‘Dangerous ballet’ opens festival

Classical ballet has rarely been portrayed like this, featuring murder, ruthless ambition, drug-taking, self-harming, unhealthy narcissism and lesbian sex.

“I’m terrified of a ballet backlash,” movie director Darren Aronofsky said jokingly at the opening of the Venice film festival last week after the first showing of his new film, Black Swan. “Those dancers are real dangerous.”

The film stars Natalie Portman as a ballerina who sacrifices more than her feet to get the leading role in Swan Lake. It’s a tense psycho-thriller that also stars Barbara Hershey as her mother, Winona Ryder as a has-been ballerina, Vincent Cassel as the driven company boss and Mila Kunis (also known as the voice of Meg in Family Guy) as the rival swan.

One of the most talked-about scenes from the film will doubtless be the lesbian sex scene with Portman and Kunis; Portman said she first talked about the film with Aronofsky — who also directed The Wrestler — in 2002. “He described it as: ‘You’re going to have a sex scene with yourself’, and I thought that was really interesting because this movie is in so many ways an exploration of ego and that narcissistic attraction to yourself. I found the psychological impact of that scene to be really challenging and interesting.”

Aronofsky said his recollection was different. Portman, he said, had in fact asked: ‘Why?’ To which the director admitted he had not quite figured it out.

Aronofsky is something of a Venice favourite, winning the Golden Lion for The Wrestler, which starred Mickey Rourke, in 2008. The director said he saw the films almost as companion pieces. “The more I looked into the world of ballet, the more I started seeing similarities with wrestling. They both have these performers who use their bodies in extremely intense physical ways; the entire performance is based on their physicality.”

Not that he had been entirely welcomed. Aronofsky said he and screenwriter Mark Heyman “spent a tremendous amount of time trying to get into the ballet world, which was incredibly difficult. It’s a very insular world and they really have absolutely no interest in anything [other than ballet]. Most of the time when you show up and say: ‘Hey, I’m going to make a movie about you’, all the doors open up but with ballet they all shrugged and didn’t return calls.”

Slowly, they managed to get a “stamp of approval”, persuading people that they were trying to do something cool. “We tried to capture as much of the reality in a real documentary sense. I was trying to fuse something highly stylistic with something I was doing in The Wrestler, which was more documentary.” They were helped by the involvement of Benjamin Millepied, a dancer at the New York City Ballet and Portman’s real-life boyfriend, who plays the prince.

Aronofsky said it was a “huge honour” to open the festival and they had been working around the clock so it was ready in time. “I slept more on the plane coming over than I have in months.” —

Mark Brown
Professor of Political Economy at Brown University. Author of Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea, & Great Transformations. Mark Brown has over 27644 followers on Twitter.

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