Tag Archives: natalie portman

Bridging the Lake; a Black Swan discussion with an outsider

7 Jan

Rather than write my thoughts on Black Swan, I thought I’d do something a little different and get the perspective of someone completely outside of the dance community.  There are many wonderful reviews written by dancers and balletomanes (which I am just now catching up on, having avoided spoilers until I saw the movie), but what about the “common man?”  Well, the common man is my friend Derek, a movie buff who has graciously submitted to an interview, directed by yours truly in order to guide the conversation into a context that makes a connection between the dance world as we know it and the one he saw in film, perhaps illuminating for both sides how we can find common ground and bring new audiences to ballet.

Derek is older than me (just thought I’d throw that out there) and is the type of friend who never calls, unless I call him at least five times.  He hails from a quaint little village known as Fort Wayne, Indiana where you can park your horse at the local grocery stores, though he lives in the more metropolitan Indianapolis now (which is essentially a clone of my hometown, Columbus).  Despite my desperate pleas to get him to go see the ballet, he hasn’t—missing the likes of Julie Kent, Marcelo Gomes, Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev at the Indianapolis City Ballet Gala in September of this year.  I KNOW.  I KNOW!!!  He had these superstars right on his doorstep and I implored that he go so I could live vicariously through him, with Kent/Gomes performing the pas de deux from Lady of the Camellias and Othello, and the Bolshoi wunderkinds doing the Don Quixote and Flames of Paris grand pas de deux (their best!), but he didn’t go.  Derek has no idea how embittered and hostile I still am over this most egregious failure and rest assured next time I see him violence will ensue.  Meanwhile, he saw his first Nutcracker this holiday season…if that’s not a knife to the gut I don’t know what is.

Putting aside his nefarious betrayal, he was in fact very excited for Black Swan.  As I said, he’s a fan of films; he makes Oscar predictions and watches all of the award shows, delighting in the prestige and glamour (while I perish at the mere thought of bowties and tuxedos).  He is of course a huge admirer of Darren Aronofsky and despite impeding my mission to get more people interested in our sacred art, Derek is a cheerful chap and occasionally his moral compass proves to be sound (though his spending habits beg to differ).

So first, what is your overall impression of Black Swan and what aspects of the film were most enjoyable/interesting to you?

Derek: My general impression of the movie was that it was pretty freaking cool.  I like Aronofsky as a film-maker, and I have seen all of his movies minus Pi, so when I noticed on IMDB that he was making a movie with Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, and Winona Ryder (all are certain favorites of mine) I knew I would see this movie the first chance I got.  I was afraid it wouldn’t live up to my expectations because I was so excited to see it, but it didn’t fail me.  While watching, I was glued to the screen. When I left, my mind was racing.  I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

My favorite things about the movie were definitely the performances.  Natalie Portman has long been a favorite of mine, and I’ve always known she is an amazing actress (not proven true by ANY of the Star Wars movies, but I held on to faith, and she finally did a 180 with the film, Closer).  Portman, in my honest opinion, has delivered one of the best performances I have ever seen.

Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Vincent Cassel, and Winona Ryder also did excellent jobs. They were all extremely effective in their supporting roles, and deserve recognition somehow.

I thought it was interesting that the movie was about ballet, and about a ballerina who wanted to be the best, but the story didn’t really end there. It was a character study about transformation, and perception.

Besides the obvious hallucinations, did anything strike you as unrealistic?  You mentioned the effectiveness of Portman’s acting and the supporting cast, but what did you make of some of the stereotypes they portrayed, such as Nina’s eating disorder, her perfectionism, her stage mother, or the bitchy fellow dancers?

Derek: I think what made this an interesting portrayal of an anorexic ballerina is that they never touched on the subject verbally… we saw images of Nina throwing up in a bathroom. It was never mentioned again.

Her mom was odd. She was a typical “stage mom”, living vicariously through Nina. What made her more corrupt is the fact that she knew Nina was sick, and even through we as an audience can only guess that Nina is schizophrenic, her mother knew it all along.

The perfectionism that Nina is striving for is unrealistic. Nothing is perfect, and anything that is perceived as perfect will falter in the end (Ryder’s character in a way was a representation of this). Nina ended up killing herself in her highest moment, and will be remembered forever for this one “perfect performance”, or what she thought was perfect. It’s like Romeo and Juliet’s perfect love; they died at the height of it, and had they survived it they would have lived to see it somehow die, and/or not be perfect.

How familiar are you with the actual story (what’s called the libretto) of Swan Lake?  The original plot is more or less revealed at certain points in the film but I kept wondering if it was enough for people who have never seen Swan Lake before and I’m curious as to whether the parallels between the plot of the ballet Swan Lake and the movie were apparent for you or not.  For example, in the ballet, the Swan Queen (Odette) is fragile and timid, while her imposter the Black Swan (Odile—and not Odette’s twin sister as stated in the movie!) is seductive, which is re-imagined into a modern, New York setting via Nina and Lily.

