Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 Black Swan is a contemporary remake of the 1875 ballet Swan Lake, with music by Tchaikovsky. The ballet is metamorphosed into a horror thriller, one that’s part of the “ambition drives women mad” film genre.

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.

Although Black Swan was nominated for Best Movie and Cinematography, and though Natalie Portman won Best Actress for her portrayal of ballerina Nina Sayers, the movie’s score ( based on Tchaikovsky’s original for the ballet, and adapted and arranged by Clint Mansell and Matt Dunkley ) was disqualified for entry into the 2011 Academy Awards for Best Original Score.

In a 2010 interview with Katey Rich, Aronofsky commented, “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.” According to Aronofsky, part of the problem lies in how recognizable the music is, which he suggests is due to its prevalence in popular film: “if you had laid the Tchaikovsky over the film it would never have worked. It’s been used in Bugs Bunny and Volkswagen commercials, it’s been in the public domain for years”... Overuse creates a familiarity that undercuts the surreal quality of Nina’s imaginings, which the music provides a backdrop for. The ballerina’s deteriorating mental state needs that frisson of the unpredictable to be truly frightening.

And movies, 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.

Further, the creative team was savvy to the power of the original music in its more unadulterated forms, beginning the movie with one of the more exquisite sections of Tchaikovsky’s score, the opening act with its sweet and sylvan oboe solo, a theme which quickly morphs into highly dramatic music with the appearance of the evil sorcerer and his enchantment of Odette. 

Yet it is during the actual dance scenes that the Tchaikovsky score is most apparent – the action most dreamlike, the music most emotionally saturated. Thus combined, choreography and music lend Black Swan the ballet’s mythical treatment of love and magical evil.

Though I find much of the characterization in the movie exaggerated and difficult to believe for the highly disciplined and professional world of ballet – it is very unusual for someone that psychologically fragile to rise to the level portrayed, though lapses have happened – I did find the environment believable. And, although the film depends on the imaginary and nightmarish, realism is necessary to create emotional anxiety. Imagination must bump up to the real. The scenes where dancers break in their pointe shoes, sew on ribbons, and crush rosin in the box (why are those boxes always so small?) and the stark open rooms with their mirrored walls, are all unfailingly realistic. But perhaps, more than anything, the most prevalent and accurate sense the viewer gets of the world of ballet is conveyed through the studio piano. Much of the musical background of the film is the piano, solitary but always vibrant because it is live accompaniment to class and rehearsal. The rehearsal of the love duet was filmed with both a pianist and a violinist, Simon Chamberlain and Tim Fain, respectively. This allowed the audience to savor the sweetly plangent duet in which the Prince and Odette fall in love, taking advantage again of the power of the original music.

This brings me to the question that I posed myself when I began this article: Is there a difference between music as it is experienced by the film audience and music as it is experienced by dancers? Aronofsky’s comments certainly reveal an unexpected view of music: that it is about the film’s movement through time, that it augments the plot. Generally, however, I think the viewer experiences movie music as the feature that reveals the true emotional meaning of the film scene. This is not experienced by the actors, who know what emotions they need to express but don’t hear the musical edit until the film reaches the theater. It’s easy to imagine an example of a woman walking down stairs. If not for the ominous or light-hearted background music, we may not be able to read the expression on her face and in her body clearly. With music almost all is revealed.

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.