Photo by Niko Tavernise
By Julie Bloom
TEN years of serious training and then five more toiling in the ranks. That’s how many years of dedicated study it takes on average to become a principal ballerina at a top company. But Hollywood isn’t willing to wait. So when several actresses signed up to portray professional dancers in new movies, they had to play a very intense game of catch-up.
Ms. Portman performs with Benjamin Millepied, the choreographer and New York City Ballet principal.
Actors have impersonated dancers before to varying degrees of success. (See Jessica Alba’s laborious hip-hop moves in “Honey” and Neve Campbell’s elegant arabesques in “The Company” to get a sense of the range.) And some directors, like Bruce Beresford with his recent “Mao’s Last Dancer,” have bypassed actors altogether and cast dancers to achieve authenticity. When a single awkward move can change the tone of an entire scene, portraying a dancer is a serious challenge.
“It’s not the same as Mickey becoming a wrestler because that’s a craft you can learn in a few months,” the directorDarren Aronofsky said, referring to Mickey Rourke, who starred in his film “The Wrestler.” “Ballet is something you have to be trained from a tiny age.”
Mr. Aronofsky’s latest movie, a rumored Oscar contender, “Black Swan,” due Dec. 3, is a psychological thriller centered on a fictional ballet company’s new version of “Swan Lake.” Natalie Portman plays the lead ballerina, andMila Kunis is her rival. In George Nolfi’s “Adjustment Bureau,” out in March, Emily Blunt stars as a member of a real troupe, Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet.
“At the beginning it was a big question because we didn’t know if any actor could pull it off,” Mr. Aronofsky said of the role of Nina, who turns into the Swan Queen onstage.
When Ms. Portman, 29, took the part, she said, “I really thought I was better than I was.” She wasn’t completely new to ballet, having studied as a child, but at 13 she had traded in her slippers to act.
Photo by Niko Tavernise
“It was a rude awakening to get there, and to be, like, I don’t know what I’m doing,” Ms. Portman said by phone, “If I had known how not close to ready I was, I never would have tried it. I’m glad I was a little ignorant slash arrogant.”
Ms. Kunis, 27, described her experience as “ballet on crack.” At the end of her training, which includes three months of daily ballet practice, she said, she had probably lost 20 pounds. “For me it was kind of like: How do you fake it?”
The effort to avoid that consumed Ms. Portman. In the film she performs choreography byBenjamin Millepied, the New York City Ballet principal with a side career as a choreographer, and Ms. Portman does indeed dance, about 10 sequences, with a lot of work for her upper body. The difficult point work and turns were performed by a body double, Sarah Lane, the American Ballet Theater soloist.
In the film Nina goes through a metamorphosis onstage, from sweet swan to thrashing, rabid, seething one, complete with feathers. Ms. Portman went through a kind of transformation as well. Before she could even tackle the choreography she had to prepare her body, starting more than a year in advance with Mary Helen Bowers, a former City Ballet dancer from North Carolina.
“The idea was, if you were going to look and move like a professional ballerina, you have to train like one, and professional ballerinas dance for 10 to 12 hours a day, six days a week, for years and years on end,” Ms. Bowers said. “So the idea with Natalie was, we have to get you as close to that mark as possible for as many months as possible leading up to the film.”
Ms. Bowers combined basic ballet technique and exercises to make Ms. Portman’s physique more like a dancer’s, with the sinewy, lean muscles, upright carriage, pressed-down shoulders and tell-tale elongated neck.
Natalie Portman on the set of Black Swan.
(Photo: Ray Lewis)
“There are such physical markers for ballet dancers,” Ms. Bowers said, “we thought that was as important as being able to move.”
Wherever Ms. Portman’s career took her, she trained at least five hours a day with Ms. Bowers, practicing chaînés turns in Bridgehampton or rond de jambes in Belfast. They often started at 5 a.m. and fit in barre exercises and workouts while Ms. Portman filmed other movies.
Ms. Bowers was part of an all-star crew of experts who helped to get the dancing right. The veteran dancers and teachers included Kurt Froman, Jock Soto and Marina Stavitskaya, the ballet mistress Olga Kostritzky and the beloved coach Georgina Parkinson, who died in December. They offered corrections to the actresses during shooting and told Mr. Aronofsky when movement looked false. Dancers, mostly from the Pennsylvania Ballet, performed as the fictional corps and also gave advice to Ms. Portman.
This level of attention was crucial, Ms. Portman said: “I think there is a credibility that lets you get lost in the story when you feel that all the details are right.”
For Mr. Millepied, who is also Ms. Portman’s off-screen beau, the challenge started with creating a fresh twist on the classic “Swan Lake” vocabulary. (Die-hards will notice changes to the four little swans variation in particular.) But he also had to tailor the choreography so that Ms. Portman looked believable. With both actresses he wanted, he said, to “use their qualities and avoid their weaknesses.”
Perfecting something as seemingly simple as the undulating swan arms was one of Ms. Portman’s greatest struggles. “The fluidity, trying to get those hands to move and the arms all the way to her fingers” was tough," Mr. Millepied said. She practiced for hours and watched YouTube clips of famous swan queens like Alicia Alonso and Natalia Makarova to master the move.
Even with all the preparation Ms. Parkinson helped adjust the choreography for the particular quirks of Ms. Portman’s body. “I have short arms,” Ms. Portman said. “She was just, like: ‘You don’t bend arms when you put your arms up. They’re straight. You don’t bend them.’ If I ever bent my elbows she’d be, like, ‘Straight arms, straight arms.’ ” Another challenge was getting Ms. Portman on point. “We would spend 30 minutes a day doing foot exercises,” Ms. Bowers said.
During shooting the process intensified, with Ms. Portman doing short barre exercises five to six times a day to warm up between takes. “I think my body was kind of in emergency mode,” Ms. Portman. “I’m not eating enough, I’m not getting enough sleep. I’m in complete physical distress.” Among the injuries Ms. Portman suffered, the worst was a dislocated rib. To keep going, the lifts were adjusted.
The physical extremes of the art form though were what most interested Ms. Portman and Mr. Aronofsky. “The contrast between what you see onstage and what is underneath is part of the resonance of this film,” Ms. Portman said. “That it’s supposed to look easy and painless and carefree and light and delicate and just pretty, and underneath it’s, like, really gruesome.”
Ms. Bowers recalled, for instance, when Mr. Aronofsky consulted her on the believability of a prosthetic toe. “He was, like, ‘Is this what your toe looks like when your toenail falls off?’ and I was, like, ‘Well maybe we should take a little more off.’ ” She added, “Actually when your toenail falls off, you’re kind of happy, because it’s not a stress fracture.”
Ms. Portman’s experience gave her a taste not only of the physical sacrifices, but also the mental ones. “It was very religious in my mind,” she said. “The ritual of, like, breaking in your point shoes and getting them soft, all of that, it’s almost like tefillin wrapping in Judaism, this thing you do every day, this ritual.”