Derek: I’m not familiar with Swan Lake at all…however, I did a little reading before the movie. I read that Nina personified the White Swan perfectly, and that Lily personified the Black Swan even better, but that Nina had to become both to get the part. That’s all I knew…but I did see the parallels for sure. I think that it was very important for the filmmaker to show these similarities between Nina (Odette) and Lily (Odile).

To see this movie though I don’t think you need to see the ballet, although I think it may prove to have more of an impact. I’ve already said how much I loved this movie, but my roommate Anna did ballet for 10 years, had seen Swan Lake before and knows the music well.  She connected with that part of the movie better than I did.

That’s interesting considering I did a whole Swan Lake MONTH series on my blog, that you obviously did NOT read, “friend.”  However, I agree—Aronofsky maintained the integrity of Swan Lake; in the ballet, the story is told through music and movement but in his film the story is told through dialogue, acting and special effects, coincidentally taking place in the ballet world…at any rate, was there anything you would have liked to have seen in the film but didn’t?  Dare I ask, anything you would have changed?

Derek: Regarding both of your questions, my answer is no.  I liked it the way it was, and I can’t think of anything else I would have added to make it better.

Thank you…for that elaborate response.  Although his role had few lines, did you notice Benjamin Millepied at all (aka, David, Nina’s partner)?  What did you think of him? (I guarantee ballet fans were watching him with as much interest as they were watching Portman)

Derek: Yes, I did notice Benjamin Millepied. I knew going into the movie that he is a pretty accomplished dancer and choreographer, and that he did some, if not all, of the choreography for this film. He had great film presence, and with Portman had great chemistry (and it all makes sense now, being engaged and expecting a little bundle of “joy!”).

But, not being a particular dance fan, and not really knowing correct techniques, or knowing what to look for in a great dancer, I will say that Portman held her own. I was extremely impressed with her skill, but you could definitely see a difference in between Millepied and Portman. I could tell that he was an extremely experienced and good dancer. It was very good casting.

I kind of felt like Millepied needed to comb his hair…but that’s irrelevant.  Has this film changed your perception of ballet?  Are you more/less inspired to see a ballet on your own?  And don’t even think about telling me what you think I want to hear because I’ll know you’re lying.

Derek: I don’t think this movie has really changed my perception of ballet. In a way, I have always appreciated it, maybe not as much as you [Steve], but I think more so than the general population.

I think I would see a ballet, but I would prefer to go with someone who kind of knew ballet (maybe you!), or perhaps Anna, who like I said, is a big ballet fan. I wouldn’t know left from right or what was good or not, but I think I could enjoy a good ballet for the music and the artistry.

Well, the truth is, you don’t have to know what’s good or not…the important thing is having the freedom to decide what you like or dislike and to have conviction in your opinions, while accepting those of others.  If you choose to learn more about it, I think you’ll find the rewards more gratifying though.

Hey, remember when I gave you a dance belt for your birthday? How’s that going for you?

Derek: I’ve worn it.  Yes.  I can’t say why.  Or for whom.  But it’s gotten use.  It fits well.

Well thank you for your time, and just so you know, after missing the Indianapolis City Ballet Gala, you have a chance to redeem yourself.  On January 19th, Opus Arte Cinemas will be doing a live broadcast of the Royal Ballet performing Giselle in limited theaters (including the Carmike 20 in your hometown, Fort Wayne) with Marianela Nuñez and Rupert Pennefather performing the principal roles of Giselle and Albrecht.  This is not a request and it is not an interview question…it is a demand that you not fail me again.  And look—I’ve even written a post about the Royal Ballet’s Giselle, so you can imagine me there with you…and if you don’t go, you can imagine my hands wringing your neck.

This concludes the interview with my friend Derek, a so-called “outsider” of ballet.  As Black Swan continues to delight audiences as well as stir up controversy for some professionals in the industry, the only safe thing to say is that dance movies (or in the case of Black Swan, a movie that happens to have dance in it) have a tendency to be divisive.   I think there’s a triangular relationship, between professional dancing, a well-developed storyline and good actors that has yet to be balanced to the satisfaction of many.  It seems two out of three just isn’t enough!

Support dance mentoring and down with the tyranny of the Balanchine Trust!

21 Aug

So I was actually writing this entry yesterday, but decided to go out for a walk, despite an impending thunderstorm.  The park in question (Highbanks, for you C-busers) was right on the edge of the storm so it was kind of deceiving because there was a lot of sun, and I kid you not when I say after getting out of the car, I walked on the trail for about ten seconds when there was a flash of lightning and a deafening crash of thunder.  It actually scared flocks of birds out of trees, so needless to say I high-tailed it out of there.  Anyway, I have in store for you, a smorgasbord entry of mish-mash-melee and unrelated pieces of information, but as always relating to dance.  I also write this amidst recovering from a slight sinus headache of some kind that has been perpetuating for a couple of days.  If you’ve had one, you’d know because port de bras forward makes your head throb and all your muscles are tight as if your body’s been shrink-wrapped.  Oddly enough, that kind of helped my turns, but I would prefer to do without the feeling like I ran into a wall (which happens enough of its own accord).

