How 'Black Swan' looks to a Joffrey Ballet dancer

February 4, 2011
Chicago Tribune
Sid Smith


During the first 15 minutes of the movie "Black Swan," Joffrey Ballet dancer Valerie Robin sighed with respect and grimaced with disapproval.

When Natalie Portman folds, bends and tears at her slippers, Robin remarked, "That's the most realistic prep of ballet shoes I've ever seen in a movie." But, when Portman spins before a mirror in her cramped apartment, losing it after only a couple of moves called fouettes, Robin sniped, "That's what she gets for practicing fouettes in her living room. You just don't move the furniture around and practice tough executions at home."

Robin, who viewed this Oscar-nominated movie at the Tribune for the first time — it's about a New York City ballet company that's producing "Swan Lake" and stars Portman as a dancer — reported that her mixed response seemed in line with what she'd heard from colleagues.

"I was warned I'd laugh at things you probably won't laugh at if you're not a dancer," she said. "There are moments that are ridiculous. Events are so overdramatized or portray things that just don't happen." The sleazy artistic director, the raw and cartoon competition, and Portman's form made her list of complaints. "Her portebras," or arm carriage, Robin said, "needs some work."

But Robin agreed that "Black Swan" director Darren Aronofsky and his writers were smart to explore this beloved, confounding dance icon: the dual characters, or split personality, of the lead ballerina in "Swan Lake," the "Hamlet" of the art. In this dark fairy tale, a woman changed into a swan has an evil twin who aids the nefarious purposes of the sorcerer casting the spell. One dancer plays both — the delicate, saintly white swan and the duplicitous black one. In borrowing ballet's mirrored myth of virtue and lust, beauty and power, Aronofsky found a classical paradigm for a horror story about a modern young woman suffering a severe personality disorder.

Fortuitously, Chicagoans have the chance this weekend to check out the original. "Swan Lake," the live ballet, performed by the State Ballet Theatre of Russia, plays Friday and Saturday at the Auditorium Theatre.

"Why are these roles so fascinating? Because of the contrast, because people see in them what they see in real life, that is, love, passion and deceit," said Olga Nepomnyashchaya, the troupe's artistic and touring director. "Both parts are technically demanding, though each has its particularities. The white swan has to sing. The black swan is difficult in technique. You must practice and practice and practice."

Nepomnyashchaya's daughter-in-law, Yuliya, is one of the ballerinas scheduled to dance the dual role here. "Every ballerina dreams of dancing these parts," she said, echoing the urgency and ambition portrayed in the movie. But, unlike Portman's character, Nina, "I prefer the black swan. I don't consider her evil so much as very strong."

"'Black Swan' is referred to as a ballet movie, but it's really a thriller that borrows from 'Swan Lake,'" Robin said. "I'd recommend dancers see it. Anything that exposes the public to dance is helpful."

But she urges film fans to check out the original, adding, "Just hope what you see in the movie isn't actually going on backstage."