Swan 'Like'?

Opus Osm's Mary Matz finds out how Black Swan compares to the world of real ballet

This article originally appeared in Opus Osm, the free-of-charge, paperless daily magazine about Czech classical music, opera, and ballet, published in Prague for an international audience.

Now that Natalie Portman has won everybody's "likes" for this year's Oscar for Best Actress, Swan Lake and ballet are back on the minds of moviegoers. At least for a nanosecond, thanks to her role in the ballet psychodrama Black Swan.

The movie itself, though, has ruffled the feathers of some ballet insiders. Sarah Kaufman of The Washington Post wrote in December, "Surely someone could make a scary-sexy ballet flick that doesn't portray the art as a form of torture and the ballerinas -- every last one -- as insubstantial freaks."

We also had a little trouble combining the Carrie-like blood and horror with the strength, resiliency, and delicacy of the dancers we've seen. We finally decided Black Swan is Stephen King en pointe.

For another opinion, though, we turned to two experts, Veronika Iblová and Jana Malisová. Mrs. Iblová is a former prima ballerina and currently director of the VIP International Ballet School in Prague. Her manager/assistant, Mrs. Malisová, also doubles in the production department at the National Theatre Ballet.

So, what did they think of the movie?

"I understand the idea, but as one who loves ballet and the ballet world, it was not a good recommendation for ballet," responded Mrs. Iblová. "They just used the ballet world to make a story. It was creepy. And violent."

On the other hand, she admits, "My twin 17-year-old boys said, 'Mom! That movie was great!' --They like a lot of drama,' she chuckles.

What about all the pain and torture that Nina (Natalie Portman) puts herself through in order to prep for her starring role in Swan Lake -- accurate? Or over-dramatized?

Mrs. Malisová explains, "Yes, injuries can happen. Toenails get broken and bleed -- that can happen a lot, even though dancers protect their toes with wrappings of soft cotton or silk. More often, though, dancers get very tired muscles, and then injuries happen much more easily. When a dancer is tired, even taking a step in the wrong way can create an injury."

Care, Repair, Prevent
The National Theatre Ballet staff includes a trained physiotherapist, two masseuses, and a contract doctor to provide physical care, repair, and preventive treatment to the dancers, who are in class or rehearsal from 9:30am to about 6pm two or three days a week, or more if they're preparing for a performance, she tells Opus Osm.

In the nearby studio, recorded music starts playing. Mrs. Iblová rises smoothly from the hallway couch, explaining it's time for her to start teaching a ballet class. So Mrs. Malisová tackles the question of the competitiveness (and viciousness) of dancers as portrayed in Black Swan.

"It's a little bit true," she admits, although of course exaggerated for the dramatic effect in the film. Compared to the corporate world, in dance there are far fewer applicants for job openings, but then there are also very few job openings, and very, very little room at the top for dancers.

"You have to remember, dancers also have very short careers," Mrs. Malisová adds. A dancer's whole career lasts maybe one or two decades, and then only if he or she avoids serious injury. "A dancer has very limited opportunities, and then suddenly they're all gone," she says.

But the lead roles don't go to only the toughest, strongest, or most conniving. Reporter Kaufman points out that imagination, intelligence and emotional layering are the hallmarks of an artist, and "For many dancers, there's no end to the thought, research, analysis, and musical study that go into the preparation [for the Swan Lake lead roles]," she writes.

A ballet film that could portray all that, in addition to the physical sweat and strain, surely would offer something that everyone could like.

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