So young grasshopper, maybe you noticed a couple of new links on the sidebar?  I have a couple of public service announcements, because I like to pretend that an influential public figure might be reading this blog.  So cause number first, is a project shpearheaded by a PhD student at Ohio State, Ashley Thorndike (who I’ve had the pleasure of taking of class from) called the Now & Next Dance Mentoring Project.  Its goals focus on providing service learning opportunities for college age dancers to teach in diverse settings, developing physical competence among adolescent girls, and of course supporting established and emerging dance artists by having them teach in workshops.  She’s looking to promote this at institutions all over the US and Canada, so please check out the website (click here) and join their mailing list/facebook page to stay in the loop or forward information to potentially interested parties.  One thing I love about the dance community is that it IS a community, and dancers, choreographers and students alike are always supporting each other.  They also take donations to help fund the organization, and personally I think this is a great project because oftentimes I think people take for granted what it means to have a mentor.  Not every coach or teacher is in fact a great mentor, and I think this project will help target the development of mentoring skills.  Plus, I’ve always liked Ashley because she has this really entertaining “super model laugh,” where she does the closed eyes, mouth wide open giggle. It’s awesome.  Don’t be fooled, she has moxie though; I remember during one class we were slated to watch a re-staging of Anna Sokolow’s Steps of Silence (jarring music, contorted bodies, oppression, concentration camps…HEAVY stuff) and one of the dancers was sick/injured, and since Ashley had danced that part once before, she ended up filling in.  Now Sokolow was no fluffy choreographer…she meant business, and in that piece the dancers strip down to their underwear like in the concentration camps, and something tells me Ashley wasn’t planning on leaping in front of her entire lecture class in her underwear.  She’s a pro though, and a true artist because it didn’t phase her at all. If it were me, I would have passed out…so if you’re interested in collaborating with Ashley on this project, rest assured you’ve got a confident and good natured professional on your hands.  Best of luck Ashley!

Next cause was made aware to me via theballetbag on twitter, which is that popular youtube user “ketinoa” had their account removed, which included around 1300 videos of the Kirov/Mariinsky performing, some of which I had seen myself.  They were an invaluable (why is it that valuable and invaluable mean the same thing?) resource, for teachers and balletomanes, especially because a lot of us may never get to see the Mariinsky live.  I mentioned in my Salute to Center Stage that the Balanchine Trust is notoriously stingy about having Balanchine works on the tube, and it should come as no surprise that they were the ones responsible for this crime against humanity.  Like, seriously Balanchine Trust…it gets with the program!  Youtube is a great social media outlet that’s basically a free advertising gold mine!  You don’t have to pay, people get to watch, become more interested in Balanchine, and will pay to see his works, because believe it or not, fans of the dance do prefer live performances.  It’s bad enough that a lot of Balanchine’s works aren’t available in full on purchasable media, and if they are it’s an obscure, old VHS tape that hardly anyone has available.  And the fact that one measly percent of the 1300 videos were Balanchine ballets just makes you monstrous biatcherinas.  For more information on how this all went down, and where you can direct your angry e-mails to, check out this video (which hilariously infuses wit with a really sheety situation by calling upon Giselles and Juliets):

I would also like to announce that one of my ducklings, Ifes has a blog to which I’ve added a link, and she’s really into traditional African dance, hip hop, and even a little modern.  I wish I knew a little more about her involvement in those arenas (she did let me try on a lapa once!), but I know she teaches African, choreographed for 3-D, one of the hip-hop (and in my opinion one of the legit) teams at OSU, and…actually I have no idea what she does with modern.  We actually took ballet (which she hates) and jazz together (hey mama!  Papa was a rollin’ stoooone!), saw many modern shows at OSU and we literally traversed through a blizzard to see Ailey II.  She has some beautiful pictures in her blog, and hopefully she’ll write more about her dance experiences for us to enjoy.  Maybe I can convince her to get involved with the Now & Next Dance Mentoring Project!  Oh Billy…sometimes I’m like actually awesome.

Last but not least, if you pay attention to my twitter as much as I do, I posted a link to a review of the script for Black Swan, starring Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis (read here).  It sounds really dark, and it’s going to be directed by Darren Aronofsky (director of Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, The Wrestler, among others) so you can expect some serious seriousness.  Normally I don’t do so well with really intense movies, but I have to say this is one I want to see.  With Mao’s Last Dancer coming out this fall, it’s an exciting time for ballet movies…perhaps a legitimate ballet movie will win an Oscar!  I don’t count Benjamin Button because that was a long ass movie that was NOT worth the price of admission for two and a half dinky ballet scenes, which in essence had nothing to do with the story, other than the fact that aging out is an issue in ballet (as if it wasn’t in other career fields?  Puh-lease.)

Have a nice day.