The Price of Perfection

Natalie Portman's character loses her grip on reality in Black Swan. Photo by Niko Tavernise.

Sarah Lane is standing onstage holding a syringe of fake blood. “When do you want me to start dripping it?” she yells out to the house. It’s the last day of filming the dance scenes in Black Swan, and I’m sitting next to director Darren Aronofsky inside SUNY Purchase’s Performing Arts Center. The atmosphere on set reminds me of a tech rehearsal as dancers stand around waiting while crew members fiddle with the lights. But the combination of familiar dancer faces, high-profile Hollywood big shots and the bizarre scene they’re filming seems almost surreal.


A crew member comes over to suggest that they digitally sub the blood in later, using the same technique the director did with the staples in Mickey Rourke’s skin in The Wrestler. Aronofsky says no. He wants to try it with the real (fake) blood. I cringe, imagining how each 30-second take is going to ruin a perfectly good pair of $80 pointe shoes.


The word “rolling” echoes three times through the theater and Act III Swan Lake music screeches out of the speakers. The corps, dressed in white swan tutus with gray scratch marks around their eyes and blackened finger tips, runs in Petipa’s familiar patterns. Lane rises to bourrée and starts squeezing the syringe. A camera rolling at ankle level trails after her pointe shoes, which are quickly drenched in red. It’s clear that this is not going to be your typical dance film.


With any new movie about ballet, dancers both anticipate and dread Hollywood’s take on their world. Black Swan, the latest addition to the genre, hits theaters December 1. But while Aronofsky includes a few of the expected clichés—bulimic purging, a pushy stage mom, the requisite pointe shoe breaking-in and bloody-foot shots—the movie is a much darker depiction of dancers than what usually makes it to the screen. Black Swan is less an intimate portrait of life in the studio and more a horror film about obsession gone awry, the moment when dedication becomes destruction. Even the color pink takes on a menacing tinge.


The story focuses on a performance of Swan Lake and mirrors the ballet’s plot—but takes it in a nightmarish direction. Nina (Natalie Portman), an eager, naïve soloist at a fictional New York City ballet company, has just been cast as Odette/Odile, and is determined to be “perfect” in her first principal role. Yet she has been so sheltered by her life in ballet that embodying the black swan’s sensuality becomes an agonizing struggle. The company’s artistic director (Vincent Cassell) urges Nina to let go, to lose control, to be more like Lily (Mila Kunis), a new company member who effortlessly oozes sex appeal—and who also looks eerily like Nina and seems to be angling for her part. As Nina follows the director’s advice, she becomes possessed by her desire to pull off an impeccable performance. The line between reality and hallucination grows murkier for both her character and the audience in increasingly bizarre, even gruesome scenes. A sinister version of Tchaikovsky’s score plays through nearly every scene, creating an intensely dramatic backdrop.


The corps is supplied by Pennsylvania Ballet dancers on post-Nutcracker layoff, plus a handful of freelancers. Portman and Kunis were given ballet back up by American Ballet Theatre’s Sarah Lane and Maria Riccetto, respectively. The two perform as body doubles in studio and stage scenes, dancing Swan Lake choreography that has a slightly contemporary update courtesy of New York City Ballet’s Benjamin Millepied. “Ben wanted to keep the classical choreography,” says Aronofsky, “but I told him to make it funkier. Now it even has traces of the funky chicken.”


With such high-powered ballet talent, it’s disappointing how little dancing made it into the final product. And a few balletic missteps are distracting: There’s oddly only one cast with no understudy, and the lead is never called “Odette/Odile,” but “Swan Queen.” However, behind the heavy-handed horror, Aronofsky captures the mentality of a perfectionistic, self-destructive dancer with disturbing accuracy. By cutting the film loose from the confines of realism, he shows from the inside out the psychological toll that ballet takes on dancers.


Still, building an R-rated thriller out of the world of ballet seems like an odd choice. Aronofsky, though, says it was simply a natural consequence of taking everything—from the characters to the colors of the sets and costumes—from the original ballet. “If you look at Swan Lake, it’s actually very gothic, dark and tragic,” he says. “When you turn the fairy tale into a real-world story, that tone carries over.”


Aronofsky began working on the project about 10 years ago when he came across a script titled The Understudy, set in the world of off-Broadway theater. He had always been fascinated by ballet (his sister studied it seriously growing up), so he hired a writer to revamp the screenplay using Petipa’s ballet as a jumping-off point. “Ballet was something that I never understood or grasped, but was a world unto itself,” says Aronofsky. “And, like wrestling, it’s a world most people haven’t seen from the inside.”


