What Do Dancers Think About Black Swan?

Earlier this week we followed with interest the online reaction to The Guardian piece entitled “What Britain’s ballet stars made of Black Swan”. Objecting to the dancers’ more literal and nitpicky approach to Aronofksy’s movie, commenters responded with such remarks as “Watching Black Swan for the ballet seems to me like watching South Park: The Movie for the Christian theology” and “have you ever seen an Aronofsky film?”

Aronofsky’s movie only opens in the UK on 21 January but in the US it has been out for a while. At the time of its release several US publications also approached professional dancers for their views. We now have the opportunity to look at all these different reactions and to conclude that the movie really divides dancers: while some are generally unhappy with the clichés, with Natalie Portman’s “inadequate port de bras” and at how negatively the movie portrays an “already struggling art form”, others have approached it from the viewpoint of symbolism and metaphor. Below we list these different POVs:

Natalie Portman in Black Swan. Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures ©

NYCB’s Ashley Bouder for the Huffington Post (review):

We all know those stereotypes of the ballet world: the stage mom, the anorexic or bulimic, the other ballerina out to get your roles, the obsessive perfectionist, etc. They are all represented in this movie to an extreme level. But all these things don’t bother me. That is not what the movie is about. This is a psychological thriller about a delusional girl. This is no one’s ballet movie. Yes, the main character is a ballerina, but this is about her mind more than anything else. It is hard to tell what the reality is and what she is seeing. It truly sets your head spinning.

Wendy Whelan for The Daily Beast (review):

Natalie Portman is fantastic as Nina, a corps dancer struggling to rise to the challenge of dancing the principal role of the Swan Queen. The actress poured herself into serious ballet training to be able to embody the look of a professional dancer and she did a magnificent job of it. No real dancer I can imagine could have portrayed the depth of emotion this role required, it needed a great actress. But without the degree of devotion and discipline that she applied to the dance, Black Swan would never have achieved the heights that it does.

ABT’s Gillian Murphy and David Hallberg for the LA Times (Q&A):

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.

NYCB’s Megan Fairchild for NY Mag’s Vulture Blog (Q&A):

Do you often find yourself stretching in dank, spooky corridors?

No. That was a really dark and spooky space they found! With the cement walls and stuff? It was so masochistic. I mean, we have a good time at work. We all think we should have a reality show because we think we’re so funny.

Ballet BC‘s Peter Smida & others for CBC News (quotes):

It basically strengthens any stereotypes that have slowly been disappearing over the past 20 years or so, You know, this dancer who wants to be perfect in every way. I tried to remember [exaggerations are to be expected] throughout the film because [Aronofsky's] stuff is usually pretty out there, I think it’s always going to be difficult for me to watch a movie about ballet because I’m going to be watching it from a different perspective.

Miami City Ballet dancers for The Sun Sentinel (review):

Jennifer Kronenberg: (…) I’m also telling people to look for symbolism and metaphor rather than taking everything literally. If taken simply at face value, the film is utterly ridiculous. It is also most important to remember throughout the film that it is not a factual depiction of the real ballet world. It is the world as seen through the eyes and mind of an emotionally disturbed, very neurotic young girl whose social development has been severely arrested. She’s incapable of coping with the stresses and pressures of a competitive world and allows herself to be consumed by her own self-destructive demons.

Callie Manning: (…) Portman did an admirable job of “faking” the dancing. Her body double (Sarah Lane) was beautiful and the transitions between the two them were done really well. I think most of the audience believed that Portman did all her own “stunts.” Her acting was wonderful, I was just really annoyed by the character she played. Kunis didn’t do much dancing but her acting was great, too. I have a much easier time relating to her character’s persona and didn’t find her “cliché” nearly as irritating.

