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The ballet world is divided in its opinion of director Darren Aronofsky's suspense thriller "The Black Swan," whose plot follows the psychological breakdown of a ballerina (portrayed by Natalie Portman) competing for the role of her life.
But there seems to be consensus that Portman deserves all the acting award nominations, no matter how accurate or exaggerated the movie's depiction of life in a ballet company.
Maggie Wright Tesch, who performed the lead role in Ballet West's 2002 production of "Swan Lake" before retiring from the company in 2006, expressed her skepticism about Portman's ability or that of any non-dancer to realistically portray a ballet dancer.
"It is not a role you walk into," Wright Tesch said. "By the time I performed the lead, Swan Lake was in my blood. I had either understudied or danced almost every part in the ballet."
She offered a different opinion after an early screening this week. "Natalie Portman was amazing," she said. "The refinement in her movement is beyond what I expected."
Ballet West artistic director Adam Sklute's assessment was characteristically big-picture. As an administrator, Sklute thought the fictional ballet company's budget was unrealistically large, for example, in depicting a live orchestra for rehearsals. And he bristled at the lack of professionalism of Thomas Leroy, the ballet company's driven artistic director (played by Vincent Cassel): "He would have been fired immediately for his transgressions."
Of course, exaggeration is the nature of any fantasy movie, Sklute conceded, while he underscored the truth of the plot's psychological underpinnings: "When investigating the emotional depths of a role, dancers can and often do go to a very dark place."
And if any role might induce a nervous breakdown, it would be "Swan Lake."
"The greatest ballerinas in history have performed that role," Wright Tesch said. "While preparing you eat, sleep and drink it."
So before Ballet West presented "Swan Lake" last spring, Sklute brought in one of America's most celebrated Swan Queens to prepare the lead American Ballet Theatre's Cynthia Gregory.
Ballet West principal ballerina Christiana Bennett said Gregory's coaching was a turning point in her career. "She taught me to trust those around me and to devour the movement."
Another insight from Gregory: The characters of the White Swan and the Black Swan must have common traits, or audiences won't find it believable that the prince could mistake one for the other.
Portman's character in "Black Swan" is also looking for that breakthrough moment, but her mentors find less healthy ways to help her. After the screening, Sklute asked, rhetorically: "Are those methods really the best way to get a good performance out of someone?" Then he added: "That director needs another motivational line besides: 'Let it go!' "
Bennett's husband, Christopher Ruud, also a principal dancer with Ballet West, has danced with his wife several times as Prince Siegfried in "Swan Lake."
"The macabre nature of the story of 'Swan Lake' lends itself to this suspense thriller adaptation," Ruud said. "It is the most moving of all ballets, and the plot is more intriguing than some where the princess goes to sleep, the princess wakes up and they get married. The emotions in 'Swan Lake' are very real and very raw."
Local dance experts praised Aronofsky for his attention to occupational details in the actors' characterizations. And the beautiful Tchaikovsky score was a surprising fit for a modern-day suspense thriller.
However, the most compelling element of the "Black Swan" is how the director remained faithful to the dramatic intention of the original ballet. So even if the day-to-day depictions of life in a ballet company are highly exaggerated, the movie mirrors the ballet's subtle weave of fact and fiction, chipping away at viewers' grounding in reality and replacing it with illusion.
In this way, Aronofsky magnificently respects the traditions of storytelling and the theater. Any time we walk into a theater, we offer ourselves to fiction. Yet it is only through a great story and fine directing that audiences become emotionally bewitched in this most improbable of plots.
More on 'Black Swan'
Read Sean P. Means' review of the movie, which he gave 3 ½ stars, will be posted Thursday afternoon at http://www.sltrib.com/entertainment. The movie opens Friday, Dec. 17, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas, 111 E. 300 South, Salt Lake City.
About the Tchaikovsky score
"Swan Lake" was originally choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov for the Maryinsky Ballet in 1895. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky composed four major ballet orchestral suites, including "Swan Lake," "Sleeping Beauty" and "The Nutcracker."