Black Swan (2010), directed by Darren Aronofsky, depicts ballerina Nina’s (Natalie Portman) descent into madness from her relentless pursuit of perfection when her role in the company’s stage rendition of Swan Lake is threatened by another rival ballerina, Lily (Mila Kunis).
According to The Independent, the film was considered one of "the most highly anticipated" films of late 2010. Natalie Portman didn't do 90 percent of the dancing though.
Is Black Swan a real ballet? In close examination of the film, ballerinas ascertain the choreography within the film was not a direct reflection of a real ballet performance with impractical black swan costume, and having cameras pan up-close on Natalie Portman.
Professional ballerina Julie Kent breaks down the opening scene, wherein Nina is in the midst of a performance, dancing with her male counterpart.
Kent comments that the choreography is orchestrated to suit a screen, citing the circling camera that can pan up-close and personal with the actress, along with the sole spotlight shining upon the sole dancer onstage. However, Kent contrasts this scene with a real stage production at a venue with an audience experience (whether large or small).
That is to say, a real audience would never be able to notice any of the details that the film manages to capture since the camera perspective comes close enough so that it looks good for the cinema.
To preface this, the film follows an unreliable narrative of an obsession-consumed ballerina that can be interpreted in many different ways. As the film progresses, Nina’s efforts to mold herself to her goal of playing the lead role in the production turns self-destructive and causes her to lose touch with reality, adhering to the film’s goal of revealing the anxieties and toxicity within the competitive industry through exaggeration. The overarching message the film drives home with its conclusion, as Nina, bleeding out after she staged fall at the close of the performance, a poignant smile of triumph on her lips as she whispers the last words of the film, “I was perfect,” is that the pursuit of perfection could kill you. Granted, not always literally, but it does highlight the point that an artist’s neurotic search for perfection could cripple their psyche.
In a video within Glamour’s On Pointe series, professional ballerina Scout Forsythe counters a suggestion that, to every ballerina, ballet is the most important thing in their lives, “like, Black Swan serious” rather than a passion. Forsythe stresses that the film is someone’s imagination in a movie.
“It is not real life,” Forsythe emphasizes, before going on to point out the inaccuracies such as the casting scene, wherein the artistic director taps every dancer eligible for the stage production, which “just would not happen”. Forsythe explains the amount of preparation that goes into real performances, which includes pulling up a casting list before the season commences.
Another scene that Forsythe compares the film to her own experience of ballet, asserting that “something so beautiful and so enticing about ballet for dancers is that there’s never perfection, like, you can always constantly build on it and it’s never-ending.”
Prima ballerina Isabella Boylston comments on the costumes that Nina dons during her stage performance, citing the inaccuracy and impracticality of wearing the wings of the black swan whilst dancing.
Instead, in actuality, ballerinas performing Swan Lake wear headdresses and tutus that depict feather details to capture the essence. About the costuming, Boylston further comments, “ballet is all about the lines [in the body] and you don’t want anything to be cutting or breaking into your lines.” Boylston also compliments the film on the amount of research that had gone into the ballet industry, as well as the performance of Swan Lake itself.
“I think Black Swan is an amazing horror film,” Boylston remarks, “and it’s a fantasy, it’s not a documentary about being a dancer. It’s not that interesting to watch the movie about the happy, well-adjusted ballerina. It’s more interesting to watch a movie about someone who is falling apart or unhinged. It’s important to remember that ballet dancers are world-class athletes and to do that, it’s important to just take care of yourself.”
Perfection is never the goal in an industry based on art and performance, and most ballerinas do not ruin themselves to the point of self-destruction for a role. The film seeks to represent the dangers of the pursuit of perfection as a cautionary tale rather than document certain elements of ballet and the ballet industry. Ballerinas are not malicious as seen in the film, rather, Forsythe comments that everyone is extremely supportive of each other. Though the film portrays its women, both leading and supporting, as catty and in constant competition, it is not necessarily true to reality.