Miami City Ballet’s Rebecca King for her blog Tendus Under a Palm Tree:

I think this movie has provided the ballet world with a lot of attention, but is it the right kind? I don’t think so. Though I generally enjoyed my movie-going experience last night, I did get the giggles a few times in the beginning, where most of the cliches resided. I think this film paints ballet in a tainted light and when people think of “Swan Lake”, they will always be reminded of Darren Aronofky’s “Black Swan”, instead of the centuries old masterpiece danced on stages around the world. To me, that is a shame.

Royal Ballet Dancers for The Guardian – Judith Mackrell (quotes):

Tamara Rojo: This is a very lazy movie, featuring every ballet cliche going. If you want to look at the dark side of ballet, do it properly, don’t just give us shots of a ballerina suddenly vomiting. Nina’s mother was beyond the cliché of a ballet mum – she was a psychopath. And the only people who looked like they were having a good time were the ones having sex.

Edward Watson: The sad thing is that while this film shows the drive ballet dancers have to become perfect, it makes what we do look so naff and laughable. It doesn’t show why ballet is so important to us – why we would want to try so hard.

Lauren Cuthbertson: Some of Nina’s character felt accurate. We’re all obsessive in how we approach a new role: it can dominate our thoughts for months. And some of us like to wear pastel colours sometimes. But in the film it’s all so extreme. And Nina’s such a good little girl; she wears pink all the time, and her hair in a bun, even when she’s outside.

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We started The Ballet Bag in April 2009 with the mission to prove that ballet is not stuffy, old fashioned and inaccessible; that it is quite the opposite: relevant, fresh and topical. With the aim to Give Ballet a New Spin we try to show it under a different light. When writing our capsule biographies, ballet fact cards, review roundups and commentary on social media, we cross it over with other art forms and cultural references (pop culture, cinema, rock music – ie. other things we love!).


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  • January 27, 2011


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  • January 11, 2011


    Hi girls, Thanks for putting together this piece. I really liked seeing all the links to professional dancers’ comments on the film.

    Black Swan is getting a lot of criticism, but I personally enjoyed the movie. It was hard to watch, but in the way that the movie scared me – it was gripping. So Natalie Portman’s port de bras aren’t the greatest. If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that Ballet takes time. She only had a year to really work on it. I especially liked when she turned into the Black Swan. Her face was behind a mask but you can feel the change, and i think that’s what makes a good film.

  • January 11, 2011


    For me it wasn’t so much the way ballet was depicted (which, of course, was absurdly cliched, which is what Aronofsky was going for) but more in how unimaginative and obvious he was with the hackneyed idea of a divided psyche, the whole doppelganger motif being one of the most overused devices in all of film, literature, art. Yes, Swan Lake is an example of such, but he had the opportunity in this medium to expand so much beyond the most obvious Freudian notions of good girl/bad girl or madonna/whore or angel/devil dualities that are hammered over your head — without giving us anything new. The picture is best enjoyed as a somewhat trashy melodrama presented in an elevated and stylistic, arthouse manner.

  • January 10, 2011


    It is a shame the movie will not be shown in Asia until next month, but reading the excellent and convnenient excerpt of comments, I feel ballet really is not the focus of Aronofsky’s movie, but just a subject matter borrowed to bring out the story.

    I can understand why dancers react like Tamara did, because the movie may not have done justice to ballet, but it did not intend to.

    So will there ever be a movie which do ballet justice and how? This is another debate worth going into.

  • January 8, 2011


    Hi Aisha,

    Thanks for your comment. We can’t say we side with Tamara on that one. First, casting a dancer in a movie where the dancing is not really the focus would have been the wrong choice and also because while we know the movie is not everyone’s cup of tea, personally we really liked Aronofsky’s approach of “the movie within the ballet” fleshing out a horror story from the myth of Swan Lake.

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  • January 8, 2011


    Oh, I like Tamara’s reaction to it. I feel like the NYCB ballerinas were just nice so as not to offend Ben Millipied. Even if we took it as a metaphor for being an artist, I found this film utterly ridiculous. Most artists are not emotionally stunted and neurotic. In fact, you have to possess common sense and resilience many times in order to be a successful artists. This is doubly important in ballet where resilience is all the more physical.