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'Black Swan' Explores Ballet World's Dark Corners

  • Alan Silverman

Natalie Portman in BLACK SWAN

Natalie Portman in BLACK SWAN

Director Darren Aronofsky tackled the gritty world of pro wrestling in his acclaimed 2008 drama The Wrestler. Now he takes on another sort of performer that can be just as visceral and competitive: the professional ballet dancer. Here's a look at the new psychological thriller starring Natalie Portman Black Swan.



"I had the craziest dream last night about a girl who was turned into a swan; but her prince falls for the wrong girl and she kills herself."


Director Darren Aronofsky and Natalie Portman on the set of BLACK SWAN.

Director Darren Aronofsky and Natalie Portman on the set of BLACK SWAN.

Nina Sayers has dedicated her young life to ballet. A soloist in a prestigious New York company, she is determined to dance the lead in a new production of Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake;" but the demanding company director questions whether she can embody the dual roles of innocent White Swan and seductive Black Swan.

"In four years, every time you dance I see you obsessed with getting each and every move perfectly right, but I never see you lose yourself …ever. All that discipline for what?"

"I want to be perfect."

"Perfection is not just about control. It is also about letting go. Surprise yourself so you can surprise the audience. Transcendence: very few have it in them."

L-R Natalie Portman and Vincent Cassel in BLACK SWAN.

L-R Natalie Portman and Vincent Cassel in BLACK SWAN.

French actor Vincent Cassel plays the maestro and Natalie Portman is would-be prima ballerina Nina.

"I had danced when I was younger - until I was about 12 - and I guess always sort of idealized it, as most young girls do, as the most beautiful art - this expression without words," Portman explains. "I always wanted to do a film related to dance, so when Darren (Aronofsky) had this incredible idea that was not just relating to the dance world, but also had this really complicated character - two characters, really - to go into, it was just an opportunity to do something completely exciting."

"Not so controlled! Seduce us. Not just the prince, but the court, the audience, the entire world. Come on! Like a spider spinning a web. Attack it! Come on!"

Natalie Portman in BLACK SWAN

Natalie Portman in BLACK SWAN

"The physical discipline of it really helped for the emotional side of the character," Portman adds, "because you get the sense of the sort of monastic lifestyle of only working out that is a ballet dancer's life. You don't drink. You don't go out with your friends. You don't have much food. You are constantly putting your body through extreme pain and you get that sort of understanding of the self-flagellation of a ballet dancer."

She trained intensively for more than a year to portray Nina; but Portman, who has a degree in psychology from Harvard, says she recognized that the character suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder:

Mila Kunis in BLACK SWAN.

Mila Kunis in BLACK SWAN.

Mila Kunis co-stars as Lily, a rival dancer whose work is more about emotion than perfection. Kunis also says the intensive training taught her much about the character:

"Here's the thing about ballet that I never knew about: it is one of the most physically excruciating sports that I've ever been a part of," Kunis explains. "I say 'sports' because they train every single day, so your body changes. Your shoulders drop, your chest opens up and there's a certain posture that I naturally don't have because I slouch. So for three months every time I had to constantly stand up straight. The way that they hold their arms, because they are always moving their fingers while they are dancing, also changes the way that they talk in real life. Also the feet are different because the ballet shoes …so there are a lot of little things."

Director of Photography Matthew Libatique and Director Darren Aronofsky on the set of BLACK SWAN.

Director of Photography Matthew Libatique and Director Darren Aronofsky on the set of BLACK SWAN.

Director Darren Aronofsky says he was surprised at how difficult it was to gain the confidence of real ballet dancers in his research for the film. He explains that they are often disappointed by how Hollywood depicts their world; but he maintains that Black Swan respects the art while exploring what can happen to the mind of the artist.

"The ballets themselves are incredibly dark and gothic [like] Sleeping Beauty, Romeo and Juliet and, of course, Swan Lake," notes the director. "This movie could have been called Swan Lake. We took the fairy tale of the ballet and basically took all the characters - Rothbart, the prince, the queen - and translated them into characters in our movie reality. So it is really just a retelling of Swan Lake, but it definitely shows the challenges and the darkness and the reality of how hard it is to be a ballet dancer, while I think it also represents the beauty of the art and the transcendence that is possible within the art."

"Watch the way she moves: imprecise but effortless. She is not faking it."

Natalie Portman in scene from BLACK SWAN.

Natalie Portman in scene from BLACK SWAN.

Black Swan also features Barbara Hershey as Nina's desperately protective mother, who hopes her daughter can achieve the success she failed to reach. Winona Ryder plays the former lead dancer pushed aside by Nina's ascent. Members of the Philadelphia-based Pennsylvania Ballet Company add authenticity as the film's principal dancers.

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