2 posts categorized "ballet"


Tormented, driven birds of a feather

You probably need to be a little nuts to twirl around on bloody tippy-toes in a tutu as a serious ballet dancer.

Perhaps not as bonkers as the prima ballerina Natalie Portman embodies in Darren Aronofsky's macabre psychological thriller "Black Swan," though.

Nina (Portman), the daughter of an overbearing former-dancer mom (Barbara Hershey), appears to see a new reality (or is it?) with every spin of her  sculptured (and barely fed) body.

For those who might not recall, Aronofsky is the daring film-making visionary who provided a comeback and an Oscar nomination last year for Mickey Rourke as the tormented title character in "The Wrestler."

Aronofsky doesn't hesitate to link "The Wrestler" and "Black Swan," since both deal in what the filmmaker has called "bodily extremes, souls in turmoil" and a film-making style "that pulls the audience inside the character's fascinating inner worlds."

From this aisle seat, "Black Swan" takes tortured flight as a horror movie.  Portman's Nina is so tormented by the quest for perfection that her fragile mind wobbles off pointe way before her body follows.

Portman (Queen Amidala in the "Star Wars" franchise), an Oscar nominee as the stripper in Mike Nichols' "Closer," is no stranger to ballet, having studied seriously in younger years.  Portman has said she's kept it up as exercise throughout her acting career.

Like Rourke, Portman is primed to nestle deep into a tormented psyche.  As Nina, she's chosen to portray the Swan Queen in a New York City production of a leaner, meaner "Swan Lake."  "I want to strip it down to the core," flirtatious artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) croons.

"Black Swan" is shocking throughout, and not just because the artistic director of a major ballet company is straight.  Nina's determination to capture both the gentle innocence of the White Swan and the sensual, unbridled aggressiveness of the Black Swan sends her spiraling in at least the madness zip code.

When she finally does get in touch with her bad self, as ordered by her artistic director (portrayed with ample verve by Cassel), Nina opens her eyes to the shock that her mother (the definition of a helicopter mom) has parked herself in Nina's bedroom.

"Black Swan," unlike Aronofsky's almost unwatchable sci-fi fantasy "The Fountain" of 2006, channels the director's wildly creative talent into a hellish vortex of progressively surreal dark energy.

In addition to Portman, who turns in the performance of her career so far, Mila Kunis ("The Book of Eli") dazzles as Lily, this tale's dark side of self.

Hershey hovers nicely as the mom who never quite made it to the ballerina spotlight herself but may (or may not) be pulling for her daughter to over-achieve.  Also, Winona Ryder has some impressive pouty or fit-throwing moments as Beth, ballet's Cinderella who fights a forced exit when fame's clock strikes midnight.

What happens to Nina in "Black Swan" reminds me of Jack Nicholson's grim descent into madness in "The Shining."

Know this, though.  All work and no play doesn't make Nina a dull girl.  Not for a chill-down-your-spine moment. 


'La Danse' to the music

"La Danse:  The Paris Opera Ballet" is the ultimate backstage pass to the fascinating world of tutus and pointe shoes.

A must-see and, in fact, euphoria for ballet aficionados, veteran documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman's study of gifted dancers preparing for seven ballets offers enticement for dance novices as well.

Mostly in French with subtitles, "La Danse" drops the audience backstage with absolutely no fanfare and no set-up.  Wiseman, taking a minimalist approach, offers no narration and no indication of who's who.

Instead, we're privy to every nook and cranny of the Palais Garnier, which has served as the renowned ballet company's home since 1875.  Wiseman and cinematographer John Davey have obviously set a lofty goal of celebrating what Wiseman has referred to as "the highest level of achievement in the conscious use of the body to express feeling and thought."

Noted choreographers put les étoiles (the stars) through sometimes grueling rehearsals, pointing out what appears to a novice as the tiniest flaw.  When dancers and choreographer are finally in sync, Wiseman ("Domestic Violence," 2001), who's been making documentaries for four decades,  moves on.

But not always to more rehearsals of a mixture of modern and classic ballets ranging from the old chestnut "The Nutcracker" to "Orpheus and Eurydyce" from avant-garde choreographer Pina Bausch.  Wiseman's camera often wanders the storied halls.  He focuses for a while on a worker painting a door, then visits the lunch room (the fish looks good).  He even takes us up on the roof to see what a beekeeper is up to as he (or she, can't tell really in that protective suit) gathers honey.

Unless you're keenly familiar with ballet on the international level, chances are that company director Brigitte LeFevre is the only person you'll get to know well.  LeFevre offers an in-depth primer into what it takes to mount a world-class ballet.

She holds business meetings to decide just how close serious patrons (with donations of $25,000 and up) can get to the dancers during a hobnob luncheon.  In another meeting, LeFevre emotionally nurtures (but not too gently) one of the dancers one-on-one in her office.

The focus, of course, always returns to the sometimes breathtaking flow of body parts as some of the most gifted dancers in the world generate fluid motion in search of ballet perfection.

Those unfamiliar with ballet, or perhaps only mildly interested, might squirm a little in their seats before this exquisite backstage pass expires.  After all, "La Danse" occupies the screen for over two and a half hours.

If you love ballet, however, "La Danse" makes its intimate exclusive access pointe and then some.