by Vannah Taylor

“From now on, she’ll know how much practicing and sheer will she’s got in her to say ‘I can do as well. I can be better. I’m the best.’ Only in this case can she become a success. Nobody told me that.” (Possession 1981, dir. Andrzej Zulawski)

To be a ballerina is to strive for perfection, to be beautiful. But this beauty is haunted by tragedy both on and off the stage. On stage, the ballerina is thought to be an ethereal, pure, and fragile being. Maidens and princesses in search of love and dying of broken hearts. Images of traditional femininity. Hidden backstage is the fierce technicality and strenuous physical and psychological training needed to achieve such an image. Beauty and pain are the pillars of the art, making “blood, sweat, and tears” merely an understatement for the sacrifices that young women make in the pursuit of careers as ballet dancers.

I first waltzed into an introductory ballet class in 2003. In our pink tights and puffs of tulle, running around and making butterflies with our feet, we were infatuated by beautiful ballerinas in their pancake tutus bedazzled with rhinestones. But no one tells little girls what they will have to do to become these beautiful ballerinas. Once old enough to receive more formal training, the most fundamental words I remember being ingrained in me were “if it doesn’t hurt, you’re not doing it right.” Grotesque contortions of the body formulate delicate tableaus—feet turned out, knees pulled up, hips turned out, tailbone down, a tightened stomach, rib cage in, shoulders down, chest wide, chin up. You become accustomed to being pinched and prodded, slapped in the back, nails running up the back of your leg, pushing and pulling on your arms and legs—a marionette in an opera of beauty.

I sewed ribbons onto my first pair of pointe shoes when I was 13. After this exciting achievement, as a young dancer, you become accustomed to another sacrifice for beauty, disguised behind pink tights and theater lights—taping, icing, and wrapping the calloused skin, missing toenails, and blisters that bleed through the cardboard, paste and pink satin that compose the tips of your pointe shoes.

As your passion emboldens, so does the commitment to endure ballet’s physical demands and to prove yourself—to your ballet master, to your peers, and yourself. You also learn what sacrifices need to be made. Dates with friends for ballet classes. School dances for rehearsals. Holiday vacations for performance weekends. Dinner for that costume that almost fits.

Screenshot from Black Swan showing a close up of Nina's (Nathalie Portman)  eyes turning into red swan eyes.

The sacrifice runs deeper.

Ballet has been essential in my upbringing and has informed my sense of self—the pastime that engulfed my formative years plays an integral role in my identity and my self-esteem. The physical training in the ballet school is paralleled by conditioning dancers to understand certain ideas of beauty, traditional virtues of femininity, and a normalization of an imbalanced definition of commitment and discipline. Hegemonic beauty ideals that privilege the thin white feminine body within the ballet community cause sacrifice to become synonymous with repression and abuse.

The life of a ballerina is psychological horror. It is no wonder that the aesthetics of ballet have been utilized to call on themes of repression, abuse, obsession, and sacrifice in films such as The Red Shoes (1948), Suspiria (1977), Possession (1981), and Black Swan (2010)—the most impactful of these representations on my relationship to ballet being Possession and Black Swan. As a lifelong ballet dancer, I am no stranger to the conformity and repression that ballet training forces upon young women, but it was not until I first watched Possession (1981) that I pondered the utilization of ballet in horror and called into question my own relationship between identity and ballet. I have found that there has always been a conflict between the passion I feel for ballet and my resistance to the conformity that it demands—much like Anna.

When reflecting on Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (1981), one might think of the infamous subway scene, the slimy tentacles lurking in the dark, or even the uncanny gaze of the doppelgangers—but perhaps not the ballet class. Possession is a hysterical descent into madness, a sinister pas de deux between Anna and Mark who separately explore the meaning of identity and violate the boundaries between good and evil amidst their crumbling marriage.

