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High Drama in Black Swan

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Dek: Ballet takes to the silver screen in a psychological thriller

By Karen White

Many aspects of Swan Lake contribute to its fame as one of the most popular ballets of all time—Tchaikovsky’s haunting score, bravura choreography, a romantic setting, a story of true love crushed by betrayal, and, of course, the dramatic dual performance by the lead ballerina.      

Natalie Portman trained five hours a day for 10 months for her role in Black Swan. (Photo by Niko Tavernise, courtesy Fox Searchlight)

Now, 128 years after Petipa and Ivanov’s Swan Lake captivated audiences, the new Fox Searchlight Pictures’ film Black Swan, a psychological thriller set in the glamorous yet gut-wrenching world of professional ballet, may do the same for moviegoers.

Directed by Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan follows the story of Nina (Natalie Portman), a star dancer with an unnamed ballet company cast in the dual role of Odette/Odile. She’s just replaced the company’s former star (Winona Ryder) but already finds her replacement Lily (Mila Kunis) standing in the wings. As Nina navigates this world of intense rivalry and emotional pressure, she delves deeper and deeper into the dark side of the swan she is portraying onstage.

As unlikely as it might seem at first glance, this film shares much in common with one of Aronofsky’s previous movies, The Wrestler. With both, the director peers into an unseen world and peels back what drives the people within to sacrifice so much.

About 10 years ago, Aronofsky became intrigued by a screenplay he came across—a dark drama concerning a rivalry between a Broadway actress and her mysterious understudy. Growing up he had watched his sister go through years of intense ballet training, and with that in mind, Aronofsky switched the backdrop from Broadway to a New York ballet company. After a chance night at a performance of Swan Lake, Aronofsky found the perfect hook with which to tell his story of a dramatic duel between innocence and wickedness.

As the final script developed, co-writer Mark Heyman says, it was increasingly difficult to place it into a genre. Was it a horror film about a woman who morphs into a demon swan or a riveting portrait of a driven artist losing control of her mind? Heyman hopes the answer is both.

To accurately depict the world of a professional ballet company, with its stressful rehearsals and backstage drama, and present that imaginary company’s production of Swan Lake required plenty of personal research by the crew. Costume designers sat in on New York City Ballet classes; the movie’s composer attended ballet performances. “As a filmmaker, Darren is obsessed with details,” Heyman says. “So despite the fantastical elements of the story, it was very important to him to ground the film in a lot of authenticity.” Dancers will notice that many elements of their world play double duty in the movie—such as mirrors, used here thematically and to set a chilling tone.

Aronofsky also did his research when it came to selecting his choreographer, New York City Ballet dancer Benjamin Millepied. Millepied says Aronofsky watched some of his work and was intrigued by his contemporary take on classical ballet. “It made a lot of sense to him,” Millepied says. “He didn’t want something entirely classical and he knew I could deliver something like that, and that we could work together. We both like to collaborate.”

He, in turn, was impressed by Aronofsky’s ideas for the script—inspired, as choreographers often are, by music. “He had all these musical ideas, and where to use this piece or that piece,” he says. “We talked after I read the script and I started to feel what he was after. He thought this movie could really have some impact. It’s so stylish and sharp and expressive. He managed to deliver a great movie.”

Millepied worked closely with Aronofsky to create dance moments that fit the Black Swan script. And it fell to Millepied, an expert on the world of professional ballet, to ensure that the film got everything just right. That, he says, was not hard. “There were little things we corrected, but overall [the film crew] did an excellent job,” he said in a phone interview from Los Angeles last fall. “Darren was in charge, and he had done so much research that he knew [how to get it right].”

With all that research in hand, Aronofsky was able to deliver a movie that appeals to the built-in ballet audience and beyond. “From the music, costumes, and sets, the melding of choreography with camerawork, every aspect of shooting the Swan Lake scenes was a major learning experience, but each paid off,” Aronofsky says. “We started out knowing very little about ballet, about how to shoot it and how to get people excited by it, but I think the film really works to connect people to the art form, to make it accessible.”

Millepied, a native of Bordeaux, France, and a 1994 Prix de Lausanne winner who studied on scholarship at the School of American Ballet before joining NYCB in 1995, began choreographing in the early 2000s. In 2002 he began presenting his own and guest choreographers’ works under the name Danses Concertantes. His choreography includes Double Aria for NYCB (2005), From Here On Out (2007) and Everything Doesn’t Happen at Once (2009) for American Ballet Theatre, and Tirade (2008) for Paris Opéra Ballet. He has also created works for Pacific Northwest Ballet and Grand Théâtre de Genève, as well as a solo for Mikhail Baryshnikov. A pickup company, Benjamin Millepied and Company, performed at the Joyce Theater in New York City in 2006.

 “We started out knowing very little about ballet, about how to shoot it and how to get people excited by it, but I think the film really works to connect people to the art form, to make it accessible.” —Black Swan director Darren Aronofsky

Once signed on for Black Swan, Millepied and the director talked at length about each scene and what it required in terms of dance. Still, serving the film was top priority. “[Aronofsky] was there a lot of time when I was making the dances and he told me what he needed,” Millepied says. “We had to understand what was needed in each scene in regard to the acting and the story and script, so that was very interesting for me.”

On the set, Millepied found himself rethinking choreography in very real ways. “You find new things, are exposed to new ideas, you pay attention to different things,” he says. “[You have to] be aware of what the purpose is, to convey the right choreography, emotionally and physically. It was a new challenge.”

One thing that made his job easier was that professional dancers, members of Pennsylvania Ballet, portrayed the ballet company in the movie. “They are not a big company, but they are Balanchine [technique] trained,” Millepied says. “They are very good, very musical, and a pleasure to work with.” The dancers filmed rehearsal footage and other scenes in January 2010 at the SUNY-Purchase campus.

Other performers did not come with pointe shoes in hand. Portman, Kunis, Ryder, and other leads, such as Vincent Cassel, who plays the company’s artistic director, are professional actors, not dancers. Although Portman had studied ballet as a child and continues to take the occasional class, she is not a professional dancer. Millepied realized this assignment was very different from his usual choreographic commissions. “Truly, it was an impossible challenge. How do you make someone look like a ballerina in Swan Lake?”

He started by “giving them some basics,” he says, and then taught the actors sequences of steps that they repeated over and over again. Portman, particularly, rehearsed steps “hundreds of times,” he says, until the details, such as how the eyes follow the hands, were good enough to allow her to pass for a professional ballerina.

“She worked so hard, so very, very hard, and she’s not going to get the credit she deserves,” Millepied says. “People will look at it and say, ‘Well, she knew how to dance.’ She didn’t start from scratch and she had a sense of movement, but the amount of work she put into it was really phenomenal.”

Portman trained for five hours a day, every day, for 10 months before production began, with several pro-level teachers and trainers including Mary Helen Bowers, formerly of New York City Ballet. Her regimen included dancing, swimming, weight training, and cross-training.

Millepied worked with Portman’s strengths and weaknesses as a dancer and used steps that showed her at her best. “This was not about my choreography; it was about finding the right choreography for the film,” he says. “But again, that is where the [choreography’s] success is—making it work.”

One of the hardest parts was explaining what he wanted to the non-dancers in “a language they could understand,” he says. “It’s a talent some people have. My teacher had it. It’s finding the right language for people, and being patient.”

There were other challenges as well. Several times he had to work quickly to redo choreography because a scene wasn’t working. The inevitable waiting around that happens on a film set was hard on the professional dancers, and the film’s small budget, says Millepied, meant that the cast and crew were often pressured for time. Dance sequences would be filmed at all hours of the day or night. (It was widely reported in the Hollywood press that Aronofsky struggled to find financing for this film.)

Millepied remembers filming one scene that appears late in the film. “I had choreographed all this running, and I didn’t know running in pointe shoes is one of the toughest things to do,” he said. “It was 4:00 in the morning, and we did that scene so many times, and basically the girls were just in tears. It was really tough.”

Production was under way when Millepied volunteered himself for the role of a dancer. He even spoke a few lines. “I really was just playing myself,” he says. “Being in front of a camera and acting is inhibiting. But it’s a great thing to do because you learn how to be natural.”

Millepied has no plans to give up dancing for acting, but he says his brush with Hollywood might lead to a new career as a director. “There are a lot of similarities between choreographing and directing,” he says. “How to use space and timing and people. As a choreographer, you choose what you want the audience to see and look at onstage; but with the camera, you choose how you want them to look at it. It’s kind of an exciting departure.”

His first directing job is for a short film that he wrote with a friend, which the two plan to shoot in Paris. For now, he’s keeping the details under wraps. “It’s not a ballet film, and it’s not a dance film per se, but the film has movement in it,” he says. “I’m very excited about it. I would like to explore this direction more.”

Other ballet choreographers have made the jump to Hollywood director, Millepied says, such as Jerome Robbins, who created a principal role in 2 & 3 Part Inventions on him when he was still a student. He would also be up for another movie choreography job, he says, “depending on the project.” But for now, he’s sticking with ballet. “The movie world is really tough,” he says. “The ballet world is gentle next to it.”

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