Black Swan: Behind the Scenes
Ballerina Holly Lynn Fusco has a long history with Swan Lake. As a young dancer training in West Bloomfield, MI, she played a court page in American Ballet Theatre’s production when the company made a tour stop in Detroit. Later, she danced the Swan Lake pas de trois when she was a student apprentice with Miami City Ballet. Today, Holly’s in the corps at Pennsylvania Ballet, where she will be in Christopher Wheeldon’s take on the classic ballet this spring. So it seems only fitting that she would be one of 19 dancers to land a role in Black Swan, a movie that uses Swan Lake as its backdrop.
In the movie, Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis play two NYC ballerinas vying for the lead role in their company’s Swan Lake production. In the ballet, the White Swan, Odette, is a princess who’s been transformed into a swan by an evil sorcerer, a spell she can break only by receiving a pledge of eternal love; the Black Swan, Odile, is the sorcerer’s daughter, whom Odette’s suitor mistakes for his true love. Portman’s character, Nina, has Odette’s innocence and earnestness while Kunis’ character, Lily, is cunning and fiery like Odile. The ballet unfolds throughout the movie, alongside the battle between Nina and Lily.
Holly kept a diary of her time on set. Read on to get a behind-the-scenes look at Black Swan. —Katie Rolnick
December 9, 2009
Today the news arrived: I’ve been cast with 13 other Pennsylvania Ballet dancers in Black Swan! I’ll be a background extra and performance dancer. I’m not quite sure what that means, so I’ll have to wait and see.
December 22, 2009
Two nights ago, the PAB dancers set out for SUNY Purchase, where parts of the movie are being filmed. We got to the set early yesterday morning for our first day of work. There was a whirlwind of activity: crew members bustling, people shouting instructions and large film equipment being carted around.
We were told to bring our own dance attire within a palette of blacks, grays and whites; Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis, the lead actresses, would be wearing brighter colors. After the wardrobe department approved my outfit, I did my own hair and makeup and headed up to “holding,” which is a large room filled with tables (including the craft services food table) where the crew and actors wait until they’re needed.
In the film, I’m a member of the corps de ballet, and the scene for the day was the first company class after summer vacation. Before the camera started rolling, we learned and rehearsed a few combinations at the barre. Then filming started. They first shot us doing barre exercises, and then we progressed into the center. I thought to myself, “This is easy! I do this every day.” Boy, was I wrong. The director said, “Cut,” and we returned to the barre—and then performed the same fondu exercise for nearly eight hours! Because of the studio mirrors, the scene had to be shot from many angles, and we had to keep our clothes, hair and movements exactly the same for each take. We worked through the night and finished filming the scene at about 4 am.
Natalie Portman in "Black Swan." Photo by Niko Tavernise.
January 17, 2010
As filming has progressed, we’ve had the opportunity to work more closely with the lead actresses and the professionals playing their dance doubles. American Ballet Theatre soloists Sarah Lane and Maria Riccetto are dancing for Portman and Kunis, respectively. This means that every scene with the lead actresses is filmed twice: once with the actors and once with their dancer doubles. Portman amazes me. She has beautiful port de bras and a passion for ballet that could rival any professional dancer’s.
January 20, 2010
The last 10 days have been devoted to filming the movie’s performance scenes. Just like real ballet performances, we’re in full costume, hair and makeup. The costumes are on loan from ABT and they’re gorgeous! And unlike before, professionals have been doing our hair and makeup. After transforming into the corps of white swans, we often sit in holding for up to seven hours before they’re ready for us on set. On days with a lot of waiting, we pass the time playing games, reading books and stretching because we always have to be warm and ready to go.
These have been some of the hardest scenes to shoot. Prior to any filming, we rehearse in a basement studio at SUNY Purchase with New York City Ballet principal and Black Swan choreographer Benjamin Millepied, former NYCB corps member and associate choreographer Kurt Froman and on-set ballet consultant Olga Kostritzky, a former School of American Ballet teacher. Olga epitomizes “tough love” and whips us into shape. But once we’re on set, everything changes. Because of the cameramen and equipment, the choreography often has to be altered to prevent collisions. Such is Hollywood!
