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Director Darren Aronofsky's film "Black Swan" is a new take on an old theme: a ballerina whose quest for artistic excellence drives her crazy. Alex Cohen, of member station KPCC in Pasadena, reports that madness and ballet have often come together in a cinematic pas de deux.

ALEX COHEN: In "Black Swan," Natalie Portman plays a ballerina so obsessed with her craft, the actress says she's what's known in the dance world as a bunhead.

Ms. NATALIE PORTMAN (Actress): They are sort of reputed to live and die ballet. They won't go out on a Friday or Saturday night and drink. They're not going to eat very much. They're not going to let loose.

COHEN: Portman's character, Nina, pleads with the New York City Ballet's artistic director for the leading role in "Swan Lake," but he's not convinced she's up to the task.

(Soundbite of movie, "Black Swan")

Mr. VINCENT CASSEL (Actor): (as Thomas Leroy) Every time you dance, I see you obsess, getting each and every move perfectly right. But I never see you lose yourself. All that discipline for what?

Ms. PORTMAN: (as Nina Sayers) I just want to be perfect.

Mr. CASSEL: (as Thomas Leroy) You what?

Ms. PORTMAN: (as Nina Sayers) Want to be perfect.

COHEN: Nina manages to be perfect enough to land the part. She's graceful and innocent but like many other celluloid ballerinas, she's unable to tap into the darker, sensual side of dance. Meanwhile, a rival dancer in the company who can threatens to steal the role of the Swan Princess away from Nina.

(Soundbite of music)

COHEN: The pressure eventually leads to a disturbing mental breakdown where Nina herself seems to become half-woman, half swan. Throughout "Black Swan," Nina literally tears away at her own skin.

Mr. DARREN ARONOFSKY (Director, "Black Swan")" I just thought it was an interesting contrast to take something as beautiful as ballet and then add horror to it.

COHEN: Director Darren Aronofsky.

Mr. ARONOFSKY: But then I realized it wasn't that much different than actual ballets. And if you look at the great stories of ballet - "Swan Lake," "Sleeping Beauty," "Romeo and Juliet" they're tragic, they're gothic, they're -you know, have horrific elements.

COHEN: Though "Black Swan" may be the most extreme case, it's one in a long list of films to cast dark and ugly shadows on one of the most beautiful art forms.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Red Shoes")

Mr. ANTON WALBROOK (Actor): (as Boris Lermontov) Why do you want to dance?

Ms. MOIRA SHEARER: (as Victoria Page) Why do you want to live?

Mr. WALBROOK: (as Boris Lermontov) Well, I don't know exactly why, but I must.

Ms. SHEARER: (as Victoria Page) That's my answer, too.

COHEN: In 1948, "The Red Shoes" told the story of a ballerina, named Vicky, who gets her big break after appearing in "Swan Lake." Film critic David Ehrenstein wrote the liner notes for the DVD re-release of "The Red Shoes." He explains that Vicky's madness stems from a difficult choice.

Mr. DAVID EHRENSTEIN (Film Critic): In becoming a star, she then also falls in love with a young composer, and she is then stuck between her love for the composer and her love for the world of ballet.

COHEN: In Vicky's case, the stress eventually drives her to jump in front of a train.

Things work out a bit better for Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft in the 1977 film "The Turning Point." The two portray middle-aged ballet dancers whose lives seem incomplete one because she left ballet to raise a family; the other seems to have nothing but an existence in pointe shoes.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Turning Point")

Ms. SHIRLEY MACLAINE (Actress): (as Deedee Rodgers) You don't remember when Michael was choreographing "Anna Karenina"?

Ms. ANNE BANCROFT (Actress): (as Emma Jacklin) Yes, of course I do.

Ms. MACLAINE: (as Deedee Rodgers) And who was he rehearsing for the part of Anna?

Ms. BANCROFT: (as Emma Jacklin) You and me.

Ms. MACLAINE: (as Deedee Rodgers) And?

Ms. BANCROFT: (as Emma Jacklin) You got pregnant.

Ms. MACLAINE: (as Deedee Rodgers) Yeah. And you got 19 curtain calls.

COHEN: In most ballet films, that choice between dance and domesticity is just one of many elements causing emotional and physical pain. In fact, there are so many common elements in these movies you could easily base a drinking game on them. You'd be chugging for each close-up of a blistered foot, scenes depicting endless hours of grueling rehearsals, and injuries that can end a dancer's career in an instant.

There's also the overbearing stage mothers like the one in the film "Center Stage," about students at a ballet academy in New York.

(Soundbite of movie, "Center Stage")

Ms. SUSAN MAY PRATT (Actress): (as Maureen Cummings) I don't want to be a ballet dancer.

Ms. DEBRA MONK (Actress): (as Nancy Cummings) Yes, you do. You always have.

Ms. PRATT: (as Maureen Cummings) No. Mom, if this were what I wanted, I wouldn't be as unhappy as I've been. I'd have friends, I'd sleep well, I wouldn't throw up half the things that I eat.

Ms. MONK: (as Nancy Cummings) You watch your weight. There's nothing wrong with that.

Ms. PRATT: (as Maureen Cummings) God, don't you hear me? I'm telling you I'm unhappy and sick. I can't do this anymore. Don't you care about that?

Ms. MONK: (as Nancy Cummings) Of course I care, of course. But this is your dream. Maureen, don't just throw away your dream.

COHEN: Dreams of young ballerinas in film often become nightmares because of the emotional duress caused by stern instructors and demanding impresarios.

In Robert Altman's "The Company," actor Malcolm McDowell plays a role based on the artistic director of the Joffrey Ballet.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Company")

Mr. MALCOLM MCDOWELL (Actor): (as Alberto Antonelli) What happened? I mean, you're all so pretty. You know how I hate pretty. Now come on, I mean, lift thighs, lift up, not so loady. You look like you've got a load in your pants.

Ms. SUSAN PILLARE (Teacher, School of American Ballet): The depiction of the teachers and the directors in the films are very grim, aren't they? They're just horrible people - and we're not.

COHEN: Susan Pillare danced with the real New York City Ballet for 16 years, and now teaches at the School of American Ballet. She says ballet films tend to go overboard, that dancers have a lot more fun in real life than they do on the silver screen. But she says it's easy to understand why movie directors present ballet this way.

Ms. PILLARE: Real ballet life is not going to make a great movie, because it's not dramatic enough.

COHEN: But film critic David Ehrenstein disagrees. Just look, he says, at all the sacrifice required to become a great ballerina. Most begin their training when theyre just a few years old.

Mr. EHRENSTEIN: And your career is very short. A dancer's career only lasts as long as a dancer's body is able to do the work. That's great dramatic material.

COHEN: Which is why director Darren Aronofsky chose ballet as the focus of his film, "Black Swan." Originally, he says, the screenplay revolved around two actresses competing with each other off-Broadway. But, he says, the world of ballet provided a much better canvas for his psychological thriller. Though tutus and terror may not seem like a good combination at first glance, the director says the mix is working well with early audiences, especially since so many American moviegoers have a penchant for horror.

Mr. ARONOFSKY: The thing that's been most interesting is getting these guys who come in, who have no interest in ballet and dance, and hear them say, oh, the ballet sequences were so beautiful. So getting that beauty next to the pain and the blood and the angst, it will - hopefully - give people something different to see that they've never seen before.

COHEN: And Aronofsky says that thrill may just motivate moviegoers who've never seen a ballet performance in their lives to check out the real thing.

For NPR News, I'm Alex Cohen.

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