or bad, we can’t choose to change the ways these internal constructs affect our experience of life. We can’t take what we need from those relationship experiences and leave the rest.

Nina’s mother is depicted so perfectly, as a woman whose inability to realize her dreams, to “perfect” her art, turns her into an overbearing control freak, living as though her daughter were her little puppet, her little “Mini-Me”. Yet the portrayal also brings us into the crux of the magic spell; for love and tenderness are felt there, too. This sort of Doctor Jekyll-Mr. Hyde thing is what keeps all controlling relationships rolling, and is emblematic of long-term spousal abuse. The controlling/abusive one begins as doting, often idealistic lover, and may remain in that role as long as the controlled one’s behaviors remain within the controller’s comfort zone. When the controlled steps outside of the comfort zone, the controller slides or slams into some kind of sorcerer’s evil rage, only to wake up next morning back in the role of regretful, adoring one again, and the circle is complete — for now.

The most obvious indication of Nina’s Mommy’s own painful creative sterility is the wall in her bedroom plastered with amateurish self portraits and portraits of Nina; I think they might have thrown up a few of Beth, as clues for the symbolists in the audience. The paintings, due to their coloration and general rendering style, make it sometimes difficult to discern if they are depictions of Nina, or Mother as a younger woman, sometimes. I guess the general audience thought the pictures’ mobile eyes were just another indication that Nina was going nuts, but from the shadow work perspective, it means Nina’s experiencing another view.

Mother’s paintings are a record of her retarded view of Nina, or perhaps more precisely, Nina’s internalized mother’s retarded view of her. When the pictures move their eyes and talk, these perspectives have just “come alive” for Nina; she can feel them, they are no longer a mental picture, two-dimensional information, redundant stories of “When I was your age…” and blah, blah, blah. Lots of times our parents have actually moved on to other things, but we still harbor these childhood parental perspectives inside, whether they ever were really those held by our parents, or not. Children can’t really understand parents, after all — their motives, responsibilities, their personal challenges. Old unexamined parental stuff typically causes all kinds of authority issues.

The theme of rubedo sacrifice, and its often unhealthy, retarded aspect, martyrdom, comes in early, too. Early on we see Nina is itching for change, for sacrifice, scratching and hurting herself, causing blood to flow, a scene that reminds us of the ubiquitous, usually female and adolescent behavior of cutting. The unhealthy, hung up, dependent, martyring aspect of sacrifice is presented in the scene where Nina and her Mom are working on her ballet shoes in the living room, and Mom advises Nina not to make the same mistake she made — getting pregnant with Nina, and giving up her career. “What career?” asks Nina scornfully, thinking of the amateurish paintings. She had seen her mother sobbing in front of them, dabbing ineffectually at one with a paintbrush. Like any competitively hard working young son or daughter adolescent or older, Nina feels she has done more than enough to try to make the parent happy, to compensate for any implied or blatantly expressed parental sacrifice made to ensure the child’s comfort or competitive success.

Most children, at even a very young age but increasingly in adolescence, will instinctively feel this prolonged sacrifice of the caretaker’s freedom, of the parents’ creative life, as a martyrdom, as a burden, a relationship cross that all participants are asked to lug around. They feel its unhealthy, futile expectation that the children’s actions could ever heal the wounds and stuck shadow spells of their parents’ and caretakers’ lives, that they could ever hope to fill up such leaky psychological buckets. It is hard enough for us to find the way through the terrain of our own fates and destinies without trying to drag others along, others who insist on remaining stuck in old roles and identifications. As inhabitants of the Earth, we must periodically let go of old perspectives, we must update, if we want to allow new creative energies to flow into our lives, if we want to realize our potential. This new creativity is often symbolized by wings, and Nina’s wings sprout where she had been drawing blood, trying to scratch away the old skin to get to the new. The bloody fingers and the nail clipping is part of that symbolism, as feathers grow on the “fingers” of birds as well. Mother’s overzealous nail clipping then becomes an apt metaphor for clipping Nina’s wings, just as she experiences her motherhood as a clipping of her own wings.