He made a couple of movies in the interim, but Black Swan stuck in his mind. So after wrapping The Wrestler, he decided to dust off the script and examine performers on the opposite end of the high-low art spectrum. “We spent a year researching to fully understand the psychology of a ballerina, the nuances and character traits,” says producer Scott Franklin. Dancers such as former NYCB principal Heather Watts and ABT’s Gillian Murphy and Julie Kent provided the filmmakers with insight and backstage access. “I started to realize this profession is incredibly difficult and very painful, even,” Aronofsky says. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, how do I capture that?’ ”


Key to his vision was casting an extremely capable screen actress who could dig deep into the mind of a disturbed dancer. He hired Portman, who did her homework as well, immersing herself in the world of ballet to fully understand her character. “I was definitely inspired by the type of dancer who’s a ‘bunhead,’ very much infantilized by her work,” says Portman, whose ingenious performance is already receiving Oscar buzz. “There’s the high-pitched voice, the desire to please, the total surrender to a male director.”


To conquer the balletic demands of the role, she took daily private classes for 10 months before filming, and got additional swan-specific coaching from the late ABT ballet mistress Georgina Parkinson. “Getting the arms right was especially important for me because much of the film is shot very close up,” Portman says. Lane stands in for the character’s major dancing in wide shots (sometimes using digital face replacement technology) as well as in close-ups on the hands and feet. But Portman does the majority of her own dancing, mostly in the takes that focus on her upper body. Although she is sometimes stiff and awkward, her swan arms are surprisingly convincing.


While Portman spent days in the studio working on choreography, the professional dancers were given only a handful of hours to learn their steps. They rehearsed briefly before filming to make any needed adjustments, such as tweaking traffic patterns to accommodate the cameraman. “The most challenging part was to repeat every single movement thousands of times,” says Riccetto. Sarah Hay, who plays one of the corps dancers in the film, adds that they had to keep pushing themselves for each take, since they never knew which was going to be used. Most saw this as an opportunity they don’t get with live performance. “We would work for hours on one tiny set of movements, just perfecting and perfecting them,” Lane remembers. From talking to the dancers about the filming process, it’s apparent just how astutely Aronofsky captured their perfectionism.


In a way, the authenticity with which Black Swan highlights this particular dimension of ballet draws attention to what Aronofsky left out: the thrill of moving, the joy of creating art with your body, the high of a great performance. Black Swan is a brilliant snapshot of ballet’s dark side. But, although we all know the vicious black swan is the sexier role, it’s too bad moviegoers will miss out on seeing the beauty of the white.

Jennifer Stahl is Pointe’s senior editor. 

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For more than 25 years, coaching at Ballethnic has been a lifeline back to Abarca Mitchell's days with DTH. She had a stellar career, both with the company and beyond, but left the stage at age 30 after an injury sustained performing in Dancin' on Broadway. Her husband's job transferred them to Atlanta, where she transitioned to a full-time job as a medical transcriptionist while raising a family. Now retired from her second career, Abarca Mitchell continues to forward Arthur Mitchell's legacy, not only through coaching but also by building community among DTH alumni and writing her memoirs—a fairy-tale story of a child who came from the Harlem public-housing projects and became a trailblazing Black ballerina.

Abarca Mitchell grew up during the 1950s and '60s, the oldest of seven in a tight-knit family. She always danced, taking cues from Hollywood figures until a fourth-grade teacher saw her talent and encouraged her to seek formal training. The family couldn't afford ballet lessons, but Abarca Mitchell earned a scholarship to attend The Juilliard School's Saturday youth program, and later the Harkness Ballet's professional training program. But for all of those ballet classes, Abarca Mitchell never had the opportunity to see or perform in a ballet production. She didn't understand the purpose behind ballet's tedious class exercises.

When the fast-growing Harkness Ballet moved its scholarship students to the June Taylor Studio on Broadway, Abarca Mitchell remembers hearing live drumming, clapping and laughter coming from the studio across the hall. It was a jazz class taught by Jaime Rogers, who'd played Loco in the West Side Story movie. Abarca Mitchell started sneaking into Rogers' classes.

When Harkness informed her that her scholarship was exclusively for ballet, Abarca Mitchell left the program. She saw no future for herself in the white-dominated ballet world, and focused on academics during her last two years of high school.

