Tchaikovsky Reimagined

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, a Russian composer, and widely considered one of the greatest that the classical world has to offer. His works, The Nutcracker, Romeo and Juliet, 1812 Overture, are household names, but none more renowned than Swan Lake. Despite its initial floundering, the ballet has gone on to become a success, going from the Bolshoi to the David H. Koch Theater. Fast-forward to 2010, Black Swan is the à la mode version of the 1875 Swan Lake. In Darren Aronofsky’s swarthy work, the ballet, like the girl, metamorphoses into something wildly bleaker. Try as hard as she might, ambition swinging in full force, once she dips a finger into the madness, something might just reach out and drag her into the depths. 

The ballet tells the story of a woman who has been transformed into a swan — Odette — by an evil sorcerer. Only a man’s promise of unconditional and eternal love for her can break the spell. Aronofsky’s reconfiguration of the ballet’s German-based folk tale into a contemporary setting converts Odette’s enchantment into a hallucinogenic form of psychosis: Nina, the ballerina who will dance the dual role of Odette and the sorcerer’s evil-twin fabrication, black swan Odile, is a dancer obsessed with perfection and whose fragile psyche ultimately crumbles under the pressure of competition and performance.

Black Swan was noted for its excellence, being nominated for Best Movie and Cinematography, whilst Natalie Portman brought home Best Actress for her shining performance as Nina Sayers. However, the same prestige could not be said for the soundtrack; taken from Tchaikovsky’s original, and tailored differently by Clint Mansell and Matt Dunkley. It did not even make it past qualification for Best Original Score’s entry in the 2011 Academy Awards.

Aronofsky was frank when asked about his film’s dismissal for recognition in its soundtrack. “There’s a lot of Tchaikovsky, and it’s so recognizable — but so much of it is Clint. There’s a lot of original stuff in it. … They’ve been stealing from [Tchaikovsky] for a long time, and Clint’s just being more honest about it. It’s a shame, because there’s a lot more work put into this than normal scores. You’ve got to basically pull it apart and reinterpret it for the screen.” The biggest flaw with Black Swan’s music, if there was any, is how distinct it is. When used to no end, the familiarity can undercut the surreal quality of Nina’s psychosis, where the same music is supposed to advance the backdrop. Unpredictability is the ballerina’s best friend, along with her deteriorating mental state, and so the frisson that Swan Lake’s most frantic pieces give the most devastating effects.

And films, regardless, need a different kind of musical presence. “Classical scores go up and down, they’re kind of hysterical in a way,” Aronofsky has said. “ Movie scores … just drive and move forward, and they build and can’t go up and down at that same speed. It’s a big job to turn that into something that pushes the movie along”. That’s an interesting and revealing way of looking at classical music, one that privileges movie music for its functionality and not its inability to understand the emotionality and ordered structure of concert music. Even so, the remarkable thing about the movie is how much Tchaikovsky is a presence. Aronofsky’s collaborator since the director’s first feature film, Pi, composer Mansell has, for Black Swan, used the Tchaikovsky score throughout the film, threading it through such radically different environments as the scenes in Nina’s bedroom, where some of her most disturbing fantasies occur, and the jazz/rock-and-roll club scenes. The varieties of music through which the Tchaikovsky runs form a subtle patchwork that is both restrained and post-modern, but are nowhere near pastiche.

It should be commended that the filmmakers were astute enough to realize the power of the original music in more unadulterated forms, commencing with a gentler sylvan oboe solo, then mutating into the overly dramatic. Essentially, Tchaikovsky’s most exquisite sections pave way to the harshest realities of this folktale, where the evil sorcerer leaves a sour taste for everyone. 

The most evident part of the film is the transcendent ballet sequences, promoting the very characteristic that makes Tchaikovsky’s score so wonderful. Ethereal, the action goes well with the emotionally saturated music. Ergo, a combined effort of choreography and music, renders Black Swan magical, swan-like, and ultimately, chimerical. 

Like many drama films, Black Swan is an exaggerated depiction of the everyday life of a ballet dancer, voire même the professional and regimented art of ballet. In any working field, it is highly bizarre that someone of Nina’s psychological fragility could rise to claim the role of Swan Queen in the first place. Away from the imaginative, reality is what creates emotional anxiety. Imagination is simply, a tool to boost the real. It is fascinating to witness the machines of ballet; pointe shoes, ribbons, rosin, and unadorned rooms with mirrored walls, all prime features of a ballet rehearsal. Perhaps, more than anything, the most universal sense the audience is given of ballet is dispatched by the piano. As far as Tchaikovsky goes, the majority of musical background is accompanied by the piano, since it is indeed the most common live accompaniment of a ballerina. During the sweetly plangent duet in which Odette and the Prince besot with each other, the pianist and the violinist profit from the power of the original music, to once again enamour the audience in the crowd, and also in front of the screen.

So is there a difference between the music felt by the dancers and the music by the audience? Aronofsky is insightful enough to educate his followers on the unexpected perspective of music. Film moves through time, extending the plot. It is obvious that soundtracks are not there just as a piano accompaniment. Black Swan reveals each scene’s true emotional intent, via carefully selected pieces which are not just classical. Actors, they know what emotions to cue because they are told to do so, and yet, the audience cannot necessarily know this every time. Imagine a man staring into a camera, emotionless. It is damn near impossible to tell his mental state. Throw in some light-hearted or ominous background music, and still not everything is confirmed. Music, reveals all.

For dancers, music takes a larger and more dominant role. To compliment a dancer’s musicality is high praise, and it’s not too much to say that dancers love music. It is their guiding presence, not simply in a mechanical way but in an aesthetic one as well. It pervades their work life. Though athletic skill is absolutely necessary for dancers, so, and perhaps even more so, is sensitivity to music and the ability to feel music emotionally. So the answer is that music creates an emotional landscape for both film audience and dancer to live within, but in matters of degree. There is a conscious surrender, perhaps, that the dancer makes to music, and that transforms him or her into something iconic and scintillating. Mansell was tasked with reinvigorating his source materials, spiking its old hallucination with a bout of contemporary tenebrosity. He succeeded. 

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