Black Labels

“I am still the black swan of trespass on alien waters”.
So ended the first of Ern Malley’s series of poems, mailed to Max Harris, at the modernist magazine, Angry Penguins, in 1944.
The poems were sent by a woman purporting to be the sister of Malley, an undiscovered suburban poet. Although the entire “Malley” oeuvre was a hoax, the black swan was a perfect image to intrigue the Australian literary fraternity of the time. A symbol of black Australia and Western Australia, the black swan had been seen for the first time by a European when the Dutchman, Willem de Vlamingh, explored the south west coast of Australia. On 10 January 1697, he sailed up a river which he named the Swan (Zwaanenrivier) after the large numbers of black swans that he saw there. Until then, the phrase “all swans are white” was a phrase used as an example of a well-known truth.

The black label has returned again in the shape of Black Swan, a horror movie attracting both Oscar buzz and a divided community of movie critics.

The trespass this time relates to the split personality of the dancer who is urged to become less white (virginal) and more black (sexual) in order to portray the dual role of Odette/Odile in Swan Lake. It all ends badly, of course, as do most narrative ballets with a fragile heroine at the centre of the plot.

The black swan creates her mischief and the white swan loses her mind and her life.

Madness and ballet – those old friends again. The craziest ballet heroine is Giselle, whose mad scene at the end of act one – before she becomes a ghost – is the great soliloquy of ballet, the equivalent of Hamlet’s “to be or not to be”, except that Giselle’s descent into madness is watched by her mother, friends and lover, looking suitably aghast.

The great 20th century interpreter of Giselle, Olga Spessivtseva, studied inmates of mental hospitals to get exactly the right gait and gestures for her mad scene. The horrible irony, as most ballet lovers know, is that Spessivtseva herself was incarcerated in a mental hospital for 20 years before she recovered due to advances in medication. She called her wonder drugs the “little blue pills” – probably Stelazine.

In the movie, Black Swan, a man – the ballet company director – is the architect of the heroine’s undoing. So too is a man, a cheating nobleman from the castle near Giselle’s humble cottage, the cause of the heroine’s madness. Each ballerina has suffered a form of trespass and death is the only outcome.

The premiere of Giselle was in 1841. One hundred and seventy years later, not much has changed with the black labels of stage and screen.

I’ve compiled a partial list of ballet’s other bad guys and good guys – the black and white.

  • Madge and the Sylphide
  • Gamzatti and Nikiya
  • Carabosse and the Lilac Fairy
  • The Mice and the Nutcracker army
  • Jean de Brienne and Abderman
  • Kastchei and the Firebird
  • The Charlatan and Petrouchka
  • The Black Queen and the Red Knights
  • Fate and Passion
  • The Stepsisters and Cinderella
  • Tybalt and Mercutio+Romeo
  • The Man She Must Marry and Caroline

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Very early depiction of Cygnus atratus, given the title “Black Swan”, native name “Mulgo”
Date [between 1788 and 1792]
From the First Fleet Artwork Collection at The Natural History Museum, London
The drawing is unsigned and undated but was published in London in 1792. Attribution is given the term Port Jackson Painter.

Olga Spessivtseva as La Esmeralda 1918

Olga Spessivtseva at Central Railway Station, Sydney, 1934. Photographer, Sam Hood, courtesy State Library of NSW
call no. ON 204, Box 67