Sacrifice is evident in Nina’s stripping her toe shoes of padding and damaging her feet, those parts of our body that represent our way of moving towards our destinies. There’s a lot of shots in the film of toe dancing, en pointe, which might symbolize the perfectionist, upward-aspiring, ethereal tendencies of the art of ballet, where thin, bird-like women are flown through the air by strong masculine bodies. Interestingly, Nina doesn’t really transform until she develops some understanding of her mother’s former sacrifice of her own artistic aspirations, a sacrifice which is now stuck in martyring. Nina will embody the understanding of her mother’s stuck sacrifice through stepping into Beth’s metaphorical shoes, and understanding something about the tenuousness of any position of outward power, perfection, or authority.

When Nina feels she is about to lose her new prima ballerina position to Lily, she empathizes with Beth, who so recently lost her worldly position of power and authority to Nina. Nina becomes emotional and paranoid, and rushes to see Beth in the hospital and apologize, saying “I know how you’re feeling now, I came to apologize.” There is no going back, though, no way for Nina to “make up”, to set things right. She can’t be the “good girl” here, as she has for so many years with Mommy. She has to witness the fact that moving forward to her own development means, among other things, the ability to face whatever destruction and pain that might cause to the old. After Beth’s self mutilation scene, Nina anxiously rushes home, washing Beth’s blood of responsibility from her hands, and sees her mother, looking like a fairy tale stepmother-witch, a frightening shadow figure, in the kitchen. Mother’s pictures are all speaking; Nina is now empathizing with the same fears her mother, and Beth, must be experiencing, which hold them in stuck patterns, fears of loss of identity, of authority, of power. The connection between the internal experience of Beth and Mother is made clear when Beth comes into the bedroom, all bloodied, and morphs into Mother.

At this realization, this deep experiencing, of her Mom’s and Beth’s positions of authority, of sacrifice and its blocked, martyring forms, Nina’s internally directed transformation ramps up. Her black swan feathers start to pop out; her eyes go red. Mother tries to break into the room, to stop this personal development, as she always has before, but Nina is so taken by her transformational process that she stops at nothing to force the mother out of her personal space. This scene where the previously compliant Nina realizes she will have to get mean, to hurt someone, in order to be allowed the space to develop, to become her true self rather than the self which others would like her to be, is enacted frequently in the lives of adolescents. Nina is basically doing what adolescents are innately designed to do; finding ways to disconnect from old identifications, to fight for their souls, to wildly and instinctually sacrifice anything that gets in the way of growth. Nina previously missed that developmental task, as symbolized by her overabundance of pink stuffed bunnies and other toys.

The understanding of parent(s)/childhood caretaker(s) as flawed and sometimes suffering human beings, rather than childhood’s largely idealized and/or hierarchically powerful authority, is important in Jungian development. This is called individuation. Until we experience our parents as individuals, we are not free to be individuals, either. We will be acting roles, like perfect little pink daughter, and supporting the roles of others, like martyring parent. Roles can themselves be spells which elicit habitual responses to life. Nina’s mother may seem to be supportive of her daughter, but she has also, within her own psyche, co-opted Nina’s success, keeping both of them from experiencing their individuality.

As long as Nina accepts her mother’s loving but overbearing help, and remains intimately enmeshed with her, not making her own choices and needing personal space, Mom can bask in Nina’s glory like it was partly her own. She is still the matriarchal queen, who protects and controls both of these people who make up her tiny kingdom. But Nina, through her desperate, violent, passionate insistence on her own personal space, makes the truth of the situation evident; there are really two distinct individuals here. Mommy is a woman who has martyred her own creativity to her daughter’s way past the sell by date, the mother-queen falls from that imagined position or throne, and Nina’s creative success is separated, individuated, from her mother’s. Now Mom will have to face the responsibility of claiming her own creative life, a transformation that frightens many women when their children have grown, and it’s time to drop the Mini-Me game, look inside for a “new you”, and work at dissolving inhibiting habits and identifications.

