Originally appeared in Vancouver Sun and Montreal Gazette, December 23, 2010:
by Brad Frenette
When asked for her advice, Anna Pavlova – considered one of ballet’s greatest dancers – once said: “Master technique and then forget about it and be natural.”
The late Russian ballerina was renowned for her mastery of classical technique, and gained fame for pioneering the lead role in The Dying Swan during the turn of the 20th century. A hundred years later another young performer, actress Natalie Portman, is gaining accolades for her role as the lead in another famous swan ballet, Swan Lake. However, with Portman, her fouettés and plies are made for the big screen, for the recently released film, Black Swan.
In the psychological thriller by director Darren Aronofsky (Requiem For A Dream, The Wrestler), Portman plays a young dancer named Nina. Consumed by perfecting herself as a dancer in a New York ballet company, her hard work is rewarded when she is chosen by the company’s seductive artistic director (Vincent Cassel) to be the prima ballerina in a new production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. A good thriller needs a foil, and that comes in the form of the company’s newest dancer, Lily (played by Mila Kunis), who emerges as both a friend and competition for Nina. It’s a tension that helps send Nina towards obsession and self-destruction
The film isn’t meant as documentary, but it does provide the audience what seems an authentic look into the life of a ballet company. Aronofsky told MTV this year that he had trouble getting access to the machinations of the ballet scene: “Ballet is a very insular world. There’s a lot of privacy. Normally when you say, I want to make a movie about your world,’ the doors open up and you get tremendous access. The ballet world could give two s—s.”
Despite that, his film, which is one of the favourites heading into Oscar season, has captured the attention of several of Canada’s top dancers.
“This movie covered every single stereotype out there about a professional ballet dancer,” says Rachael Prince, a dancer with Ballet BC. “Their anorexia, bulimia, self mutilation. I think it is was very over-done. My experience as a professional ballet dancer is that it is challenging to have an identity outside of ballet but in this movie they make dance the only element of her whole life and existence….for most dancers, in my experience, this isn’t true. Although it takes an extreme amount of dedication, the person you are outside of the studio is what makes you good in the studio.”
“I couldn’t wait to see it,” says Chan Hon Goh, a former dancer with the National Ballet of Canada. She enjoyed the film, she says, although she also found some of the content “stereotypical or exaggerated.”
“It worked towards making the film a success,” says Goh. “Sections in the film where Portman throws up – that’s a bit stereotypical of what people think dancers do to keep their weight down. Not that it doesn’t happen, but we tend to generalize. There is that competitiveness in the ballet world. Some of the aspects were true – in that even that your friends could want to replace you – but it is Hollywood.”
Like Goh, Beth Lamont of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet saw the film, and wonders if it projects the wrong image of the ballet life.
The reality,” says Lamont, “is that most dancers are healthy because of the variety of health options available such as physiotherapy, nutritionists. What the average person may not understand is that she was not your average dancer’ she was an emotionally unstable dancer that lost herself in a role.”
Black Swan opens with a sweeping, close-range shot of Portman’s character dancing in the spotlight. It’s a long, rotating shot that captures her motions and movements, cutting between her upper body and legs. Portman, along with co- star Kunis, reportedly trained for six months before shooting, learning their moves, and shaping their bodies into a dancer’s form. To a layperson, it seems as if she’s followed Pavlova’s advice – mastering techniques and looking natural. While Aronofsky used dance doubles for the wide shots – American Ballet Theatre soloists Sarah Lane and Maria Riccetto – Portman gets thumbs up for her technique.
“I thought Natalie Portman outdid herself,” says Goh. The dancer, who recently moved back to Vancouver from Toronto to take over her parents Goh Ballet Academy has danced Swan Lake many times for The National Ballet of Canada, and calls it the “Mount Everest of ballets.”
“She looked like a dancer, and there wasn’t one split-second where I thought she didn’t understand what was behind the intention. I’m sure that took a lot of work. I’d like to compliment her for what she went through to look like a dancer and understand the nuances behind what she was doing.”
Lamont agrees. “I thought the film included enough ballet to make it believable, Portman’s upper body was really well done – Swan Lake arms are difficult even for trained ballet dancer.”
Aronofsky may have been setting his lens into an insular world, but Goh thinks that overall, he did it right: “It tells the world about the hardship of being a dancer. The hours and hours of practice to get the steps right. It is exaggerated but what’s not is the dancers’ will to do the best show possible.”
Ballet BC presents the Alberta Ballet in The Nutcracker from Dec. 29 to Jan. 1. See balletbc.com for details and tickets.