Mark receives a recording, shot by Anna’s lover Heinrich, in which we witness Anna teaching a ballet class. More specifically, she is seen correcting a student—her commands stinging as her eyes pierce the viewer through the camera. For many, this scene might be just one uncomfortable moment amidst the never-ending chaos that is the second half of the film, one of the only scenes that is not oozing with blood, mucus, and filth. But as a ballet dancer, this scene oozes a different kind of familiar insidiousness.

Placing Anna within a ballet school invokes themes of control, repression, and conformity. Uniformed dancers mechanically follow her instruction. Individuality is absent—after all, in my traditional Vaganova training, we are taught that you can only become a soloist once you’ve proven your ability for synchronicity in the corps de ballet.

Screenshot from Possession showing Anna (Isabelle Adjani) assisting a ballet student who is struggling to stay en pointe.

“Hold it. Hold it. Hold it.”

As the ballet teacher, Anna is desperately trying to show us that she is the student—crumbling under the repressive forces that demand conformity until she can no longer “hold it.” Until she screams and screams and screams. Anna feels claustrophobic in her marriage and her desires are constantly restrained by others who demand an obedient and reserved woman. This ballet scene is where Anna engages in a monologue revealing her inability to cope with trying to be this woman. Her search for autonomy and the pursuit of her desires causes her miscarriage of faith. Anna is oozing feminine rage. I have never related to anything more than the urge to scream and thrash and assume my place amongst the filth.

The fantasy of ideal femininity that she is struggling against is embodied by Helen, Anna’s quaint and soft doppelganger draped in white—the color of purity. Doppelgangers serve as a mirror to reflect the duality of self, defined in Anna’s monologue as she states that “goodness is only some kind of reflection upon evil.” While ballet is not the backdrop of the entire film, the aesthetics of ballet are utilized to represent Anna’s battle for identity.

Another film that explores perfection, conformity, and sacrifice is Darron Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010). Unlike Possession, which utilizes ballet only as a subtextual vignette to give insight into Anna’s inner conflict, ballet outwardly serves as the setting and plot of Black Swan. Reminiscent of Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell’s The Red Shoes (1948), Black Swan follows an aspiring ballerina (tightly wound and naïve Nina portrayed by Natalie Portman) overtaken by her obsession with perfecting her craft and haunted by shadows of jealousy and desire in the form of a lustful foil (the seductively doe-eyed siren that is Mila Kunis’ Lily). From being the only dancer in pointe shoes at the barre to bulimia and picking at her skin—Nina’s only sense of purpose is perfection.

True horror is built into the foundation—the tragic ballet inspiring the film, Swan Lake. Vincent Cassel’s venomous portrayal of Thomas Leroy, the artistic director, delivers the synopsis:

“Virgin girl, pure and sweet, trapped in the body of a swan. She desires freedom, but only true love can break the spell. Her wish is nearly granted in the form of a prince but before he can declare his love, her lustful twin—the black swan—tricks and seduces him. Devastated, the white swan leaps off a cliff, killing herself—and in death, finds freedom.”

The White Swan embodies not only purity but repression and the desire for freedom. “That evil force is pulling you that you can’t escape, that’s just out of your control.” While in Possession, Anna is trapped by marriage and motherhood, constricted by the grip of a husband in denial. Nina’s pink ruffled and butterfly embellished bedroom, under her mother’s constant supervision, serves as her repressive prison. Both films make use of sequences of arc shots as our protagonist’s dance around the frame, spinning and closing in, which give a feeling of claustrophobia, making me dizzy with the desire to break free, to break the spell.

The purity of the White Swan is contrasted by her evil twin, the Black Swan—a doppelganger to reflect the conflict between good and evil. Nina, like Anna’s green-eyed doppelganger, is an image of beauty, perfection, femininity, and purity. But when Nina finally dances the Black Swan, feelings of desire and self-assured freedom radiate from her manèges. The role of the doppelganger is to serve as a mirror image reflecting the duality of self, two sides to the same coin. The doppelganger calls into question what it means to be good or to be evil, if we can embody the White Swan and Black Swan, can Sister Chance and Sister Faith exist within us. But repressive forces pull too heavy, and only in death does she find freedom.

