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).
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: