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Ballet Austin director assesses 'Black Swan'

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
In 'Black Swan,' Natalie Portman's Nina fits the mold of a 'bunhead' — the term for a ballerina who's obsessed with her craft, says Stephen Mills, artistic director for Ballet Austin.

Ballet companies around the country might be currently engrossed in their annual productions of "The Nutcracker," the ubiquitous holiday entertainment and necessary moneymaker.

But the production getting the buzz right now at arthouse cinemas is the "Swan Lake" at the center of "Black Swan," the psycho-thriller from director Darren Aronofsky.

Starring Natalie Portman as a young ballerina ripped apart psychologically by the pressures of dancing the lead in "Swan Lake," the movie illuminates an intimate view of the backstage ballet world arguably not seen by movie audiences since 1977's "The Turning Point" or perhaps Robert Altman's "The Company" in 2003.

All the pirouetting and pointe shoes flickering across the screen of late have balletomanes paying attention.

Stephen Mills, artistic director of Ballet Austin, introduced "Black Swan" to Austin Film Festival audiences in October.

"I thought it was a cross between 'The Turning Point' and 'Carrie,'" said Mills, referring to the Oscar-nominated '70s ballet drama and to the '70s horror film about an awkward high school girl with supernatural powers who's pushed beyond limits by social pressures, respectively.

Mills said that although he enjoyed "Black Swan" for many things, including its psycho-thriller tale, not all the ballet details merit five stars.

"What got my back up were the stereotypes of the ballet world," said Mills. "There's (the portrayal of) every dancer having an eating disorder, the artistic director using the casting couch, the prima ballerina being sidestepped by the young dancer, the absolute hierarchy of the company. And then of course women are always the victim in that world. But those of us in (the ballet profession) are continually fighting those stereotypes."

In reality, the mood and management of today's ballet company, Mills said, is far beyond such clichés. "Dancers take a lot of responsibility for their health, and there's more of an awareness of different body types," Mills notes. "And the work environment is more team-oriented without a tyrant at the top. There's also an understanding that dancers are people who have lives outside dancing."

Portman's character, Nina, is the classic "bunhead" — ballet slang for an obsessed dancer who lives, breathes, eats and sleeps in a pale pink pointe-shoe world. Plucked out of the corps by seducing, menancing Thomas (Vincent Cassel), the director of a fictional New York ballet company, to dance the lead in his new version of "Swan Lake," Nina must reconcile her insecurities and good-girl nature in order to tackle the role of Odette/Odile. The dual role requires a dancer to be an enchantingly pure princess and her villainous alter-ego.

Much has been made of Portman's yearlong preparation for the role. Though she had some ballet instruction as a youngster, the actress nevertheless endured intense training with New York City Ballet dancer Mary Helen Bowers to achieve the ramrod-straight posture, the sinewy muscles and the pressed-down shoulders and elongated neck that characterize a classic ballet dancer body.

We see plenty of Portman undulating her arms in the classic swan move. And we see pointe-shoed feet we believe to be hers. Yet only occasionally do we see a full-body shot of her dancing. That's because difficult dance sequences were performed by a body double, American Ballet Theater soloist Sarah Lane.

Portman's arms "are pretty good for a non-dancer," Mills said. "But it's probably good we didn't see more of her (actual) feet."

Mills did appreciate camera work capturing scenes from Nina's point of view.

"There's a great moment when the company is rehearsing and all you see is what (Portman's character) sees from her position in the middle of the room, the other dancers all around her, the back of the dancer just in front of her. You really get a great view of what it means to be dancing within a whole group."

With Ballet Austin dancers enmeshed in "Nutcracker" rehearsals and performances, Mills said he didn't know how many had had a chance to see "Black Swan" yet, since it opened on Friday.

"What's good is that ballet is being represented (in the movies), and if that compels people to see more ballet, then that's great," he said. "And just as a thriller, the movie is fun."

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699

Ballet Austin's 'The Nutcracker'

When: Through Dec. 23

Where:Long Center, 701 W. Riverside Drive

Tickets: $15-$71

Information:476-2163, www.balletaustin.org