Black Swan very specifically explores the debilitating pressure that dancers face from themselves, their teachers, and their parents to be perfect. Initially, this portrayal of ballet culture caused me (and many dancers that I know) to have a very negative reaction to the film—feeling that it was reductive and an overgeneralization of ballet dancers. When I tell people I am a ballerina, they ask, “like Black Swan?” Are we all innocent, sheltered girls who starve ourselves and endure abuse from our teachers?

Screenshot from Possession showing a closeup of Anna (Isabelle Adjani) looking into the camera as she assists a student struggling to stay en pointe. Through the closeup we can see her expression of callousness and borderline apathy for the student.

However, my sentiment has changed. The first time I watched Possession (1981), I was completely enamored with Isabelle Adjani’s visceral performance as Anna and I saw myself so clearly in her portrayal of feminine rage. As a ballet dancer, I also found myself intrigued by the role of ballet in Anna’s life and the feelings of repression it stirred in my mind—profoundly affecting me while seemingly overlooked by many. When this scene is explored, it is often described as Anna “abusing” a student, but my perspective as a dancer caused me to say, “that’s not abuse, that’s typical.” Why is it that what we do is seen as abuse? Or, perhaps, why don’t we see what we do as abuse? This inquiry is not to demonize the art, or imply that my ballet teachers share the insidious intentions of Suspiria’s malevolent Helena Markos, but to invite reflection on the long-standing tradition of normalizing the abuse of the body and repression of self as a necessary sacrifice for ballet.

As a queer person who struggles with society’s expectation of femininity, I have come to realize the extent to which I have repressed my own self-expression to conform to hegemonic beauty standards in order to satisfy the gaze of others—specifically in relation to how my identity as a ballerina has influenced the way I perform gender around my peers. In my personal life, I am an angry, passionate, and self-proclaimed feral woman with no desire to perform traditional roles assigned to my gender. But Possession catalyzed a self-exploration that led to the realization that I have been my own doppelganger. When I step into my ballet studio, I cover myself and wish to not be seen. I conform to the expectations that others wish to see in me. I cover my body because it is not thin enough. I cover my tattoos because my skin is no longer virgin. I hide the piercings that penetrate my face. I keep quiet because I don’t share the faith or politics of my conservative hometown. I am a shell of who I left at the door because I am not the delicate maiden that ballet demands I become.

Upon revisiting Black Swan, the film developed a different resonance, striking a different chord. I found myself in mourning—mourning all the girls who let parts of themselves die in pursuit of perfection and mourning the person I could have always been. I have since leaned into my affinity for the macabre—and discovered a community of people like me, people who find beauty in the grotesque. I have always had a love for horror films, but never realized this love could blossom into undying support and reassurance from a community of people who live unapologetically as themselves.

As I write this, I feel a rush of ecstasy in realizing that I have never felt more like myself, that I have learned to unapologetically live my truth, and take myself up in a warm embrace. I no longer hide myself in a shadow. My passion for ballet does not cease and I find myself tremendously more in love as I begin to dance as myself.

“The only person standing in your way is you. It’s time to let her go.”

Is she the Black Swan or the White Swan? Is she Sister Chance or Sister Faith?

I don’t know, but I love her.

Screenshot from Black Swan showing Nina (Nathalie Portman) in a spotlight on stage with the rest of the room darkened.

Vannah is a Masters candidate at San Diego State University in Sociology focusing her thesis on analyzing popular rape-revenge horror films from a feminist perspective and how the narratives of these films have shifted over time. Other work can be found in Hear us Zine Issue #1: Summertime Madness. (Twitter: @horrorhellion | Instagram: @thehorrorhellion)

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