January 24, 2010
Today was my final day on set. The last scene we shot was simple: The corps de ballet walked up the stairs while Portman, dressed as the Black Swan, came down the stairs. Her tutu, created by Kate and Laura Mulleavy (the sisters behind the high fashion line Rodarte), gleamed under the lights. Her makeup and hair were immaculate, her poise incomparable.
It was bittersweet when I heard “That’s a wrap” echoing in the stairwell. I’ve come to realize that the film world is not that different from the ballet world. We have crews, directors, actors and actresses, if you will, all working toward the same goal: the performance. And in both forms, the process leading up to the performance is crucial. In ballet, that process is the countless hours in the studio, the obstacles you had to overcome to nail a tough moment in your variation. Actors put a lot of energy into their roles, too. Portman and Kunis spent months training with Olga, Manhattan Youth Ballet faculty member Marina Stavitskaya, former NYCB dancer Mary Helen Bowers and former ABT ballet mistress and coach Georgina Parkinson (who, sadly, passed away shortly after filming began) to finesse their technique. Being a part of Black Swan has taught me to appreciate that process in my own career, and to live in the moment—you can never get it back!
Look for Holly in Black Swan when it opens on December 1, 2010.
Harper Watters is a ballet dancer for today's generation. A social media maestro and a charismatic performer, the Houston Ballet soloist is equally at home in front of the camera hosting his hit YouTube series, "The Pre Show"; interacting with fans on his crazy-popular Instagram account; or showing off his beautiful classical technique onstage. It's a multifaceted identity that's proven to be invaluable to his career—and it's taking him to places he never even dreamed of.
The dancers who take our breath away are the risk-takers, the ones who appear completely fearless onstage. "When you see somebody trying to travel more, go farther, push the limits of their physical abilities, that's always going to be inspiring," says Ballet BC dancer Alexis Fletcher.
But dance training can feel like it's in conflict with that idea. We spend thousands of hours in the studio trying to do steps perfectly, and that pursuit of perfection can make us anxious about taking risks. What if we fail? What if we fall?
Luckily, fearlessness is a mental skill that you can work on, just as you work on your technique. Here's how you can learn to push yourself past your limits.
Getting corrections from our dance instructors is how we grow, and as students, it's important that we do our best to apply every correction right away. But sometimes—whether it's because we're in physical pain, or have a lot on our minds, or are just not paying attention—those corrections don't sink in. And from a teacher's standpoint, giving the same corrections time and time again gets old very fast. Here are 10 important corrections dance teachers are tired of giving. Take them to heart!
When we think of a dancer who's broken barriers, American Ballet Theatre principal Misty Copeland tends to be the name that comes to mind. And though Copeland has been a crucial advocate for equality in the world of ballet, Raven Wilkinson—a mentor of Copeland's—is considered one of the original pioneers of the movement.
In 1955, Wilkinson became the first African American to dance with the renowned Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Her fortitude in the face of bigotry and hate cemented her legacy. Now, with the release of the new children's book Trailblazer: The Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson, a new generation of dancers will be inspired by her tale of overcoming obstacles to achieve a dream.
The book details Wilkinson's life, from her experience as a young dancer training in Harlem, to her run-ins with the Ku Klux Klan while on tour with Ballet Russe, to her later ballet career in Europe. "There were times where my heart really hurt because of the situations I had to deal with," she says. "But I always had faith that I was made to be a dancer and that I was gonna dance."
Dance Spirit spoke with Wilkinson to discuss the new book and get her take on racial equality within the ballet world.
Postmodern pioneer Trisha Brown redefined how dance is seen and felt. A founding member of Judson Dance Theater, Brown frequently collaborated with other experimental artists like Yvonne Rainer, Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp, and Steve Paxton.
She embraced pedestrian movement, pairing everyday gesture with rhythm and fluidity. "It's liquid," says Wendy Perron, who danced with Brown in the '60s and '70s. "Like a river with many tributaries, water coming out of a faucet, or being on a raft and seeing the water move away in different directions." Brown also pushed beyond stages with choreography in fields, museums—even on the sides of buildings.
There's a common misconception that a dancer's body has to be thin. But the truth is that talent knows no body type, and the number on the scale never determines an artist's capabilities. Here are some extraordinary dancers fighting the stereotype of what a dancer "should" look like.