Black Swan: Cautionary Tale for Dancers?

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NY Times: www.nytimes.com/2011/01/09/fashion/09swan.html

Black Swan: Our Second Look

A psychological thriller set within the New York City ballet, “Black Swan,” directed by the visionary indie director Darren Aronofsky, has emerged as one of the frontrunner in this year’s Oscar Award.

World-premiering at the Venice Fim Fest (as opening night), the film then played at Toronto Film Fest to great acclaim. Released by Fox Searchlight in a platform mode last month, “Black Swan” is breaking box-office records, and stands to be Aronofsky’s biggest commercial hit.
Moreover, its two female stars, Natalie Portman in the lead and Mila Kunis in the supporting role, have recently received Golden Globe nominations as well as kudos from other critics groups, such as the New York Film Critics Online.
It’s impossible to watch “Black Swan” without keeping in mind the 1948 British film “The Red Shoes,” starring Moira Shearer, probably the best (and best-known) ballet film ever made, to which Aronofsky’s feature bears some thematic resemblance and make some explicit and implicit allusions.
There are elements that recall “All About Eve.” Natalie Portman plays Nina, a featured dancer who finds herself locked in a web of competitive intrigue with a new, ambitious rival at the company.
A good deal of the movie consists of nightmares, paranoia, and phobias set within and without the mind of Nina, who strives for perfection and will do anything to first get the role and then do it in a way that would satisfy her demanding and manipulative choreographer. Unfolding as a fever dream (actually nightmare0, we are never sure what is real and what’s surreal, what had happened and what might have happened.
“Black Swan” follows the story of Nina, a ballerina in a New York City ballet company whose life, like all those in her profession, is completely consumed with dance. She lives with her retired (and frustrated) ballerina, domineering mother Erica (Barbara Hershey) who zealously supports her professional ambition.  When artistic director Thomas Leroy (French actor Vincent Cassel) decides to replace prima ballerina Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder) for the first production of their new season, “SwanLake,” Nina is his first choice. But Nina has competition: a new dancer, Lily, who impresses Leroy as well. SwanLake requires a dancer who can play both the White Swan with innocence and Nina fits the White Swan role perfectly but Lily is the personification of the Black Swan. As the two young dancers expand their rivalry into a twisted friendship, with some erotic overtones, Nina begins to get more in touch with her dark side with a recklessness that threatens to destroy her sanity and make her descent into sheer madness.
The screenplay, which includes elements of thriller as well as horror genre, is penned by Mark Heyman, Andrés Heinz, and John McLaughlin, based the story by Andrés Heinz. But in many ways, “Black Swan” is a logical follow-up and a good companion piece to Aronofsky’s previous feature, “The Wrestler,” starring Mickey Rourke, which was also set in a competitive and esoteric, albeit male, professional milieu.
Aronofsky lures audiences into a haunting, fractured world of delusions, doubles and paranoia in what is his first psychological thriller. He spins a sensual and chilling tale of a prima ballerina locked in an obsessive battle with dark impulses that slowly engulf her.
Portman’s Nina is an ambitious New York ballet dancer who is after the ultimate double role: the delicately innocent White Swan and the seductively evil Black Swan of the star-making classic “SwanLake.” She gets the role but is unsure if she can embody convincingly the dark side of the Swan Queen. As she ascends to new heights with her body, her most deeply buried fantasies, jealousies and nightmares begin to ensnare her mind into the blackest depths causing a dangerous clash with the provocative newcomer who is her greatest rival. Nina quickly becomes all too perfectly entwined with the bewitching and deadly Black Swan.
Far from the typical thriller set in a world of crime or haunted houses, Aronofsky’s vividly intimate portrait of a woman unraveling at the very seams of her psyche takes place in the least expected of realms, the artistically electric and physically demanding world of professional ballet. For Aronofsky, it was the perfect place to unfold a visually explosive tale of the obsessive pressure to be perfect.
Although he started thinking about this story fifteen years ago, Aronofsky is highly aware that “Black Swan” is intentionally a companion piece to “The Wrestler. While wrestling and ballet seem to represent totally disparate possibly be more disparate worlds, the two films are linked together by themes of bodily extremes, souls in turmoil and by a postmodernist (in this case acidic) filmmaking style that pulls the audience inside the characters’ inner worlds.
“Some people call wrestling the lowest of art forms, and some call ballet the highest of art forms, yet there is something elementally the same. Mickey Rourke as a wrestler was going through something similar to Natalie Portman as a ballerina,” Aronofsky explains. “They’re both artists who use their bodies to express themselves and they’re both threatened by physical injury, because their bodies are the only tool they have for expression.“
Nonetheless, “Black Swan” conveys vividly moments of sheer psychological horror unlike anything Aronofsky has done before. And as secretive as the world of professional wrestling can be, Aronofsky found the ballet world to be even more insular and closed-off to outsiders.
Aronofsky and Natalie Portman first talked about working together on a movie set in the ballet world a decade ago, after the actress saw and was impressed with his film “Requiem for a Dream,” which garnered ellen Burstyn a best Actress Oscar nomination.
She observes: “The role of Nina is quite different from anything I have done before.” For starters, playing Nina was “as much an arduous physical-athletic feat as a challenging acting feat.”
Like a good and disciplined method actor, Portman had to undertake a lengthy, rigorous training in order to make the film’s ballet scenes as realistically compelling and incandescently lyrical as they are full of mounting tension and foreboding.