At 17, Abarca Mitchell met Arthur Mitchell. He had made history as the first Black principal dancer with New York City Ballet, which he had joined in 1955, and had just begun to shape what would become Dance Theatre of Harlem when he hired Abarca Mitchell in 1968. Within a month, she was back on pointe. Within two months, she was performing in Arthur Mitchell's Tones. "I didn't even know what ballet was until I was onstage," Abarca Mitchell says. "All of a sudden, it was my heart and soul."

Arthur Mitchell made sure his dancers saw NYCB perform, and subsequently brought Balanchine's Agon, Concerto Barocco and other NYCB works into the DTH repertoire. "Physically and emotionally, I felt the connection of jazz in Balanchine's choreography," Abarca Mitchell says. "His neoclassical style was just funky to me. I could totally relate."

For the first time, Abarca Mitchell danced with people who looked like her and shared the same aspirations, she says, with a leader who "saw us through his eyes of love and achievement."

In Abarca Mitchell's 30s, after a performing career that took her from DTH to the film version of The Wiz to Bob Fosse's Dancin' and beyond, her husband's job took their family to Atlanta. She soon connected with Gilreath and Waverly Lucas. The couple, also DTH alumni, were influenced by Arthur Mitchell's model when they founded Ballethnic, seeking to create access for dancers of all backgrounds to develop as classical dancers and perform a repertoire that represents the company's culturally diverse home city. Over time, Abarca Mitchell became a trusted advisor.

Abarca Mitchell goes in at least twice a year to coach Ballethnic's productions—such as Urban Nutcracker, set in Atlanta's historically Black Sweet Auburn neighborhood, and The Leopard Tale, which features the company's signature blend of classical pointe work with polyrhythmic dance forms of the African diaspora. These final rehearsals give Abarca Mitchell a way to fast-track the transfer of her mentor's values.

Two dancers in blue and black practice clothes and face masks, the woman in pointe shoes, pose together in a first arabesque tendu. Abarca Mitchell steps out of a mirrored pose as she adjusts the fingertips of the male dancer.

Lydia Abarca Mitchell works with Ballethnic's Calvin Gentry and Karla Tyson.

Courtesy Ballethnic Dance Company

She recalls that Arthur Mitchell taught his dancers to present themselves at their finest—to enter a room with their heads held high and shoulders back—and to dress, speak and walk with dignity and self-respect. He reminded them that they were pioneers and ambassadors for Blacks in ballet. As the company gained international stature—Abarca Mitchell was the first Black female ballerina to appear on the cover of Dance Magazine, in 1975—he insisted the dancers remain humble and in service to the greater mission. But he was also a taskmaster. "No nonsense, no excuses," Abarca Mitchell says. "There was no slack. If he was rehearsing something that you're not in, you'd better be on the side learning it."

"He didn't throw compliments around at all. You had to really kill yourself to get a smile from him." After a run-through, she says, "you didn't want to be singled out."

Abarca Mitchell takes a slightly different approach, though she doesn't compromise on the values her mentor instilled. When coaching large casts of all ages and different levels for Ballethnic, she has found ways to inspire people without tearing them down. She calls it a "tough love" approach.

"I've got to make them want to do it. I don't want to beat them into doing it," Abarca Mitchell says. "I tell them, 'You're here because you want to be, and because you auditioned and were accepted. Now, show me why I should keep you here.'"

"I tell them, 'I'm here to make sure you'll look good—you know: 'That looks fake. Let's make it look real. Think about what you're doing, so that it's not just a gesture.'"

Arthur Mitchell instilled this level of emotional honesty in his dancers, and it was key to the company's quick success. "We were bringing a thought forward," says Abarca Mitchell. "We were bringing a feeling forward, so that the audience could connect with us."

In addition to her position as rehearsal director for Ballethnic, Abarca Mitchell is today part of 152nd Street Black Ballet Legacy, a group of DTH alumni who seek to give voice to people responsible for the company's success in its early years. "It's incredible," she says, "how many people took something from DTH and applied it to their lives."

As Ballethnic prepares to co-host the International Association of Blacks in Dance Conference and Festival in January 2022, Abarca Mitchell hopes to help strengthen the network of dance companies associated with Ballethnic, such as Memphis' Collage Dance Collective. "The dream is for all of us to collaborate with each other," she says, "so that it becomes more normal to see a Black ballerina, so it's not just a token appearance."

Today's young dancers face different challenges from what Abarca Mitchell faced. She finds that they're more easily distracted, and sometimes act entitled, because they don't know or appreciate how hard earlier Black ballerinas like herself worked to clear a path for them. But what she's passing on will benefit them, whether they choose to pursue dance careers or become doctors, lawyers, professors or something else entirely. "The principles are the same," she says. "Work for what you want, and you will achieve it."

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