Black and white. Darkness and light. Right and wrong. Good and evil. Hero and villain. These dichotomies are always present in Black Swan. As Nina Sayers’ ballet director goes on to say, “We all know the story,” referring to the ballet of Swan Lake. And even if you don’t, you’re probably familiar with all of its story tropes. The white swan–gorgeous and pristine–is established by the opening dance. As Nina sits angelically on the floor and flaps her wings like a bird, its easy to make presumptions about her character and identify her as our main protagonist.
This opening sequence, as later explained by Nina, is her dream of dancing the white swan in the prologue. She explains that in this scene, the white swan gets a spell cast on her by Rothbart which turns her into a swan. It is noticeable to point out that Rothbart is dressed in black (above). We’ll come to find that this dream of hers represents her dreams in real life.
Wearing pink, we meet Nina Sayers in real life as played by Natalie Portman describing a grapefruit as being “pink, so pretty.” Her mother, as played by Barbara Hershey, points out that Nina is in a good mood and she explains that she was promised to secure a more prominent role in her ballet company. In this first interaction with her mother, our assumptions about Nina as the perfect white swan already starts to deteriorate as she’s found to have scratches on her back. Her mother asks, “What’s that?” And then proceeds to ask if Nina would liked to be accompanied to her dance studio, calling her “sweet girl.” How old is Nina again?
In the subway ride to work, Nina starts to show signs of paranormal behavior by taking particular notice of a doppelganger dressed in black. Is this Rothbart from the prologue here to cast a spell on Nina? Why is Rothbart, the supposed villain of Swan Lake, Nina’s look-alike?
As Nina prepares for rehearsal in the dressing room, Lily as played by Mila Kunis makes her appearance with shockingly similar attire to the doppelganger Nina saw on the train. Quickly and efficiently, Aronofsky is posing questions to the audience and leaving many of them answered for now. Why does Lily wear similar clothing to that doppelganger? Why is Nina seeing doppelgangers? Why is Lily wearing black in contrast to Nina’s white? Who is Lily? Is she the black swan or is she Rothbart? These questions drive the story forward and keeps our interest in the developing screenplay.
Then there’s the entrance of Thomas Leroy, the ballet director of the company. As soon as he walks in, everyone takes off their pants to rehearse in spandex leggings. In these subtle but strange occurrences in Aronofsky’s ballet world, something is already off-putting about it, as if everyone has some sort of character flaw. This is when Thomas takes the time to summarize the story of Swan Lake and describe how he is going to do it differently.
We open our season with Swan Lake. Done to death, I know but not like this. We strip it down, make it visceral, and real. The new production needs a new swan queen, a fresh face to present to the world. But… which of you can embody both swans? The white and the black.
Finally, the last major character is introduced to us and that is Beth who is found to be very angry when we first meet her, throwing and breaking items in her dressing room. Nina is noticeably shaken but still enters her room and displays some obsessive behavior over the veteran prima ballerina by sitting in her chair, looking at herself in the mirror. Before she departs, she steals her lipstick. Isn’t Nina supposed to be the white swan?
Later that day are auditions for the main lead. Nina is performing and Thomas informs her that she would be ideal casting for the white swan but he needs the black swan too. As she dances for the black swan, she messes up because Lily walks into the room. After this, Lily presumes the role of black swan in Aronofsky’s screenplay. She fits the bill: seductive, tardy, and loose.
On the other hand…
The color pink now takes on a relevant role in the film, representing childhood, innocence, and naivety, characteristics all associated with Nina Sayers at this point in the story. Even when she asks Thomas for the role in his office, she doesn’t try to convince Thomas that she can dance the black swan. Nina simply states that she practiced the routine last night. Thomas, in his room of black and white furnishings, only sees things in binary and reiterates that Nina is ideal casting for the white swan even though we as audience members can see that maybe she isn’t as perfect as he is suggesting. Thomas tries to see if there’s the black swan in Nina and kisses her to test her spontaneity. She bites him, showing him that maybe he is wrong about Nina being only “fearful and fragile.”
Convinced that Nina can unleash her inner black swan, Thomas takes on the role of Rothbart and casts a spell on Nina transforming her into swan queen for his new ballet.
This opening act brilliantly establishes all major characters involved in the story for the rest of the film while mirroring the prologue of Swan Lake as described to us by Nina. While Beauty and the Beast acknowledges the fairytale within its screenplay, we get our first hints that Black Swan is re-enacting Swan Lake as the production of Thomas’ ballet is under way. Following the shortened synopsis as provided to us by Thomas, we expect Nina to eventually jump off a cliff and find death in freedom. The downward spiral of Nina’s character in the second act makes this seem but all too real of a legitimate possibility.