Professional dancers weigh in on ‘Black Swan’


“Black Swan,” the new psycho-sexual thriller set in the world of ballet, follows the downward emotional spiral of a young dancer whose inability to separate art and life leads to horrific and bloody consequences.

The movie, directed by Darren Aronofsky and starring Natalie Portman, is seen as a top awards contender. Critics have been sharply divided, with some praising the extreme depiction of lunacy while others have been turned off by the same.

“Black Swan” takes a wildly subjective approach to the heroine’s descent into madness. A number of reviewers have compared it to Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion” and other in-her-head portrayals of emotional repression and paranoid insanity.


The setting is a fictional ballet company based at Lincoln Center. Aronofsky, who directed Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler,” went to some lengths to create convincing dance scenes, hiring consultants from the New York ballet community, including dancer and choreographer Benjamin Millepied.

What do people in the dance world think about the film? The Times invited Gillian Murphy and David Hallberg — two principals in New York’s American Ballet Theatre — to see the movie and offer their assessments. The dancers, regarded as among the top in the profession, both have ample experience performing “Swan Lake,” the Tchaikovsky warhorse that is at the center of the movie.

Murphy has performed the dual character of Odette/Odile in productions around the world, and the part has become one of her signature roles. She will be in Irvine this weekend, dancing the Sugar Plum Fairy in the Festival Ballet Theatre Company’s “The Nutcracker” at the Barclay. Hallberg has put his stamp on the part of Prince Siegfried, and played the role at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in 2008.

Neither Murphy nor Hallberg participated in the making of “Black Swan,” although both said they know dancers who worked on the film. They spoke separately by phone from New York.

Question: As principals in a major New York company, what was your reaction to the movie’s dark depiction of the ballet world?

Gillian Murphy: I thought the extreme nature that it presented was shocking, but it was intentionally that way. I thought the movie was brilliantly conceived and imaginative.


David Hallberg: It’s from a well-respected director, so there’s a comfort in that. And I’m a fan of his work. It’s always interesting to see where someone will take it. I was, interestingly, quite stressed throughout the film, especially near the beginning of the end, because it became such a thriller.

Q: The main character, played by Natalie Portman, has trouble distinguishing her life from her onstage role. In reality, how intensely do dancers live their roles?

GM: Most of my colleagues have a great sense of humor and can separate the intensity of being on stage and portraying complex characters and having diverse personal lives.

DH: When you’re first dancing a ballet, you’re so wrapped up in it and you do nothing but think about it. When you are afforded a lot of rehearsals, you can become quite enveloped in the process. Every detail is ironed out and every step is detailed for hours and hours.

Q: Have you ever played a role that has consumed you?

GM: I once played the character of Lizzie Borden in “Fall River Legend.” That was fairly intense because you have to embrace the role onstage and experience what that character is about — very repressed and angry. But does that mean I was a nightmare to live with? Absolutely not — Ethan [Stiefel, her boyfriend and fellow ABT principal] would not have lived with me if that was the case.

DH: I have had performances like that — one of those was “Swan Lake” and another was in “Romeo and Juliet” — when it’s almost otherworldly and you’re possessed by something else. I had a performance when I was not only crying visibly but for about a week after, I was haunted by it. I couldn’t go anywhere else — mentally I was frozen and it was so unbelievably intense. But you only have one or two of those performances in a career.

Q: Is the ballet profession as ruthless as it is portrayed in the movie?

GM: It’s very competitive, especially to get into a company. I feel that once you’re in the company, you have your personal goals to progress and to get more roles, and we are very supportive of each other. The mean-spiritedness portrayed in the movie was disturbing to me. That atmosphere and the lecherousness of the director — they have nothing to do with my personal experience.

DH: It is a competitive art form … but what isn’t a reality is the cutthroat, vicious attitude about it. Honestly, in any profession, there are ambitious ones and ones who roll with the punches and go with the flow. There are egos — if I were to critique anything about the dance world, it’s the egos involved.

Q: Barbara Hershey plays a controlling mother who envies her daughter’s career. Are there a lot of pushy parents like that in ballet?

GM: I’ve not personally witnessed parents like that. When someone becomes a professional dancer at 17 or 18, it really has to be something you want to do personally. If someone has a mom like Barbara Hershey — who I thought did an extraordinary job — that dancer would burn out before he or she got to the professional level.

DH: You notice that more so when people are in school. You definitely see some mothers really going full out with the dedication of their child. That was very prevalent when I was training at my school in Phoenix. I like to say that talent speaks for itself. Overbearing mothers, when it all boils down to it, don’t get you the part.

Q: As professionals, is it difficult to watch ballet-themed movies that are aimed at general audiences?

GM: Ballet movies in general have a lot of stereotypes, but I’ve enjoyed many of them. I would like to see a dance movie that is more realistic. One of my favorite films of all time is “The Red Shoes.” It has great performances and amazing cinematography. It asks the question of how can a dancer experience and portray greatness onstage and also have a full personal life — and as a woman, have kids and get married. In this day and age, people do it all the time.

DH: It’s hard to be objective as a dancer seeing a dance film. Once they start talking “ballet talk” in a movie, you know it is geared toward a general audience, which I can understand. There’s a sense of generality that dancers pick up on. ... But there’s such a diversity of movies out there. “Center Stage” was very bubbly — the pop side of ballet. “Black Swan” is, of course, completely different.