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By Wendy Perron
At least Natalie Portman was much better than I thought/feared. I expected her to be like Anne Bancroft in The Turning Point. When the camera zoomed in on Bancroft’s her face during barre, you could tell right away that she’d never done a tendu, that she was “acting” the part of a fiercely disciplined dancer. I remember thinking then: The concentration it takes to be a dancer cannot be faked.
But Portman, who, we all know by now, spent a year preparing for this role, building on some training as a child, was more convincing. Her back and arms were really working like a dancer’s. She knew how to keep her shoulders down by pulling under the shoulder blades. (Sarah Lane was her double for the legwork. Click here to see that interview.)
My favorite part was when she sprouts those menacing black wings as Odile. That’s when Nina’s vivid imagination was used for good, and her face and body showed the pleasure and power of that triumph.
I’m a wimp when it comes to thrillers. I hide my eyes the second I see anything that could be a weapon, and I don’t peek again until the music changes. By the end of the movie, I was shaking. I was exhausted.
So it took a while to gather my thoughts about how the movie portrayed the dance world. Here is a short list of what I felt was or wasn’t true to life about the plot.
• The obsession to be “perfect.” As Linda Hamilton often says in our “Advice for Dancers” page, you gotta give yourself a break or you are broken by it. But perfection is only an illusion, so it’s really all about the striving.
• It’s a minor point, but I found the little-girl voice of Nina to be convincing. Often a ballet dancer who is dynamite onstage surprises me with a little, high-pitched voice offstage.
• The artistic director Tom, who is supposedly choreographing his own version of Swan Lake, seems much more involved in mind games with his leading ladies than actually making a ballet. If he were really working on the choreography, he wouldn’t have time for those power trips.
• Mila Kunis as Lily is great at the party and sex scenes, but it’s laughable that after one glimpse of her amateur “dancing,” that Tom raves about how “natural” Lily is.
• I know the mother is supposed to be both pushy and jealous. But there was not even an occasional sparkle of love in her eyes, so I thought she (as played by Barbara Hershey) was the most damaged character of all. Plus, it’s hard to believe that Nina could live such a sheltered life. A determined young dancer with a mother like that would’ve left home ages ago.
I’ll bet that parents of teenage dancers will try to prevent their kids from seeing Black Swan. But of course they will see it anyway. I wonder if it will make them want to be a ballerina even more—after all, there was a twisted glory in Nina’s debut—or less.
I think it’s time for a dance movie with a happy ending. Where a ballerina actually takes pleasure in performing. Where she stays psychologically on balance and enjoys camaraderie with her fellow dancers. Where she finds satisfaction in her career. The life of Susan Jaffe? Nina Ananiashvili? Wendy Whelan?