Beth has probably martyred herself, too, made some unhealthy sacrifices, traded her body and her affections to further her perfectionistic ambition. There is Beth’s implied previous dependent, “whorish” sexual relationship with Thomas, covered up by alcoholic behaviors, by addiction. Like the mother, Beth’s position is dependent on the affections of others, and on the common human illusion that one’s affections and favors (caretaking by mother, sexual intercourse in Beth’s case) can be traded to ensure the stability of a given position of power and identification. In that position of dependency, our creativity must always bend to those relationship roles, requirements, habits and constraints. When both Beth and Nina’s Mom are divested of their power within Nina’s psyche, she will have access to the energies previously given away to those figures. This new energy will allow Nina to seduce the audience with her wholeness, to “be great”, to open herself to surprise rather than relying always on hard work, to defend herself and stand up for herself, as she does so coolly when it seems Lily will be dancing for her on opening night. She now embodies the best of the dark which was previously experienced as threatening, as fear, and the wise figure of Thomas smiles when he witnesses these blossoming powers and potentialities.

The last scene, where it turns out that Nina didn’t sacrifice/kill Lily, but rather herself, is a pretty obvious reference to shadow work and its requirement of sacrifice. It also clearly portrays the fact that Lily is really an aspect of Nina. Nina is quite obviously transformed at this end point; fairy tales end at the point of transformation, since that was the objective of the story all along. As a matter of fact, stories in general do so; most stories require just enough epilogue following the story’s dramatic crisis to show that the protagonist has changed. When Nina makes white Odette’s Swan Lake sacrificial leap onto the mattress behind the platform, Nina’s voice and face are filled with acceptance, as Thomas recommended during her rehearsal of the leap. Acceptance is a transcendent state. She is in white again, signifying the albedo, the state of purification which follows the sacrifice, the death, of the old ways of being and doing. Lying on the mattress in a sort of ecstatic state, Nina says “I felt it. Perfect. It was perfect.” Rather than using her body like a controlled machine, she has finally felt the flow. She has “lost herself”, made conscious the previously hidden aspect of her very powerful artistic gift, witnessed to by the excited audience, whom Nina has just surprised into the transcendence that art can lend to anyone. The two opposites of control and flow together consummate the inner marriage. She has completed her initiation, with the help of Thomas and Lily, and Sleeping Beauty’s castle can awaken, those once briar-hidden walls now penetrated.

I discovered that Natalie Portman received an Oscar for her role in Black Swan, and I certainly was impressed by the excellence of her performance. However, I also discovered there was a scandal attached to her success. Her dancing double was hushed by the “authorities”, the filmmakers and their PR, I guess, to stay mum about how much dancing Natalie had actually done. It says much about our human love of fantasy and our innate ability to project perfection onto others, just as Nina does in the film, when we as audience imagine that an actress can learn professional level ballet in a year. Or maybe it’s more a case of ignorance; most people haven’t ever attended a ballet class. I have. I still would have liked to believe that Natalie could do more than is humanly possible, though, just as I wish the same for myself.

I had the magic fairy godmother of the internet to consult, though. The suppression of the “imperfect” aspect of Natalie’s performance — the fact that she had to use someone else’s dancing body — became shadow material, in the case of the filmmaking. The covering up of this CGI truth was pretty much an echo of the hang-ups about imperfection which haunted the film’s protagonist, Nina — and all of us. The filmmakers, hoping to reach the top, a sort of hierarchical perfection, had to martyr someone (Sarah Lane from the American Ballet Theater company), putting her in shadow, silencing her voice and her claim to her own creative efforts, so that Natalie Portman, and the filmmakers by proxy, could shine all the more brightly, however much suffering that lie caused for anyone. Interesting how art always imitates life…

Colleen Szabo returned to school after raising kids in the boonies of northern New Mexico, finishing with an MA in transpersonal psychology. Retreating to the ancestral lands lakeside in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, she is working on a manuscript for young adults, “the course I would teach at Hogwart’s”, and a book on spiritual emergency. Visit her website at