After seeing Black Swan, my initial reaction was that Natalie Portman’s performance didn’t deserve such rave reviews. She looked like a scared rabbit for half the movie. And as for her much-hyped dancing, I thought a lot remained to be seen, literally. Most dance scenes showed her from the chest up, probably because her footwork wasn’t up to snuff. In scenes featuring head-to-toe shots of Portman’s actual dancing–as opposed to ABT’s Sarah Lane, who stood in for complicated sequences–she was good, but not at the level she’d need to be a principal, or even a corps member, of a prestigious company. Her telltale flaw: she lacked the effortless fluidity, grace and ease of movement that comes with experience. Just compare her swan arms to those of her supporting dancers, who were Pennsylvania Ballet pros.
But Portman isn’t a professional dancer. And once I stopped evaluating her performance from that perspective, the more I appreciated it. Ballet isn’t something you perfect in weeks, months, a year (the length of time Portman trained for this role) or even many years. Each step requires incredible precision. One minutely incorrect arm, head or even finger placement can distinguish an amateur from a pro; being a millimeter off your weight can turn a breathtaking pirouette or attitude wretched. Even walking and standing still takes more practice and skill than you would ever imagine. Part of ballet’s beauty comes from how weightless and natural dancers appear while performing. The audience doesn’t see the thousands of hours–not to mention tears, sweat, skinned feet and broken toenails–that go into each step.
You can train for years without getting near the level it takes to reach the big leagues–or even small companies. I speak from experience. I’ve studied ballet most of my life, but no one would mistake me for a pro. I leave every class with a mental laundry list of mistakes I made, corrections to remember. This endless quest for perfection is what I love and hate about ballet: I enjoy the challenge, but know I’ll never be flawless. (And, realistically, I’m a tad old to consider a dance career.)
Mila Kunis, Portman’s Black Swan costar, could surely attest to ballet’s difficulty, too. She told W magazine, “I trained for four months, seven days a week, five hours a day. I had one day off on my birthday. I lost 20 pounds. I tore a ligament. I dislocated my shoulder. I have two scars on my back. And it was worth every minute.” Despite her rigorous training, I didn’t see evidence of it in the film. Black Swan lost me in the scene where Vincent Cassel, as the director, lauds her talent. No company head would ever praise dancing like that. Kunis’ ballet was laughable; she looked like a gawky beginner. Her performance proved what all dancers know: You don’t become one overnight. And it’s impossible to fake good technique, no matter how talented an actress you are.
Portman, on the other hand, was far more believable. Her port de bras were graceful and her focus was accurate. I was impressed she could dance en pointe–not to mention fouette (not in the end scene, of course, but when she cracks her toenail)–with just a year’s training. It wouldn’t be a stretch to believe she was a trained amateur dancer in real life–and a good one, too. Portman played the role so convincingly that I, and countless other ballet lovers who saw the film, got lost in Black Swan without being jarred out of it every time a dance scene came up. And that’s a pretty Oscar-worthy feat.