Dancers & Companies

Putting the Black Swan Blackout in Context

Sarah Lane, whose heavenly dancing helped make Natalie Portman believable as the ballerina Nina Sayers—thanks to face replacement—was not acknowledged by Portman at the Oscars. Not only that, but Lane was suddenly deleted from a video showing Black Swan’s special effects that was circulating on the web. In my blog last week I called it a blackout.

 

Sarah Lane calls it a more polite word: a façade. I asked her if she was expecting to be thanked when she heard Portman reel off 10 or 20 other names during her acceptance speech. Lane said no, because a Fox Searchlight producer had already called to ask her to stop giving interviews until after the Oscars. “They were trying to create this façade that she had become a ballerina in a year and a half," she said. "So I knew they didn’t want to publicize anything about me.”

 

As she said in Dance Magazine's December interview, she felt good about her work—though it was exhausting and frustrating—on the set. “It was a great experience to see the whole process of making a movie,” she told me. But she didn’t realize until just before the Oscars just how exploited she was. All the pirouettes, the full-body shots, and just-the-legs shots were her. (She also said that fellow ABT soloist Maria Riccetto doubled for Mila Kunis in one long shot.) The publicity campaign from the studio, however, spread the word that Portman did 90 percent of her own dancing.

 

Is it unusual for real dancers to get shoved under the rug in Hollywood? From the responses I got to my previous blog, no. John Rockwell reminded me that Savion Glover, whose tap dancing and choreography were the heart of the animated movie Happy Feet in 2006, was barely acknowledged. In a very funny take on this (“Penguin, Shmenguin! Those Are Savion Glover's Happy Feet!”), Rockwell tells us that Happy Feet director/producer George Miller claimed the movie would have been impossible without Savion—and yet the tapper's name appears way down in the credits. (Read Rockwell’s rant here.) 

 

Likewise, on IMDB, Sarah Lane’s name appears way down the line for Black Swan, not as a double but as “Lady in the Lane,” which she explained to me was a split-second scene where she appears as an incidental, non-dancing figure. Obviously she was not as crucial to the film as Glover to Happy Feet; Darren Aronofsky could have hired a lesser ballerina. But the idea is the same. Get a real virtuoso to make it believable, but pour all your publicity into the studio’s star—even if they are only audible and not visible as in Happy Feet.

 

It seems that when a movie star needs a singer to double for her voice, that’s common knowledge. No one is surprised to learn that Audrey Hepburn and Natalie Wood didn’t do their own singing when a trained voice was required. But people seem to believe that Natalie Portman did her own dancing. Of course to most people, Portman was entirely believable. (I myself found her upper body fairly convincing.) But for dancers, the idea that you can turn someone into a ballerina in one year is ludicrous.

 

Sarah says she was more offended by that myth than any slight to her as a dancer who worked “painstaking” hours on the set. She says she's talked to her colleagues about “how unfortunate it is that, as professional dancers, we work so hard, but people can actually believe that it’s easy enough to do it in a year. That’s the thing that bothered me the most.”

(Addendum: A reader foraged on the web and found the one instance of the original special effects video that still shows face replacement. Click here to see Sarah Lane's face, during piqué turns, swiped over by Portmans.)

 

(One fun tidbit I learned from reader Jeff Nelson: Olivia Newton-John had a dance double for a scene in the “Hand Jive” number of the movie Grease. For an alley-oop, a member of the ensemble, Antonia Franceschi, was her dance double. Franceschi went on to dance in Fame and join New York City Ballet.)

 

Lopez in Circus Polka. PC Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy MCB

When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."

But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.

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Matthew Neenan used images of silencing and control in let mortal tongues awake. Photo by Bill Herbert.

From coast to coast, choreographers have spent the first year of Donald Trump's presidency responding to the impact of his election and what it means for them as artists.

New York City's Dante Brown used rubber Trump masks in his work Package (revamped), which examines the monstrosities of power.

A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.

Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.

In San Francisco, choreographer Margaret Jenkins facilitated a panel of artists about the role of activism within their work.

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Breaking Stereotypes
Ash in Rochester, NY. PC Thaler Photography by Arleen and Daryl Thaler for the Swan Dreams Project

Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.

"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.

After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.

Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org

In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."

She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."

Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.

Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.

Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."

If you're interested in supporting the project, check out the online shop, or donate directly at swandreamsproject.org.

Dancers & Companies
Never let it be said that The Cindies lack studio swag. Via Instagram @jamesbwhiteside

It is a great tragedy for dance history that iconic ballet partnerships like Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev or Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov weren't able to document their backstage shenanigans on social media. (Okay, maybe not a great tragedy, but you have to admit that you're curious.)

Lucky for us, that isn't the case with today's star dancers—like American Ballet Theatre principal dancers Isabella Boylston and James Whiteside, aka The Cindies. These two aren't just onstage partners. They're serious #BestieGoals. Our evidence, as documented on Instagram, is as follows:

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Dancers & Companies
Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series

When London-based perfume company The Beautiful Mind Series was looking for a collaborator for their next scent, they skipped the usual celebrity set and brought in prima ballerina Polina Semionova instead. "I was fascinated by what goes on in the mind of a great dancer," perfumer Geza Schoen said in a press release. Semionova's ballet-inspired scent, Precision & Grace, celebrates the intelligence and beauty behind her craft.

Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series

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In The Studio
Abraham.In.Motion performing "Drive." Photo by Ian Douglas.

The ever-so-busy Kyle Abraham is back in New York City for a brief visit with his company Abraham.In.Motion as they prepare for an exciting spring season of new endeavors with some surprising guests. The company will be debuting a new program at The Joyce Theater on May 1, that will include two new pieces from Abraham, restaged works by Doug Varone and Bebe Miller, and a world premiere from Andrea Miller. Talk about an exciting line-up!

We caught up with Abraham during a recent rehearsal where he revealed what he is tired of hearing in the dance community.

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News
Tero Saarinen's Morphed. Photo by Darya Popova, Courtesy Helene Davis Public Relations

Choreographer Tero Saarinen has a proclivity for the peculiar—and for epic orchestral music. That he should be commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to create a new dance work to accompany the U.S. premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Cello Concerto en forme de pas de trois only makes sense. Zimmermann's eerie, difficult-to-classify composition falls squarely in Saarinen's wheelhouse. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Jan. 19–21. laphil.com.


Rant & Rave
PC Break the Floor

Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?

If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.

"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."

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Dance in Pop Culture
Roberto Bolle and Kenall Jenner on set. Photo via tods.com

I'll never forget something Roberto Bolle once told me when I was interviewing him about his workout regimen: Talking about how much he loved to swim, he said, "I would love to go in the Italian sea, but I am too well-known there to show up in my suit."

It always amused and kinda shocked me that a ballet dancer could reach that level of fame. But it's true: In his native Italy, Bolle is a bonafide celerity.

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Training
Anne Arundel Community College students, PC Kenneth Harriford

Everyone knows that community college is an affordable option if a four-year school isn't in the cards. But it can also be a solid foundation for a career in the dance field. Whether students want an associate in arts degree as a precursor to obtaining a bachelor's, or to go straight into the performing world, the right two-year dance program can be a uniquely supportive place to train. Don't let negative stereotypes prevent you from attending a program that could be right for you:

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