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Originally published Saturday, December 4, 2010 at 7:03 PM

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'Black Swan' director Darren Aronofsky ushers a 'wereswan' onto the screen

An interview with Darren Aronofsky, director of "Black Swan," starring Natalie Portman.

Seattle Times movie critic

Best ballet movies

A FEW TITLES that deserve a standing ovation:

"The Red Shoes" (1948): The granddaddy of them all; recently re-released on DVD in a spectacular restoration.

"The Turning Point" (1977): Some glorious dancing in this multiple Oscar nominee, filmed with love and care; too bad the story's a little soapy.

"The Company" (2003): Robert Altman's loosely structured next-to-last film has an irresistibly casual grace to it, as if the director himself were falling in love with ballet.

"La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet" (2009): Documentarian Frederick Wiseman immersed himself within the acclaimed French company to create a series of portraits, each capturing the beauty and mystery of ballet.

"Ballets Russes" (2005): Another documentary; this one movingly focused on the history of a legendary ballet company — many of whose members, now elderly, still dance on.

One of this season's most anticipated movies takes place in a mysterious, alien world. "It's hard to understand what exactly these people are doing, why they are wearing those outfits," says its director. "It's a whole other language."

That world is ballet, and the movie is "Black Swan," Darren Aronofsky's much-buzzed psychological thriller about a young dancer (Natalie Portman) caught up in an obsessive rivalry while rehearsing for a coveted role. Opening Friday in Seattle, it's the latest in a string of movies about ballet. Though it has a bloody, at times nightmarish quality all its own, it nonetheless hearkens back to the greatest ballet movie of them all, "The Red Shoes."

Aronofsky, who previously directed "The Wrestler" and "Requiem for a Dream" among other films, says he made a point of not watching the 1948 Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger classic until he was "deeply down the road" with his film. In "The Red Shoes," Moira Shearer plays a ballerina who becomes a star, only to find herself desperately torn between love and art; it's a gloriously beautiful tragedy, filmed like a Technicolor dream. "Black Swan" doesn't directly imitate it, but both movies share a melodramatic tone and a recognition that shadows lurk in this most elegant of arts.

The screenplay for "Black Swan" (credited to Mark Heyman, Andrés Heines and John McLaughlin) crosses "The Red Shoes" with a horror movie, suggesting the ghoulishness lurking behind ballet's serenity. Aronofsky remembered talking, long ago, to American Ballet Theatre ballerina Julie Kent (herself a veteran of a truly awful ballet movie, the 1987 romance "Dancers") about the Swan Queen at the center of the classical ballet "Swan Lake."

"I said, what exactly is she?," Aronofsky said. Kent explained that by day the character was a swan, by night she was half-swan, half-woman.

"The idea of a wereswan, a werewolf movie leapt into my head and didn't leave," said Aronofsky. "There was transformation, metamorphosis going on, which tied into all these other things — a girl into a woman, a technician into an artist, and a woman into a swan."

"The Red Shoes," too, is about transformation; a promising dancer becomes a great artist, and a woman who cared only about dance finds herself changed — albeit doomed — by love. Other ballet movies have followed gentler themes: "The Turning Point" (1977), which less dramatically explored the love vs. career question (and introduced the very camera-ready Mikhail Baryshnikov); "Center Stage" (2000), a gooey tale of a pretty young dancer transitioning from student to performer; "The Company" (2003), Robert Altman's mostly plotless but often airily lovely portrait of a dancer's life; "Mao's Last Dancer" (2010), the real-life story of a Chinese ballet star's defection.

All show, in varying degrees, the dedication required by this most graceful of arts: the sweat, the blisters, the punishing pointe shoes, the discipline of daily class. (Even the star in "The Red Shoes," after becoming the toast of the town, shows up bright and early the morning after her grand premiere, cheerily warming up at the barre.) Aronofsky said he was inspired by the herculean efforts behind the seeming lightness of performers he watched from backstage. "I saw these dancers coming offstage, out of breath, keeled over, gushing with sweat, and the muscles and the tendons all fighting to remain upright. All the injury and blood and pain. I just suddenly got really excited as a director — how do I show something that takes an unbelievable amount of effort?"

Early on, he had to face the question pondered by every dance-movie director: Do you cast a dancer in the lead role and hope that she/he can learn to act, or do you cast an actor and try to hide a lack of dance ability? Some filmmakers luck out: The radiant Shearer, in "The Red Shoes," was a natural before the camera; actress Neve Campbell, in "The Company," displayed her many years of dance training to good effect. Others struggle: In "The Turning Point," it was all too clear that Anne Bancroft — playing a veteran ballerina — could raise an arm or stand straight at the barre, no more. (Ironically, she was playing opposite Shirley MacLaine, who in real life was a trained dancer — but whose character didn't dance.)

Portman, who had danced as a child, spent months in intensive training before filming began. "I didn't know if she would be able to pull it off," admitted Aronofsky. "It's a tall order to be a prima ballerina." The movie uses a dance double for many scenes showing detailed pointe work and turns, but Portman needed to be convincing at close range, particularly in the precise upper-body movement that takes a dancer many years of training to achieve. Choreographer Benjamin Millepied worked with Portman and co-star Mila Kunis to create movement that showed off what they could do and camouflaged what they couldn't.

Aronofsky, whose next encounter with ballet will be taking his 4-year-old to "The Nutcracker," said that he thinks "the illusion" will work for a lay audience, and that the more dance-savvy will be so impressed with Portman's effort that they'll let it go. He's happy to be presenting a different side of ballet, something darker than any previous ballet movie has explored.

"People think that [ballet] is sugar plum fairies but really, most of the great ballets are based on tragedies. Many [ballets] are fairy tales, and there's tremendous horror elements in those stories. When you actually look at it, they're pretty scary."

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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