March 28th, 2011

Natalie Portman, Vivien Leigh, and the dance double

It’s a bit funny to me that the film “Black Swan” is about doubling—a woman taken over by another self—and that Portman is being haunted by a double in real life: Sarah Lane, the woman who alleges she did 95% of Portman’s actual dancing (see also this and this).
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The studio says otherwise, that Portman did about 85% of her own dancing. Well, I guess it depends how one defines “dancing.” Is it backbends and arm movements? Or is it the whole package? Because when I saw the movie, I was paying attention to what Portman was and wasn’t doing, and it was clear to me (when I was not being distracted by gore) that a lot of the dancing was not Portman.

That’s because the legs and body of a working dancer in tip-top shape are different from those of an ordinary person, even an elite athlete (which Portman is not) or a thin person who’s in shape and has had some ballet lessons (which Portman is). It was clear to me that the majority of the full body shots of Portman’s character dancing on stage in performance—as opposed to upper-body shots or even some full-body shots of movement in rehearsal—were of someone else.

I knew it without any need to look at the head, which was grafted on in a special effect anyway. The carriage of the dancer is different and more upright and strong and yet pliant; Portman’s is either slightly languid or slightly rigid. The legs are more spectacularly muscled; Portman’s are more frail. The center of gravity is like a plumb line through the body, something one can almost draw; Portman lacks this quality.

It can’t be faked, nor can it be learned in a year of training. I’m sure Portman did as well as anyone could have, but it simply is not possible to do what they are alleging she did and be able to perform such feats, unless her previous training had made her close to professional ballet soloist material in the first place.

One of the beefs I had with the film was that the dancer they used, Sarah Lane, although gifted and competent and a soloist with American Ballet Theater, was not of the spectacular star quality the film describes and demands. That’s perhaps a small quibble—and it would have cost them a lot more to hire a true star in the ballet firmament, rather than Lane. No disrespect meant to Lane, who’s been slighted enough by the filmmakers and Portman already. But although she’s a wonderful dancer and has a worthy career, she’s not dancing leads such as the Swan Queen yet in her regular dancing gig.

At this point you may wonder how Vivien Leigh got into the title of this post. The topic of ballet in films reminded me of one of my favorite tear-jerkers, “Waterloo Bridge,” in which Leigh plays a ballet dancer who falls in love with an officer right before he goes off to WWI and she falls on hard times. Thanks to YouTube, we have a clip of a scene where Leigh is supposed to be dancing in a ballet that’s supposed to be “Swan Lake,” without the aid of technical wizardry as in “Black Swan.”

Unlike “Black Swan,” the dancing in “Waterloo Bridge” is purely incidental to the plot. Not only is there no real attempt to make it seem as though Leigh is especially skilled, but the film doesn’t even use the actual choreography of the well-known “Swan Lake,” just a pastiche of excerpts from the music and some generic moves, with dancers garbed in costumes that are a cross between those of “Les Sylphides” and the headdresses of the swan corps.

But Leigh does a game job of waving her arms around, looking slim and pretty, and making goo-goo eyes at Robert Taylor at the same time. Dance-wise, the most authentic thing about the movie is the stern and nasty dance mistress, shades of a number of old-time dance teachers I’ve known. She was played in the film by Maria Ouspenskaya, a Russian emigre actress who actually ran a dance school in Hollywood in the 30s, among whose pupils was the future Marge Champion.

Enjoy the esthetic of yesteryear—the technical wizardry was zippo, but the rest of it was pretty fine:

16 Responses to “Natalie Portman, Vivien Leigh, and the dance double”

  1. Curtis Says:

    Why do dancers live so long? Have you ever noticed that? Champion is nearly 92. Is it the physical conditioning? There’s a new study out where all of the people over 110 were studied and the only factor tying them together was the long living ability of their parents and relatives.

  2. Artfldgr Says:

    funny how socialists want credit and things to reflect their important contributions, but forget that they are hired to do a task, and if not them, then soomeone else.

    guess what?

    this dancer will not get more work, unless she is so great that no other will do.

    since we really didnt know her, she is now not going to get such work..

    why should she… it was a work for hire…
    [ie. the dreaded commerical art]

  3. ElMondoHummus Says:

    I knew it without any need to look at the head, which was grafted on in a special effect anyway. The carriage of the dancer is different and more upright and strong and yet pliant; Portman’s is either slightly languid or slightly rigid. The legs are more spectacularly muscled; Portman’s are more frail. The center of gravity is like a plumb line through the body, something one can almost draw; Portman lacks this quality.

    It can’t be faked, nor can it be learned in a year of training. I’m sure Portman did as well as anyone could have, but it simply is not possible to do what they are alleging she did and be able to perform such feats, unless her previous training had made her close to professional ballet soloist material in the first place.

    Now that is something that only someone versed in the field can tell. I sure as heck would not notice this. And while I’ve been exposed to live ballet from my days working technical backstage jobs in college, being “exposed” is not the same as having the sort of knowledge necessary to discern such subtleties.

    I might – might – be able to tell a genuine football or basketball player from one who’s merely acting merely by watching, but I definitely don’t know enough to tell for certain. The only thing I could even come close to being able to sniff out would not be physical performance, but rather written communications between real Information Technology professionals and “fakers”. And even then, it would have to be a seriously, deeply technical discussion over topics I know before I’d be able to tell the difference. My point in bringing this up is to highlight the very real effect experience and perspective has on how people perceive representations – artistic or otherwise – of real things.

  4. Curtis Says:

    Good point, ElMondoHummus. I call it the 10 to 1 rule in that it takes 10 affirmative action liberal heroes to match the output and productivity of one conservative. Malcolm Gladwell calls it the 10,000 hour rule in that it takes 10,000 hours of doing something to become an expert.

  5. neo-neocon Says:

    Curtis: I’m not aware of any studies on the relative longevity of ballet dancers. But I do know that, sadly, quite a few of the most famous ones died rather young.

    I wrote about Isadora Duncan and Pavlova the other day. Both died relatively young, although Duncan died in an accident (and of course was not a ballet dancer). But modern-day ballet greats Nureyev and Eric Bruhn died young as well, as did Fernando Bujones. Nureyev died of AIDS, which cut a swath through the ranks of male dancers for a while. Bruhn’s death was attributed to lung cancer, but there is some suspicion it was AIDS. Bujones, who was heterosexual, died of melanoma.

  6. neo-neocon Says:

    ElMondoHummus: A related issue I find interesting is the depiction of ballet dancers in art. Maybe I’ll write a post on it some time. Anyone who has studied dance with some intensity can see that most paintings and sculptures of ballet dancers are flawed in various ways; the artists don’t get the poses quite right. One enormous exception to this rule was Degas, who somehow managed to see exactly and to render it correctly. That always has impressed me greatly.

  7. neo-neocon Says:

    Artfldgr: Lane is already a soloist with ABT. Unless she’s fired (which I doubt), I assume she’ll continue as a soloist there and get the same roles as before (smallish solo roles; see this). ABT has long been, to the best of my knowledge, perfectly fine with its dancers doing movies. The movie “The Turning Point” used a great many dancers from ABT.

  8. Paul_In_Houston Says:

    Curtis Says:
    March 28th, 2011 at 4:28 pm

    Why do dancers live so long? Have you ever noticed that? Champion is nearly 92.

    Whether or not this is true (neo has words on this), I’ve noticed the same thing about classical music composers and conductors (Stravinsky, Stokowski, Ralph Vaughan Williams; all still creative in their 80s).

    I truly believe that it is a matter of doing something that you absolutely love to do. Nothing is greater for your soul and well-being than to be so blessed.
    -

    IMHO, anyway. :-)

  9. Curtis Says:

    Yeah, that was what I was getting at Paul in Houston. And the “loving it” part is no wildly infatuated teen-ager hormone dripped on pulsing heart of emotion; it is the ever deepening and widening appreciation for the chance to be part of something bigger than yourself.

  10. Jared Clark Smith Says:

    Neo, Thanks for clearing this up. I thought it was some highschool attitude stuff; gorgous high speed dance athlete v/s gorgous high speed actress. Turns out that is not the case, mostly. I like your discussion of the dancer as athlete. All the same to you of course, but to an igoramus like me, it needs to be said again.

  11. Ben David Says:

    In the world of visual arts there has long been this ironic distinction between “real Art” and “commercial art”:

    In “commercial art” they tell you how much they will pay you, and then you do the work.

    In Real Art, it’s the other way around…

  12. raincityjazz Says:

    Three pro and semipro dancers in my family saw what you saw. The expert ice dancer, the pro soccer player and the ex-olympian skiier missed it. Truly you need one to know one!

  13. temporarilyqualmless Says:

    well, my 17 year old ballerina daughter with 13 years of ballet in small town texas (albeit her masters are Jeoffrey trained American Ballet veterans now retired) immediaely smelled a rat on the dancing part. No way Portmtan did most of that. And Degas was so incedibly nearsighted that he probably depicted form, perhaps frm visual memory, and not precision, as a high speed camera does. His ballet paintings are stunning. I get a similar effect when I try to photo performances backstage without a flash. Seeing lots of guest artists up close thru the years, anyone who tries to assert that these dancers are not high caliber atheltes is just plain wrong..

  14. temporarilyqualmless Says:

    Of course, to my daughter, then i had to explain away some of the racier sexual stuff… But our ballet master friends had privately already confirmed many of the hi-jinks from their experiences in the 70′s…

  15. davisbr Says:

    Thanks neo. Yours was (as expected) the only analysis worth reading on the subject (didn’t plan on seeing the film, and my non-plan has been reinforced over what I’ve read).

  16. Pat Says:

    Your post reminded me of a spectacular example of non-doubling, where the leads are not replaced by trained dancers. We saw the 1998 hit production of Oklahoma in London. Usually, when they do the dream ballet, the actors are replaced by dancers. Not this production. High Jackman and Josefina Gabrielle pulled it off brilliantly. I suppose it helped that Josefina was a trained dancer from the Portugese Ballet Company, as well as a great actor and singer.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BnzXGuqT0lw

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About Me

Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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