Black Swan- or Black Stain on the Ballet World?

I was extremely leery about seeing Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, frankly I’m leery about seeing any dance film, however I did summons the fortitude to take it in. I was enticed not solely by the hype of how phenomenal it was but also because of the looming Oscar buzz building around lead actress Natalie Portman. The buzz was not merely about her acting but her physical transformation. It is well known that when beautiful actresses go “ugly” for a film their chances for earning an Academy Award more than double, likewise if an actor gains or loses a great deal of weight to embody the character, they are almost a shoe in, at the very least for a nomination. Since there has been much ado about Portman’s 20-pound weight loss in the preparation for the role, I thought: me being who I am, doing what I do, am I not compelled to see the film so that I could be informed and contribute to the conversation?

I was a bit taken aback when I heard about this weight loss, I mean it sounded quite excessive considering that I could have never imagined that Lil’ Natalie Portman had 20 pounds to spare let alone lose. Had it been an actress of a more substantial physical stature I might well understand but Portman is naturally petite woman. Standing 5’3 she is already “Hollywood” thin which probably make her about a sample size 2 at the most, which is thinner than your average thin American woman, she is probably about the size and weight of an actual ballet dancer. What exactly was there to lose? Now before you launch in to the whole “But her character was having a psychological break, she was obsessive compulsive, and extreme, had an eating disorder and was picking twigs out of her back.” I get it, I truly do. I get that Portman went all “method” on us, I get that ballet dancers are twisted and warped and that Aronofsky was taking us on a journey into the darker side of the reality of the world of ballet. But there something else bothered me about the whole body thing surrounding this movie and I wanted to get the bottom of it.

In order to suss out what was stuck in my craw about this thing, I started to ask around, sometimes hearing other people’s perspectives can help me define my own. In preparation for this piece I had numerous conversations about the movie and some of the issues surrounding it. I spoke with the accompanist for my pointe classes, students, other dance teachers, choreographers, some parents, and friends. Most were fervently in defense of the movie and it’s portrayal of ballet dancers, and that world. They kept reminding me that it was from the perspective of a girl was having a psychotic breakdown. Trust me I get it, I get it! Most wanted to tell me that the Ballet world is like that, and these things to do happen. Well, I am a ballet dancer, and I know. I have known, have seen, and have myself been an obsessed bun head, with disordered eating and have cried over everything from double pirouettes not working, to not being cast. I even had that ballerina jewelry box, and though I did not have a ballet mother I had a ballet father who sewed pointe shoes and learn terminology and technique, he could trace ballet history form Diaghilev to Nureyev. Trust me, I get it. I know the hateful underbelly of the life of a swan. In truth, I am a “black” swan, and that’s a head-trip of another variety so please spare me the educational lecture about the world of ballet.

Full disclosure, all of these conversations happened before I relented my resistance to seeing the movie. Once I did, I discovered that what bothered me about the whole weight loss issue was not the actual act. I applaud Portman’s dedication to the role and the authenticity of her process, she lived, breathed (and evidently given her pregnancy and engagement to the films choreographer and her onscreen partner Benjamin Millepied) slept (with) Ballet. What crystallized for me was that I was taking issue with, and have concern about the language Portman used when promoting the film in regards to her preparations, and her perception of dancers and their world. You may find it nit picky but words have power, they create ideas, and belief systems. I tend to get a bit protective of the image of dancers, specifically ballet dancer (that of which I am one) and the drama, intensity, and dysfunction that is associated with us. Granted some of it is true and warranted but there is a hyped up mythology that surrounds dancers, and their lives that contributes to some degree to the detrimental behaviors real and those attributed to our field. I am protective of the marketed image and the idea and lives of dancers because long before young aspiring dancers master the techniques, often they take on the posturing of what they think they are supposed be; they dress a certain way, talk, walk act a certain way emulating a warped version of their idea of the real thing. They become heavy handed caricatures of what they idolize. Working from the outside in they give they credence to the adage “Dress for the job you want not the job you have” this can be highly detrimental because key elements in the marketed concept of how dancers are has to do with a level of dysfunction, obsession and the almighty ego. The latter can be the greatest undoing to a budding dancer. As a dance educator let me tell you it is all that pre-programmed information I, and my fellow colleagues have to wade through in order to get to the actual work.

Please let me explain my issue surrounding the film.

In the promotion of the film Portman told several media outlets that she trained for over a year for the role, she worked for 16 hours a day with Mary Helen Bowers the Founder of Ballet Beautiful learning to dance in the studio, lifting weights the gym and swimming to create the muscular definition and length associated with a ballerina’s form. This is all well and good, and quite understandable, there are many dancers who now cross train and for a non-dancer to obtain the physique of a trained professional dancer in one year it is understandable, and possibly even necessary to give the body balance. Though it is difficult, really impossible to cram ten years of a type training that permeates every facet of your physicality like dance into one year. Where one can achieve is the “look” of a dancer- the musculature, and the very specific blend of elegance, athleticism and strength, the realistic natural, “dancerly” comportment of a ballerina, the Port de Bra (carriage of the arms) is another story entirely. The former is is what Portman and her co-star Mila Kunis were trying to embody.

