Inside each of us is a shadow.
For Natalie Portman’s brittle ballerina in The Black Swan, that shadow could have been her salvation. Instead, it drove her mad.
In Jungian psychological terms, our shadows are the parts of us that we deny, but which must be explored and incorporated in order for us to be whole. One way to work with the shadow is to draw it out in order to explore its attributes more fully. When we know our shadows, we come closer to knowing our whole selves.
I couldn’t stop thinking about that concept as I watched The Black Swan. It seemed so clear to me that the real challenge for Nina (Natalie Portman) was not dancing for an audience. Her challenge was to learn to waltz with her shadow.
The plot of the movie stems from the ballet master’s decision to have one dancer embody both the Black and White swans. In the Swan Lake ballet, those roles usually are danced by two different ballerinas. The White Swan is the innocent virgin who can be saved from a curse by a prince’s love. The Black Swan is her primal, sexual twin who seduces the prince away. The ballet ends with the White Swan’s suicide.
By having one ballerina dance both parts, the symbolism shifts. It is no longer a contest between the archetypal virgin and whore. The ballet now explores the truth that all of us have both parts—virgin and whore—within us.
Ballet master Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) refers to Nina as a “frigid little girl.” And she is. She sleeps alone in her pink childhood bedroom. Her mommy wakes her up each morning and serves her a breakfast of a half-grapefruit and poached egg. She spends her evenings practicing alone in her room, the hours she’s spent in the studio not enough to make her as perfect as she wishes to be.
She dances her White Swan audition with precise, controlled perfection—then is literally blown off her toe shoes by the arrival of Mila Kunis’ Lily.Lily is vital, sensual. She eats cheeseburgers. She smokes. She sleeps with strangers. She dances with the sensual abandon than infuses her life. In a conventional production, she’d be the obvious choice to play Black Swan to Nina’s White.
Everything Nina has repressed, Lily celebrates. No wonder Nina goes mad. Unable to bring out and incorporate her own shadow material, she sees it in Lily. The one person whose approval she most craves–Thomas–holds Lily up as the sensual, Black Swan ideal.
Nina reveals that she has always worked for perfection thinking that if she could become perfect she would be loved. And yet, she so clearly does not love herself. Her self-loathing is shown as a neurotic obsession to claw her own flesh. She seems to hate the body that is the vehicle of her art. She tries twice in the film to masturbate to get in touch with her own sensuality—and fails both times. The most ardently sexual she becomes is during a drug-fueled fantasy of making love with Lily.
If only Nina had been able to consciously make love to her own interior shadow with such ardor, she might not have gone mad. If only she had been able to waltz with the repressed part of herself, she might have become whole. That was what the role called for. That is what full humanity calls for. It’s one of the things we do in my tradition: learn to embrace, dance with, love our shadow selves. It’s not easy. I’m still working on it. After years of study, I still am startled by the dark and light twins inside myself. But I think becoming my whole self is worth the effort.
Black Swan, White Swan. Dark Twin, Light Twin. In the dance and mating of those two halves we find our whole selves. And if we cannot bring the two to wholeness, well, we may not go mad. But we will not fully live.
That is the message I took from The Black Swan.