Says Aronofsky: “Most people start training for ballet when they’re four or five and as they live it, it changes their bodies and transforms them. To have an actress who hasn’t gone through all of that convincingly play a professional ballet dancer is the tallest of orders. Yet somehow, with her incredible will and discipline, Natalie became a dancer. It took ten months of vigorous work, but her body transformed and even the most serious dancers were impressed.”
Portman believes that physical work is intimately connected to her emotional work—“one level enhances and supports the other.” As the story progresses, the key elements of “Swan Lake” the ballet, swans, demons, spells and doubles, become intertwined with—and inseparable from Nina’s psyche, turning her from a naïve young girl into a dangerous, metamorphosed creature.
Even before the screenplay was completed, Darren Aronofsky knew who would play Nina, the hopeful solo dancer overtaken by unsettling fantasies and eerie events as she prepares for the greatest role of her life. It had to be Natalie Portman, whose diversity of memorable roles ranges from Queen Amidala in the “Star War” franchise to her Oscar-nominated role as a stripper in Mike Nichols’ “Closer.”
Portman, who studied ballet as a child, had the commitment and drive to take the immense physical and psychological demands of a part. Though it would take almost ten years after their meeting before the screenplay was finished, when Portman read it, she was riveted by Nina’s twisting psychological journey.
Nina starts out as a “bunhead,” a term used to describe a ballerina who’s so devoted to dance that nothing else matters, one who is sheltered by her equally driven, former-dancer mother and who never really developed an adult life of her own.
However, when she gets the role of the Swan Queen, it awakens something new in her, a need to explore her deepest, darkest feelings which begin to unhinge the fragile edges of her mind. Nina, like the Swan Queen she wants to embody, suddenly becomes embroiled in a story of enchantment, desire and danger.
This pushed Portman to the kind of edges she had never before explored. “Nina is dedicated, hardworking but also obsessive,” Portman says. “She doesn’t yet have her personal voice as a dancer, but she progressively changes as she searches to find her sensuality and sense of freedom. At the same time, she also starts to come undone, and that was the challenge.“
For Portman, “Nina is an artist who wants perfection, which she knows is something that can only exist for a brief, fleeting moment. But like all artists, she may have to destroy herself to find that. When she tries to become the Black Swan, something dark starts to bubble inside her. It becomes an identity crisis where she’s not only unsure who she is but the lines become blurred between her and other people. She starts literally seeing herself everywhere.” Nina becomes entrapped in a dizzying world of doubles and deceptive appearances, of mysterious encounters and erupting wounds—she begins to lose control.
Portman says that as an actress she too had to lose control: “As Nina begins to rebel against all the structures around her, including her mother and her family it comes with all this paranoia that takes her to a dark place, where she isn’t sure what other people want from her and whether or not she’s losing her mind.”
Portman was thrilled to have a chance to immerse herself in the ballet world that she, like Nina, dreamed about as a young girl. “I loved the authenticity of all these real dance world details,” she says, “I especially loved how Nina’s story parallels ‘SwanLake.’ I saw her as someone really trying to break free of everyone else defining who she is and trying to see through all of it who she really is as a person and an artist.”
As Nina begins to lose the thread of reality, she cannot let anyone know what she’s going through, lest she lose the role of the Swan Queen to her most threatening rival, the sensuous and shameless Lily, who becomes Nina’s alternate, both literally and figuratively.
Portman says she was intrigued by Nina and Lily’s twisted, envy-driven relationship: “I like how when they first meet, they size each other up the way that girls really do. It’s a survival mechanism, to scope out who your biggest competition is and in this case, Nina sees right away that Lily is gorgeous, talented and a total threat to her position. But she also doesn’t yet know who Lily really is.”
To reveal all this on screen, Portman put herself through both rigorous physical and psychological preparations. The physical training was beyond anything she ever imagined, as she began training intensively, with single-minded focus, for five hours a day, every day, some ten months before production even began. She did so under the tutelage of several pro-level teachers and trainers– including Mary Helen Bowers, formerly of the New York City Ballet–who put her through a gruelingly complete dance education in record time.
“I did a tremendous amount of dancing, and I also did a lot of swimming and weight training as well as cross training, so I wouldn’t get injured because dance is so hard on the body,” Portman explains. “It’s incredibly challenging, trying to pick ballet up at 28. Even if you’ve taken dance lessons before, you just don’t realize how much goes into it at the elite level. Every small gesture has to be so specific and so full of lightness and grace. I knew it would be a challenge, but I never expected just how physically tough it turned out to be.”
In addition to having studied dance in her youth, Portman studied psychology at Harvard, which yielded further insights into Nina’s disintegrating psyche, allowing the actress deeper into Nina’s surreal inner experience. “I saw Nina as being caught in a cycle of obsession and compulsion,” she assesses. “The positive side of that for artists and dancers is that by focusing so hard you can become a virtuoso, but then there’s a much darker side, an unhealthy side, in which you can become completely lost. That’s where I had to take Nina.”
“Though it was hard, the best thing was that I could use everything that I was feeling with the dance in my performance: the pain, the anxiety, the nervousness about messing up, the desire for perfection.”
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