Mary Helen Bowers Founder of Ballet Beautiful and Portman’s couch for the film talks about their process

Workout here

The reason dancers look the way they do is because they do what they do, the work of dancing creates the look. If you are physically active for 6-8 hours a day your body is going to reflect that in tone, strength and size (based on you genetics of course) These markers of were going to be especially apparent on a person who is not used to working so vigorously as Ms. Portman certainly was not. Once she embarked on her training regimen her body was naturally going to change and she was (without effort) going to slim down. At her size she would no doubt be skin and bones without trying. The part that baffles me is the fact that she decided to restrict her diet whilst in this process. Portman is already a vegan therefore she does not eat dairy, sugar, or animal flesh hence her caloric and natural fat volume could not have been very high to begin with and certainly not high enough to support her new training regime. Perhaps because her character was so emotionally unstable and obsessively striving for perfection, it was a natural choice that she would have an eating disorder and self mutilate. That I can understand, and that does happen, crazy people do crazy things and there are some crazy dancers. However when promoting the movie she discusses her choice to restrict her food intake as if it was the norm for dancers period-not disturbed dancers whose reflections wave back at them.
This clip of Portman man on ABC news is a perfect example

Ok ok I hear all of you out there saying “What are you talking about it is the norm!” Let me explain the way I see it before you bust a gasket.

I will be the first to say that weight and body image issues are huge in the dance world hence I stared my blog to combat it. I am acutely aware of the issues; hell I am a product of them. I would say that 96% of dancers are disordered eaters, restrict and are almost obsessively aware of what they eat (or do not)- so it sounds like I agree with Ms. Portman- In a sense I do, but I will go a step further to say that dancers are no different than models, actresses, and some athletes. Most professions that are physical, performance aesthetically oriented have these same issues attached to them. Any time your appearance or where your physical performance is the product, the people who participate in those feilds with have some level of disorder where food and body image are concerned. Disordered eating is akin to but not the same as having an eating disorder. Restricting or have disordered eating does not necessarily mean that you are unhealthy. I am not advocating for disordered eating, I know that it is one slippery step away from full-blown eating disorders. I am saying that it is equally as common in other fields and professions as it is in dance. As an actress, Portman I am certain is well aware of it. We hear stories of actors and actresses dieting and not eating for days before awards shows, or fighting to stay “camera” thin. We see actors in between projects who plump up then slim down again when they go back to work. There is absolutely no difference! Dancers relationship to food and weight have not been “blown” out of proportion, I won’t even say that has been greatly exaggerated, but I will say that it is not as strange a concept as some would have you believe.

Keith Jackson former tight end for the Eagles, Dolphins, and the Packers used to jokingly say, “I could eat or diet my way out of a contract” He had strict weight guidelines that he had to adhere to. And what of Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps’ 10,000-12,000 calories a day training diet excessive? See here

What it is, is part of your job. Yes it can screw you up in the head, yes it can be detrimental to your health when taken too far or goes on too long but it is not uncommon. Dancers are not singular or special in this context. We are not superheroes or gladiators, we are not long suffering in matyrs for art. Please what we are is trained to endure what is necessary to execute our jobs. We don’t expect to be worshiped, it is a day at the office- you don’t feel like you do anything special until that curtain goes up and people applaud. It’s like firemen, policemen and people who serve in the armed forces they don’t go to work every day like “Wow I’m an everyday hero” (Note: nor to teachers and educators) they simple go to work and do the jobs they were trained to do. To an outsider these things that dancers do and the things we endure seem excessive but they, to us are not. Like Actors, singers, athletes are people doing a job, so are dancers, and they are just as twisted (if not more) than we are.

More articles in Natalie’s words


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Perhaps what lay people don’t know or get about the ballet aesthetic is that a large portion of it simply comes from simply doing the work and feeding your body smartly. Think about it: if you take a technique class for an hour and a half and then rehearse for another 6-7 hours your body is going to look a certain way, period. I have witnessed it in myself and with young dancers who after completing their first season with a company, because of the workload and schedule they come back ripped and lean, and that doesn’t mean that they are not eating. That‘s one great thing about being on tour when it comes to calories its Burn Baby Burn!

