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Swans, Sugarplums and Serious Acting

Natalie Portman in a trademark ballet grimace.  But I love that one legwarmer.   Niko Tavernise hide caption

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Niko Tavernise

I learned to love ballet a little later than most people — I never took it as a child, and as a high schooler, I disdained it heartily because I played in the pit of one too many shows of the Nutcracker. But, as a young adult, my music conservatory had a very fine dance program, and I roomed with dancers, plus we shared dorms with the School of American Ballet, the feeder school for New York City Ballet.  It took me no more than a week to learn there was more to ballet than sugarplums, and I've been a convert ever since.  (It's weird, but I even really like ballet separates — I'm a sucker for little pale grey shrugs and pink wrap-around tissue skirts.  Perish the pink tights, though.)

In any case, classical ballet is having a big resurgence on the big screen, courtesy of the buzz around Darren Aronofsky's new film, Black Swan, starring a grim and slim Natalie Portman as the lead.  I saw the film a few nights ago after wildly (and loudly) anticipating it for months,and was struck by an old problem.  Natalie Portman is an amazing dancer — for an actress. For the lead in Swan Lake, she isn't that great.  I understand she trained eight hours a day to do the part, and it's terribly impressive  (I could never do that), but at the end of the day, and more specifically, at the end of the film, I really need to see a real dancer do Swan Lake.  She's meant to be thrilling — for a dancer, not an actress.

Actors often do their own stunts, and the long haul stunt ("I learned to box/dance/shoot"), for which they're often rewarded with Oscar nominations, is a favorite badge of honor.  And I respect it, I really do.  But it does mean that I never forgot, not once, that Natalie Portman was "the actress Natalie Portman who trained very diligently to learn her absolutely adequate pique turns.  And my, she's so thin!"  And however schlocky The Turning Point was, Leslie Browne was not only darling, the girl can dance.

A bonus capsule review: I commend Aronofsky for getting so many details really right, though there are many real dancers who may feel differently.  It felt beautifully detailed to me.  But for me, the movie is sort of Carrie meets Fight Club meets The Red Shoes, and I really liked all of those movies better than Black Swan.  It's sexy for sure, and shiver-y (never before has a nail clipping scene caused me to cover my eyes at the movies), but it's also claustrophobic as all get-out, and I'm not sure it told me anything new about dance, art, or the process of becoming someone else for a role. (See above rant.)

Diana Vishneva doing Odette... arms for days. DAYS.

Luo Catherine YouTube

A bonus dance gift: I love Diana Vishneva.  And I love her Swan Lake. (I really like Gillian Murphy, too.  But mostly her Odette, not Odile.)  Enjoy it!  Vive le fouettes!