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By Kina Poon
In Black Swan, the ABT dancer has us seeing double.
An eerie drama set in the world of a fictional New York City ballet company, the film Black Swan opens in select theaters on December 1. Actress Natalie Portman portrays Nina, a principal who must find her darker, Odile side—with harrowing consequences. Last winter, the captivating Sarah Lane was tapped to be Portman’s dance double. An American Ballet Theatre soloist since 2007 (when she also graced DM’s cover), Lane spoke with assistant editor Kina Poon about what it was like to work with Portman and which is harder: dancing for film or in performance.
Were you nervous to work with Natalie and director Darren Aronofsky? I wasn’t nervous. Everyone was great—the crew, the corps girls, Natalie, Mila Kunis, Winona Ryder, and Vince Cassel as well. I really enjoyed working with the director. He was demanding but encouraging. It was sort of like working with a choreographer—he knew what he wanted, but he would get inspired by something in the moment or change something that didn’t work.
Anything technically challenging? I had to do the black swan coda—16 piqué turns following tracking marks on the floor pulling into 16 fouettés onstage at Purchase College. The lighting setup was really bright. And the floor was so soft, it was like trying to turn on a yoga mat. I couldn’t push out of the floor. And I had these little foam balls stuck to my skin, my arms, and my face for face replacement. I probably did it 40 times. I was almost crying I was so frustrated.
What about faking special effects? There’s a part where the director wanted to do a close-up of my feet with blood dropping onto the floor and hitting my shoes and my tights. So they gave me this dropper filled with fake blood and I had to slowly squeeze it onto the floor as I’m doing the choreography. To say the least, it was a little hard to coordinate. And I needed like a million pairs of pointe shoes because I had to change my shoes and tights after every shot. It was pretty funny!
What did you find surprising about the shoot? Kevin McKenzie, ABT’s artistic director, and Victor Barbee, the company’s artistic associate, told me that it would take a long time, but I was still surprised by how agonizingly long the days were. There’s a lot of waiting around and not knowing what or when the next shot is going to be. And then once you get to your shot, they decide in a split second, and you may not be warm. It was a lot of hours, a lot of patience, a lot of waiting to get the conditions ideal for the look of the shot.
That must be difficult, because I know that you’re a very thoughtful dancer who likes to be prepared. Sometimes I would be doing shots at 4:00 in the morning. I can’t imagine doing a whole movie. At least as ballet dancers, we can appreciate scheduled rehearsals and a scheduled performance time. You can’t be prepared for a movie.
What did you do to try? I had to find time for myself when I first got there. Even if it was 5:00 in the morning, I would give myself barre and do my Pilates exercises.
Are you excited to see yourself on film? I’m really curious to see what shots they ended up using, and the digital effects. It’s exciting for me to be in a movie that’s not the normal dance movie. It’s kind of a horror film. It’s very psychological.
Did you learn about acting from watching the director work with the actors? Watching Natalie and the other actors made me think about how different it is when you’re seeing something up close. When you’re onstage, the audience is so far away. But it did make me think about how I could use my face more. And also just being more of a real person when you’re acting onstage, rather than overdramatizing something.
What could the ballet world learn from Hollywood? I think the audience would love it if we added more special effects to our productions. My little brother, who is 18, saw the trailer for Black Swan, and he said, “I might actually want to see this movie!”
And how does it feel to be part of a performance that some critics are giving Natalie Portman rave reviews for? I’m not really looking for any sort of recognition. The process was a huge learning experience and I got everything I wanted out of it. But she deserves the recognition. She worked really hard.
Would you do it again? Only if it wouldn’t interfere with my roles at ABT. I love what I do, so it would have to be a special circumstance. But I definitely would love to play around with acting more. If I couldn’t dance, I would consider pursuing it.
Photo of Sarah Lane by Steve Vaccariello