What I find ironic is that the dancer that was used to be Portman body double, American Ballet Theater’s Sarah Lane was by dancer’s standards, healthy looking she’s tiny but not anorexic skinny or frail.

by contrast Portman’s unstable Nina

While we are on the subject of body double’s doing the dancing and irony, for all the training that Portman did, there were very few scenes where we see her actually dancing. There were above the waist shots where she “looks” like she’s dancing, there are Swan like rippling arms but when it came to hitting a step Lane was used and most of those scenes where shot from a distance and through the mirror. I will give Portman credit for the one scene where we actually saw Portman being partnered by Millepied on pointe, I even remarked that she had pretty good feet. Then there was the cringe worthy moment when Mila Kunis has stepping in for her after their wild night out. Nina is late and is told to warm up, she proceeds to go to the barre and do some really technically horrendous tendus. All was forgiven though when Kunis’ Lilly asks her “Did you have a lezzie wet dream about me? Was I good?” that push those flawed tendus right out of my mind.

Look we are all painfully aware (and sort of sick and tired of) the most recent idea of “The Ballerina” What is important to know is that throughout history she has changed her look several times. The ballerinas of the 1930’s and 40’s the heyday of the Ballet Russe where quite stocky and muscular. They did not look as if they’d missed a meal.

It was George Balanchine who revamped the Ballerina’s look. Where he gave her more freedom of movement, the look he had an affinity for restricted her diet. It is this aesthetic that we cling to today; she is petite, fragile, pale and hungry. That is our idea, however the truth of who the classical ballerina is has some (not a great deal, but some) diversity. She may be super tiny a là pin thin (and often criticized for it) New York City Ballet’s Wendy Whelan

or you may look like NYCB’s long leggy Maria Kowroksi

the voluptuous American Ballet Theatre’s Misty Copeland and who is built like Jessica Rabbit in a tutu.

Or one of my favorites Sofiane Sylve.

Both Misty, Maria, and Sofiane look like real women, instead of prepubescent girls, all these women are incredible ballerinas. Where Classical ballet is still quite elitist, racist and antiquated, it is Contemporary Ballet that is the liberator of the Ballerina- Contemporary Ballet the woman’s movement for the Ballerina.

I will close by saying that I enjoyed Black Swan. I thought it was highly entertaining albeit disturbing. I also found it highly comical for some the trite dance movie myths that were included, let’s just say that if you make it to the level of Soloist, you are not hobbled by a cracked toe nail, and when it does crack you can’t hear it. It doesn’t sound like my dog when she gets a hold of a chicken bone, and I have not idea who does fouette turns in their living room, who in New York has the space? and if you did you would most certainly have a square of Marley dance floor. I applaud scenes that worked to show the more realistic elements of the ballet world, physical therapy goes kind of like that, the burning of the ribbons so they don’t fray, all insiders knowledge and truthful. Ultimately I took it for what it was but had to make a statement and stand to say that dance is not the only place where this type of dysfunction exists, and when it happens where ever it happens it is egregious and harmful.

That’s my two cents, you can keep the change.

* personally I have adopted one of the lines from the movie as my new tag phrase “I’m the Swan Queen!” Because Portman gave you a little bit of “Sister” in the delivery. Of course I as a Dammit at the end- I’m the Swan Queen Dammit!”

2 thoughts on “Black Swan- or Black Stain on the Ballet World?”

  1. Hi,
    I’ve read some horrendous stories about ballerinas in training who had to starve to fit the body ideal (how can you completely prevent your body from developing? Why are larger breasts such a big no-no? Misty looks so good, it’s a pleasure to see a curvy ballerina!) Anyway, my question is, why do these stories crop every once in a while when ballerinas go through such rigorous training? If a lithe form is so necessary, shouldn’t there be nutritionists on call in these dance schools to guide them? Everyone in this day and age knows bad diet or yo-yo dieting can be detrimental in the long run, especially for someone engaging in that level of physical activity. You know better, so my question is, why aren’t the diets of these ballerinas in training carefully monitored, just like athletes training for games?

  2. It’s a GREAT question… Here is what I think.There can be great negative ramifications to addressing or discussing the body in this day and age so directors and teachers are hesitant to talk about what the preferred aesthetic is in ballet, in stead it is HEAVILY IMPLIED…We all kinda know what we are supposed to look like without it being said. If a teacher says “you need to look like this” or “you need to lose weight” and that child develops a disorder…they can be sued. So it is just unspoken. When a dancer does start to lose weight, even TOO much weight often she will be praised, seldom does anyone ask how she achieved the loss. I do believe that that nutritionist (specializing in working with athletes) should be brought in–before someone shows signs of having a problem (either being over weight or under) I think that puberty should be discussed and acknowledged and there should be a healthy truthful dialogue about the body. But people are afraid of it. Afraid to admit that there is an “ideal” and there is body discrimination,and afraid to talk about if and how a dancers could go about fitting more into that “ideal”. It is something that educators should be concerned with.

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